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Way back in college, after I quit football and decided to start running, I began reading everything I could on training philosophy. I had no idea how to get to where I wanted to go. I was basically a writer for Season 8 of Game of Thrones.
Somehow, I got my hands on a 1999 book called Marathon Training: A Scientific Approach, by Enrico Arcelli and Renato Canova. My copy is 70 photos someone took of each page with their camera, strung together into a PDF, for a file size that my old college email wasn’t equipped to handle. I was blown away by the whole thing, but what jumped out the most to me was the style of workouts in his Specific Period. Here is a good overview if you’re interested (and a more detailed one here from Running Science).
While the details have evolved over time, the general principles of Canova training are close enough to guide trail runners looking to turbocharge their next training cycle. The basic structure of Canova training involves funnel periodization, progressing from general speed and general endurance to specific training that simulates the demands of race day.
The key workouts involve a lot of time around race effort, often giving athletes ample opportunity to make bargains with their deity of choice.
The specific training period is “aimed at preparing the technical result of the race,” which in this case means getting comfortable around race effort in the six to eight weeks before race day, after the development of speed and endurance. He frames it as improving power endurance and aerobic endurance while maintaining aerobic power.
The key workouts involve a lot of time around race effort, often giving athletes ample opportunity to make bargains with their deity of choice. The book had five different examples for marathoners, which I’ll list first, then go into how you can adapt the principles on trails for your background and goals.
Canova Marathon Workouts
Marathon Pace: 18 to 25K around marathon effort (or faster), often done in a race setting
Specific Extensive: 4 x 5K around marathon effort or a bit faster with 1K recovery at 85-95% of marathon effort
Specific Intensive: 8 x 1K at a bit faster than marathon effort with 1K just a bit slower than marathon effort
Specific Long: 30 to 35K at marathon effort or a bit slower
Specific Block: 10K at easy/moderate plus 10K faster than marathon effort, repeating the workout in the p.m. as well
The basic principle of these workouts is to go moderately for a long time, preparing for the specific demands of race day. Some commentators theorize that shying away from these types of workouts may have caused the U.S. to have a downturn in elite marathon performance in the 1990s. That has been followed with a resurgence with a wave of incredible athletes and coaches like those at HOKA NAZ Elite and the Bowerman Track Club.
For simplified purposes, the workouts can be grouped into three categories: sustained runs, high-volume intervals with moderate recovery and the notorious double workouts. Let’s break them down one-by-one.
Sustained Moderate Runs
Sustained runs prepare for the biomechanial and musculoskeletal demands of race day, plus they develop aerobic endurance. For trail runners, that means not to shy away from running with purpose and intention for a long time at least once or twice in the six to eight weeks before the race. Given the ups and downs of trail running, it might be even more important to simulate the unique demands of going fast over tough terrain (making sure to yell “Woohoo!” and stick your arms out like an airplane when it feels right).
• For a 100-miler, it could mean a 50K or 50-mile race around six to 10 weeks out, plus a moderate 20- to 25-miler done a few weeks out, followed by a slower long run the next day. Since 100-milers are slower, it’s important to do some running (possibly the second long run in a back-to-back) with similar pacing as race day, though don’t overemphasize “race pace” if that makes you go too slow to develop your running economy over time.
• For a 50-miler, that might mean a 50K race four to six weeks out plus a 20- to 25-mile moderate run around 50-mile effort and ending faster a few weeks out.
• For a marathon, it would look a lot like Canova’s list, with 12 to 16 miles around race effort a few weeks out and another key workout or two.
• For a half-marathon, think 8 to 10 miles moderate, done a couple times before race day.
In the data from athletes I coach, the lack of sustained moderate runs or races before “A” races seems to be the element that most explains unexpected deviations in performance. An example might be Kathryn Drew, who won the Chuckanut 50K six weeks before the Canyons 100K.
It’s important to only do the long, moderate efforts after you have a solid base, focusing on recovery and abstaining from them any closer than two weeks before race day (with three-plus weeks before longer ultras).
