So, You Want to Be Fast

You want to be fast? Yeah, me too. Having coached several state champion high school runners, I get asked a lot for advice. My first question is, are you willing to do what it takes? I mean we all want to be fast, but are you really willing to do what it takes? Most of us middle aged and beyond runners aren’t really up for the grind of hard core training. But understanding a few concepts can help you make the most of the training you are already doing. Is this your picture after running half way around the block?

Would you rather this be your picture after mile 9 of your next half marathon?

Well, let’s get a few things out there right now. First, just because I have coached some state champs doesn’t make me an awesome coach with all the answers. It actually means I have coached some very talented girls and haven’t made enough mistakes in training them to derail their chances. Nobody can make an untalented person into a champion. But we can all improve, just not indefinitely.

Second is the secret workout. What is it? You tell me because as far as I know there isn’t a secret workout that only the best runners know. The real secret is that consistency is the key. Training on a regular basis is the only way to truly improve. No matter what your workouts are, consistency is the key.

Third, and maybe most important is that the rules of exercise physiology apply to everyone. Yes, even you. We may not like it, but you can’t get around the science of training. So, for my next few entries on this site I will be talking about the various workouts we do and how they work and a little of the science behind them.

First lesson: Do you get in better shape when you do a workout? Surprisingly, the answer is no. At the end of the workout you are in worse shape than when you started (assuming you did enough for it to be a worthwhile workout). Now that doesn’t seem to make sense. But here is the explanation.

If you do a good workout, you will put some stress on your body. It should be more than what your body is used to doing during the other 23 hours of the day. During the workout, the stress you are applying to your body tears down your muscles and other parts of your body. The benefit comes later. Once you are done working out, your body shows just how smart it is. Your body prepares itself for the future. It thinks “if this fool is going to do that again, I had better be ready for it”. So, if you recover long enough, your body will repair the damage you have done and then make itself even better than it was before. A little stronger, a little faster, a little more capable of dealing with the stress of the workout you did.

Now if you wait long enough before doing your next workout, your body will relax and go back to its original level of fitness. It takes work to stay at the higher level of fitness and your body won’t waste its time maintaining that higher level unless it needs to. So, the key is to do your next workout at that window in time where your body has improved its fitness over the original fitness level but before it has time to revert back to the original sloth-like level of fitness the average couch potato enjoys.

Then the magic happens when you repeat this cycle. Workout – recover – workout – recover, etc. It sounds too easy. But that’s the rule. Stress yourself, then rebuild yourself to be better prepared for future stress. Why can’t we all do that? Because, we like to watch TV, we like to lay on the couch, we like to eat junk food and veg out. Workouts are hard. They don’t have to be killers but they should be at least slightly uncomfortable. Otherwise they aren’t providing any stress to your body.

Frequently asked questions:

  • How much workout do we need? Just enough to push your body beyond what it normally does. More is not better. If you get greedy and try to do too much, you will go beyond stress and enter into injury territory. One of the most common problems encountered by new runners is the too much too soon thing. If a little running is good, a lot must be better. Shinsplints, plantar fasciitis, patellar tendonitis and many other overuse injuries have a field day with over eager rookies. A good rule of thumb is to not increase your mileage by more than 10% a week. That can be hard when you are starting with zero miles. Obviously, you have to take a leap of faith and work your way up but just be careful. When in doubt, opt for a more gradual increase in your workouts.

 

  • How much recovery do we need? That depends on a lot of things. At my age, I need more recovery than my high school runners do. I try to avoid running on back to back days. But I’m 62 years old. A younger runner can run on back to back days. Olympic runners train every day, some days twice. But they worked really hard and for many years get to the point where they can handle it. If you are younger and want to try to run more than every other day, just don’t do back to back intense days. Alternate hard workouts with easy days or cross training days.

 

So, for my next few entries on our site, I want to cover the following topics. No heavy science, just a simple explanation and how they can help you shave time off that next 5K or just be able to take a brisk walk without having to stop and take a break on the nearby park bench to catch your breath.

Energy systems (this sounds really boring but is important for distance runners)

Max VO2

Lactate Threshold

Running Economy

How do champions think?

Keep running, my friends!

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