6 Ways To Take Training To The Next Level
For athletes that are stagnating or regressing, these 6 training interventions can spur adaptation to a new level of fitness.
Announcement! I am considering writing a new training book. The writing process is going to take a ton of emotional investment, because it will have The Secret. It will make me obsolete as a coach, because who needs me after they learn The Secret. It will also make me obsolete as a taxpayer, because who needs taxes on a deepwater yacht bought with royalty checks.
The book will look like a Post-It pad turned sideways, with 3000 notes. Each will represent a week in a running life. The first page will say: run lots (based on your background), mostly easy (based on your physiological profile), with some efficient faster running. Every subsequent page will say: DO MOSTLY THE SAME THING. After a few thousand weeks, readers will have reached their running potential, and I will have drunk my own urine after forgetting to pack water on the yacht. Everybody wins, because reaching your running potential is fun, and urine is delicious.
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Running training is so freaking fun because everyone starts with that general approach, informed by physiology and training theory. Run lots, mostly easy = aerobic development and musculoskeletal strengthening. Efficient faster running = neuromuscular and biomechanical improvements, aerobic capacity/fatigue resistance increases, and musculoskeletal power development. The hard part is knowing what “do mostly the same thing” actually means as an athlete develops.
It’s like evolution. A few million years can turn a mouselike creature into something a bit more like a groundhog. Give that groundhog a few tens of millions of years more, and it’s writing about finding its own urine delicious. With training, minor changes in approach week over week can result in fundamental changes over time that make the initial training approach almost unrecognizable. But the basic DNA of the baseline training is still mostly the same.
Four years after I started running, I did my first 65-mile week, and it crushed me. I was dedicated, and that type of mileage took over a thousand days to build up. A few weeks later, I ran some random 5K in New York City, and I came in what felt like 100th place. I was so happy—it was a big PR and better than I had done in the past. A few days later, though, I had a sad thought. Had I peaked?
Knowing what I know now, I’d give that kid the biggest hug. Yes, you’re training hard, I’d say. And yes, you gave it all you had in that race and in the training leading up to it. But that’s just page 200 of a 3000-page book. The coming pages are going to take you to the most fun and fascinating worlds!
I’m writing this 12 years after that 5K breakthrough, around page 800 of that book, still setting PRs. My training looks totally different now—65 miles is a down week, my old race pace is my new tempo pace. The shorts got shorter and the nose hairs got longer. And the shifts in training that allowed for the long-term breakthroughs happened almost imperceptibly.
A few times, I tried something totally new (often getting injured in the process). The rest of the time, it was just a minor tweak, a little bit more investment in myself, a bit more learning about training and my body.
Week-to-week, it was mostly the same. But those little differences changed everything.
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This article is about some small training tweaks you can try. The goal is to work from the basic DNA of running training focused on long-term growth. If you don’t already run consistently, with plenty of fuel, working on balancing overall life stress, do that first (the second half of our book gets into how that looks in practice). That gets you 95% of the way. As a coach, however, I live for that extra 5%. Here are 6 interventions that have helped athletes explore their long-term potential.
One: Add 10-20 minutes to your daily run (capped at 70-90 minutes)
Accumulation of easy aerobic volume is perhaps the biggest key in exploring your potential. It’s so weird that going out and bouncing around at relaxed efforts helps you unleash the beast later. I had immense trouble understanding that when I started out, thinking that it needed to be a bit difficult to be productive. Most beginner runners go through that, I think. And if they’re anything like me, they delay their growth by years as a result.
Easy aerobic volume is key for all of the building blocks of faster running. A non-sport-specific 2010 study in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports outlined the basics. There is an increase in mitochondrial content and capillaries around muscle fibers, improvement in metabolic function at both high and low intensities, and a more economical use of oxygen to power performance at all intensities as well. The problem is that many of these adaptations take years to translate into max performance, with longer-term growth often being driven from the bottom-up rather than the top-down, while most interventional studies have a time constraint of weeks or months.
That’s backed up by a 2019 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research that looked at 85 elite athletes over their first seven years of serious training to draw conclusions about the type of runs associated with top performance. Volume of easy runs had the highest correlation with performance, from 0.72 at 3 years to 0.68 at seven years.