High-Volume Intervals with Moderate Recovery
These workouts supercharge the aerobic stimulus by making the body recover on the fly during float recoveries. They can be done during long runs on trails, or as a mid-week workout if you have plenty of time.
Examples for advanced trail runners might be:
• 2-3 x 15 min moderate to hard (progressing on each interval) with 5-10 min easy/moderate recovery
• 5-8 x 5 min moderate to hard (progressing on each interval) with 5 min easy/moderate recovery
• 10-20 x 2 min moderate/hard with 2 min easy/moderate recovery
Those workouts are great options on weeks when you aren’t doing sustained fast runs or recovering from other efforts. Many of the athletes I coach say this is their favorite style of long workout. Zachary Ornelas, winner of the recent US 50K and 50-Mile Championships, saw a similar workout in his log of 8 x 1 mile at a bit faster than marathon effort with 1 mile easy/mod float recovery, and he wrote in advance in his log: “I AM SO EXCITED!!!” He nailed it, then went on to become the first American male to finish top 10 at the Two Oceans Ultramarathon a few weeks later.
Float or alternation workouts are a bit easier on the body and mind most of the time, so you can do these even if you don’t have a massive base, just make sure you get plenty of recovery afterward.
I mainly wrote this article to talk a bit about Canova Blocks, and how they might be applicable to trail training. These blocks are the subject of my all-time-favorite piece of writing on running training, 2:14 marathoner Nate Jenkins’ description of his first attempt at the workout. Reading it, I can almost taste the mix of bile and pennies that characterizes the hardest days.
The basic principle is that you do one big workout in the a.m., usually consisting of a tempo run with high total volume. In the p.m., you do another workout, either a similar progression tempo or short intervals at a solid effort. Some methodologies even limit carbohydrate intake in between efforts, though that is risky and outside of what I could ever recommend to an athlete without making them sign a waiver that absolves me from their eventual hatred of running.
Some methodologies even limit carbohydrate intake in between efforts, though that is risky and outside of what I could ever recommend to an athlete without making them sign a waiver that absolves me from their eventual hatred of running.
Canova has guided many of the best runners in history, so it’s safe to assume that these workouts work, at least for the very best runners in the world. Why? There are lots of theories, but it likely centers around a high quantity of aerobic stress, psychological breakthroughs and possibly glycogen depletion, which may enhance adaptations in some athletes when done strategically.
There are a couple ways you may be able to harness similar principles for trail running.
AM/PM hard workout: This one is especially risky, but I have found that it can work for non-professional runners, particularly if done with hills. My favorite structure is a 20-to-60-minute progression tempo on rolling terrain in the morning, followed by a hill climb tempo or 5-8 x 3 minute hills at a moderate effort in the afternoon or evening.
The hills are designed to reduce impact forces. I have stopped giving these types of workouts in the last couple of years after seeing a higher rate of injuries in those training cycles (along with a few huge breakthroughs). However, if you want to explore the depths of euphoria and/or despair, limit this workout to once or twice a training block, with tons of recovery after.
AM/PM moderate workout: This approach uses the Canova principles and adapts them to be less risky, and in doing so it might lose some of the initial intentions. That being said, good and healthy is better than perfect and passed out in the Dominos parking lot, using your last words to beg for a large pan pizza.
The best way I have found to do it is your typical morning workout, followed by a p.m. 30-to-60-minute progression run to a steady yet sustainable effort on trails.
Back-to-back long runs may work with some similar principles, with glycogen depletion from the previous day’s run supercharging the aerobic stimulus of the second day’s run. A few back-to-backs are helpful before most ultra races, though whether that benefit is more psychological or physical is up for debate.
And that brings up the most important point of all: every workout is a brick, and no brick makes a wall. Have the courage to go for it and gather some big bricks before races, whether that’s through Canova-specific workout principles or other methods. Just don’t go full Kool-Aid Man on your wall in the process.
—David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. His book, The Happy Runner, is about training and life (and puppies), and it’s available now at Amazon.