How To Train More Like the Elites
A tale of two graphs: consistency and variety in elite and recreational runners' training.
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Over the years that I’ve been observing the sport as a runner, coach and writer, I’ve noticed a trend in the training of top-level runners compared to most recreational beginners and intermediates. In general, elite runners’ training tends to be both more varied and more consistent—in different places.
If you graph the pace or intensity of an elite runner’s week, the result will look rather like an elevation chart of Rocky Mountain National Park, with sharp peaks representing very fast and hard days, and deep valleys showing low-intensity, slow ones. In contrast, the same chart of many recreational runners would look like the plains of Oklahoma, nearly a flat line, or maybe the rolling hills of Iowa, with a few slightly-faster hard days and some moderately-slow recovery runs.
Graph the volume of these groups, however, and the profile is often switched. Elites maintain a relatively high volume week after week, year ’round with a few recovery dips, while amateurs often ramp up from minimal maintenance miles to a peak during a training program, then fall off again until the next urgency. This yo-yoing means they never reach the heights of more consistent runners, they make daily miles harder, and they increase their risk of injury.
What Makes an Elite Elite
Other coaches who have observed runners at all levels have also seen these trends. Dennis Barker of Saint Paul, Minnesota, who has coached runners from beginners to Olympians, says, “Elite athletes are more consistent in every phase of training than amateurs. One of the big reasons elite athletes become elite is consistency—day in and day out doing what it takes, whether it’s volume, frequency or recovery. That consistency continues throughout their career. Once they lose the motivation to be consistent, it’s the end, or at least, the beginning of the end, of their career.”
Barker has also observed the difference in pacing variety. “Elite paces vary much more than amateurs. I have coached elite men that run workouts under 5:00/mile and even closer to 4:00/mile—and run their recovery runs above 8:00/mile. The intensity and volume of their workouts requires slower easy days for adequate recovery.”
“A hallmark of a beginner is that they always do everything at the same effort,” says Richard Lovett, who coaches Portland, Oregon’s Team Red Lizard running club, an all-comers group whose members range from road-racers seeking PRs to national age-group champions and Olympic Team Marathon Trials contenders. “For people who run simply for fitness, that’s just jogging, which is fine”
Lovett also, however, sees the pattern of limited pace variation even those who are trying to be competitive and have heard of the need for hard/easy days. This lack of variety can often be counterproductive to their improvement. “There may be two causes,” Lovett says, “Not going truly hard on the ‘hard’ days (generally due to not really being all that competitive, which is fine, if that’s the plan), or not taking sufficiently deep (or long enough) recovery. Elites tend to be far better at listening to their bodies and waiting for the recovery.”
How You Can Improve Your Training Patterns
So how to most of us go about changing our graphs to be more like top runners? The first thing we can do, today, is to make our easy runs easy. Too often we feel we have to run a certain pace to be respectable, or we’re just in the habit of running as fast as our legs and lungs comfortably allow every day, a “default” pace that never lets us fully recover nor ever pushes us hard enough to make significant gains. Taking truly easy days gives us the opportunity to have truly hard days.
Lovett says he has some intense workouts—that can take up to 96 hours to recover from—he just won’t give to some runners. “I wouldn’t use these workouts in non-elites,” he says. “In part because I wouldn’t trust a lot of runners to wait for the recovery…and actually recover while they are supposed to be doing so.”
Taking easy days also will help toward correcting the consistency graph, keeping us from getting so beat up that we don’t feel able to putting in the miles day after day. But mostly consistency requires creating the habit that running is a default activity in our lives. It requires discipline at first, but soon we find that’s where the magic truly happens.
Barker says, “When an amateur signs up to have me coach them (coachbarker.com), probably the biggest adjustment they need to make is to be more consistent. That’s often the first step in helping them run faster.”
Want to keep your gains going this spring? Change your graphs: Make your intensity more varied and your training volume more constant.