Adding a mile or two on your easy aerobic days adds up. Let’s assume you’re able to add 15 minutes 4 times per week. Over the course of a year, that’s 52 hours more training. In the moment, it feels small, but it adds up with time. And the body is adapting in the background on those longer time scales that our brain might have trouble seeing in the moment.
There are diminishing returns getting above 70-90 minutes, when any run turns into a long run, and could counterintuitively make a runner slower if they become a slogger to complete the distance or are overstressed from excess cortisol production. Only add the volume if you feel healthy, with balanced stress levels.
Two: Add more sessions via doubles or increased frequency
Doubles were a massive step in my own evolution. Just 20-30 minutes a few times a week (and only occasionally during the year) seemed to harden me to the miles, allowing me to push more. There’s a complex scientific basis for doubles, but we can just think about it in terms of that time calculus. 30 weeks of doubles totaling 90 minutes over 3 extra runs or cross-training sessions a week = 45 more hours of training. And those hours may come with a higher bang for the buck, given some theories related to hormone production and protein expression from doubles leading to increased adaptation stress.
Doubles can be easy runs, treadhills, hikes, or cross training. Keep them short, and keep them easy. If you’re taking more than one rest day a week, consider adding another training day as well. Consistency is key, even if it’s just 10 minutes at a time.
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Three: Include tempo running within your long run
Long runs are a unique stress within a week—musculoskeletal strain that can only come from days that exceed 90 minutes to 2 hours, with higher breakdown risk to go along with it. Purely easy long runs are great, but put some hot sauce on that burrito for added adaptations.
A controlled workout portion to start long runs can enhance the aerobic load and strain glycogen recovery, increasing fatigue processes that an athlete then has to adapt to on the fly. A primary theory we have in coaching is that these focused long runs can make the run play longer, but without the added breakdown risk of extra long efforts. Something like 20-30 minutes moderately hard around 1-hour effort after a few-mile warm-up (or any other type of aerobic workout design) is a staple for most of our athletes year-round.
Four: Include at least 1 cross-training day per week
The studies show that adding cross training as a supplement can improve running performance, but using cross training to replace running is a mixed bag. If you are volume-limited due to injuries, age, or life constraints, though, any additional aerobic work is good as long as you’re recovering adequately.
I think all runners should have a bike, just in case. That being said, my own bike has gathered dust because I prefer running, as much as I try to periodically embrace my spandextiny (spandex destiny). Based on the cobwebs, I’m pretty sure that my bike was featured on the spider version of HGTV. I listed it so that they could love it.
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Five: Add a secondary workout some weeks with steady running
Easy/moderate or steady runs maximize glycogen stress in a given session, as outlined in this 2020 study in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. That unique aerobic stress can pay big dividends, with most top marathon programs including some running at a quicker-but-still-sustainable effort level.
We like athletes to do semi-structured easy/moderate running on many long runs. Plus, when an athlete is consistent and healthy, steady running is an option to finish any easy day when an athlete feels good and is not doing a hard workout the next day.
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Six: Increase the frequency of strides
Power and speed development are key for performance potential over long distances. A big aerobic system doesn’t mean much without the neuromuscular and biomechanical ability to translate oxygen processing into fast speeds. That’s where strides come in.
For example, a 2018 study in Physiology Reports had 20 athletes do 10 sessions of 30-second intervals in a 40-day study period while reducing overall training volume, and their 10K times and velocity at VO2 max improved by a couple percent. That’s a lot of growth in a short time! And at a lower training volume too! COOL. If you project that running economy improvement across a few years, it could lead to wildly exciting progress rates.
Reinforcing top-end output year-round can start a positive feedback cycle with the aerobic system, where speed improves running economy at lower efforts, and that aerobic development improves top-end output, which improves running economy even more. We like athletes to start with hill strides, before including some flat strides, at least 2 times per week most of the year. But increasing that frequency up to 4 times a week is a great way to add additional adaptation stress for advanced athletes.
Key principle: Aim to introduce one new variable at a time. Small changes in training approach can lead to major growth. But introducing changes in a stepwise and methodical fashion has the dual benefits of avoiding overstress and leaving room for additional interventions later. Adding a little bit at a time can lead to a lot of growth over time.
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And the offseason is the perfect time to try something new. Time to level the heck up.
David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. With Megan Roche, M.D., he hosts the Some Work, All Play podcast on running (and other things), and they wrote a book called The Happy Runner.