Rethinking Distance-based Training Plans


While some runners have taken to heart-rate training and more structured plans which involve periodization with focussed workouts, most of the thousands of participants lining the start lines of events all over North America have followed some variant of the basic distance-based plan. These consist of a weekly plan that gradually builds up distance where the athlete runs the full distance or close to it in the final weeks before the event. Sometimes they include hill training days but for the most part they consist of very simple instructions: if the plan calls for a 12km run on particular day, you go out and run 12km on that day. These types of plans are great for beginners whose primary limiter is endurance (i.e. the ability to run long distances) but they frequently fail to deliver results to those looking to achieve a particular time or those crunched for time. Instead the self selected pace the runner does their training runs at is often the pace that is used to predict their time on race day. This means that beginners and those who follow these types of plans have very little control over their training. If you want to run a full marathon in less than 5 hours how can you achieve that goal if your current pace is slower than 7:06min/km (11:26min/mi)? What can you do to get faster?

Most people will quickly notice that if they can run 8:00min/km for a full marathon, they can run 7:00min/km for a much shorter duration, let’s say 5km. This leads many to believe that if they go back on their training plan to when they were doing 5km runs and start there, trying to build up distance at this faster pace, they’ll increase their overall pace on race day. That’s not how the body works. Increasing speed isn’t just a matter of gradually increasing the durations at which you run a certain pace. Otherwise we’d start at 3:00min/km for 5 seconds and gradually increase the time we run that pace everyday until we’re doing it for 2 hours. This isn’t how it’s done because it doesn’t work.

In order to increase fitness, the body must be stressed and allowed to recover. Going out for a run stresses the body. It then needs to time to recover, increase in fitness happens during this recovery period. This is what is called adaptation. The body, however, can only take so much stress before it needs to recover, and too much stress can adversely affect the body’s ability to adapt (and increase performance). This why many athletes use a periodization model for training. This model is applied at both a macro and micro timeframe. At the macro level, over the course of a 3 week period (typically) the training load increases slightly each week. The 4th week of the cycle is a recovery week in which the body recovers from the stresses put on it over the previous 3 weeks. On the micro level, Each workout can contain short periods of hard efforts followed by periods of rest. These interval workouts can be as short as 5-10 seconds and as long as 20minutes (or more). This is more effective than trying to sustain a hard effort for a long period when the body isn’t ready for it. For example, you might find that you can run 7:30min/km for 30min and your goal is to be able to run 2 hours at that pace. Rather than try to push out 35 minutes at that pace hoping your body will adapt so you can then try to run 40minutes, It’s better to do intervals at that pace for a shorter duration. Do 20 minutes at that pace, then slow down and recover for 5minutes, then run another 20 minutes at that pace and recover for 5 minutes. Rather than run 35minutes to exhaustion, you’ve now done 40minutes at the desired pace (you might even able to run a third interval or more). Running for 35minutes to exhaustion might feel hard but the stress is not enough to cause the adaptation you want. By doing intervals you can maximize the adaptation that occurs.

How do you incorporate this into your training? The problem is that this type of training is complicated and to be truly effective it requires you to know your training zones. These are generally 5-7 pace or HR zones that you can use to work different systems. Zone 2, for example, is the endurance pace, likely the self selected pace you normally run at, while zone 7 might be an all-out sprint. It also requires some knowledge of periodization and HR or pace-based training to effectively develop a training plan using this method. If you’re just starting out and want a no fuss way of helping to improve your speed there are some things you can do to without worrying about pace or HR.

Find a running route in your neighbourhood that is short enough that you can do several laps of. A 3km route around your neighbourhood is ideal. First go out and walk the route. Start timing from your house. Walk for 8-12minutes and wherever you end up along the route, find a permanent landmark you can use. Now walk the route for another 8-12minutes and pick another permanent landmark. When you do your run around the 3km loop, run your normal self-selected pace until you get to the first landmark and then start running a little faster. Maintain this increased pace until you pass the second landmark and then slow back down to your normal pace. Walk if you need more recovery but try not to walk for more than a minute. Where you are in your distance-based training plan will determine how many laps to do. If you are only running 5km at most, do only 1 lap. If you’re up to 8-10km do 2 laps.

Distance-based training has its advantages for those just starting out but for the most part it is a very limited training method. Once you’ve completed your first half or full marathon distance event, you should move on to more complex and structured programs that will allow you to continue to improve and build fitness.

Time crunched athletes can use high intensity training to improve endurance an performance. If you are limited to only 30-60minutes during the week, you may find it hard to follow a distance-based plan when training for a full marathon. Instead of waking up at 4am for your midweek long run, try incorporating some high intensity runs. Pick a road in your neighbourhood (or even go to a park) that is straight (and relatively flat or with a slight uphill). Walk (not a brisk walk, an easy  walk-the-dog pace) for 30-40 seconds. Pick two landmarks that line up roughly with wherever you end up and use that short distance to do your workout. After doing a 5-10minute warm up, run the short distance as hard as you possibly can and then walk back to the start. Repeat this 4-5 times and then go for a short 5 minute run and do another set. This workout should only take 30-40minutes but will help develop aerobic capacity. Doing these 2-3 times during the week with one long run on the weekend will help build endurance on a time-restricted schedule.

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