How would you spend your limited miles?
The training efficiency constraint is a helpful thought experiment
Let’s say you have a solid fitness base and exactly seven hours per week to train for a running event six weeks away, with the target distance being anything from a 5K to a marathon. Imagine further that you have to do the same session on the same day each week, not counting the taper week leading into your race. There are no hills anywhere in sight, but luckily, you are not in Florida.
You can choose to take no days off each week, six, or any number in between; any choice is “safe” because you have a no-injury guarantee. But you will tire and recover in accordance with the rhythm of the movement pattern you select.
How would you choose to prepare?
Thousands of serious everyday runners operate in some version of this dire position owing to work and family considerations, so this is not just a theoretical exercise. An average of an hour a day of running is a solid amount—enough to establish the aforementioned “fitness base” if sustained with few interruptions for several years. It’s a lot more than most people ever invest, and more than your average beer-bloated or bikini-breasted “influencer” manages in a take-no-prisoners month. Even running magazine editors and their darlings are suggesting, in essence, that you simply wait this year for the fitness genie to show up and offer you, say, an automatic 10 percent boost in V̇O2 max.
Nothing in this post is aimed at anyone who brags about working in sweatpants or sitting indoors enjoying the warmth of the fireplace and awaiting a sudden, miraculous burst of motivation from other Twitter do-nothings and antisocial catastrophe queens, who would only frown at the few parts they could understand. But posers aside, some runners—not many, if they approach the game properly, but some—do find it legitimately challenging to log that many footsteps without getting hurt.
Thankfully, you can get “almost” as fast as you’ll ever get on an average of 60 minutes a day. But seven hours a week is not quite enough time for any distance runner to become as fit as possible. (As superior male 5K runner could come the closest, obviously.) Week in and week out, an hour a day—one minute in every 24 spent active—can probably get most people to within a couple percentage points of whatever their ultimate potential is over any distance. Maybe four or five percent for the marathon, for someone with the capital to ultimately cover one in three hours.
On the other hand, a couple of percentage points is significant if you’ve been training and racing for more than two or three years. No runner who knows she is capable of breaking 15:00 would walk away from a 15:18 performance thinking of her effort as satisfactory. (Throughout this post, I’ll be assuming you have the same good weather for every training run and race. This almost never happens, but there is little point in engaging in this kind of mental masturbation unless you support it with smooth and uncluttered fantasies.)
So, given that in this thought experiment you’ve already been forced to surrender the aim of being the best runner you possibly can be, and are seeking instead to maximize the value of the consolation prize, what regimen will you design and follow to give yourself your best shot?
This exercise is not aimed at developing the perfect training plan for the idea-consumer with ample but limited time to run—there is no such thing. But discussions that involve serially deciding what elements and sessions to include and what to exclude in a fixed-sum training scheme, and being prepared to defend and explain in detail your reasoning, is a clever way to make sure your coaching ideas are flowing in the right strategic direction.
I’ll start with an example with a half-marathon goal race and a 19:15/40:15 5K/10K performer, since training for longer distances exposes some of the flawed reasoning that tends to feed brainstorming sessions like these.
No one has these exact recent times to their credit, but if they did, breaking 1:30:00 would make an excellent half-marathon goal. That’s about 6:52 per mile for 90 minutes, for someone who can already hold 6:12 pace for almost 20 minutes and 6:28 pace for over 40 minutes.
We can assume this athlete can cover two miles in around twelve minutes and one in about 5:35; since the 19:15 and 40:15 are road times, we can go with 5:30 and 11:50 if the athlete will be doing repetition workouts on a track. Basic threshold pace should be around 6:40.
There is no good reason for this person to do any running at faster than 8:00 per mile unless going significantly faster—that’s about 75 percent of 5K pace and around 80 percent of 10K pace. It makes sense to have the harder days be Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, with Saturday being the hardest since it’s followed by two recovery or “maintenance” days.
I would set this person up with the following plan:
Mon: 60 min easy (up to 7.5 miles), including 10 x 20-second striders
Tue: 15 min easy; 10 x 400m progressing steadily from 1:28 to 1:24, 1:30 200m jog rest; 15 min easy
Wed: 60 min easy (up to 7.5 miles)
Thu: 30 min easy, including 6 x 20-second striders; 30 min progressing steadily from 6:50 to 6:35 pace
Fri: 60 min easy (up to 7.5 miles)
Sat: 75 min easy (up to ~9.5 miles); 15 min progressing steadily from 6:40 to 6:10 pace
Sun: 30 min easy (up to 3.75 miles)
Note that this is output-oriented rather than input-oriented, meaning that the athlete is shooting for paces rather than heart rates and associated biometrics.
Why no sustained running at goal race pace? Because there is nothing special about it, physiologically. If this person were able and willing to run for an average of 90 minutes a day, there would be room for “HMP” running, but chiefly for psychological reasons. And feeling confident, rather than merely “pleasantly worked,” after a hard session—or after the whole week—counts for something, too. I call this “the Jerry Lawson factor.”
Lawson tied the American record at the 1996 Chicago Marathon with a 2:10:04, then broke it the next year with a 2:09:35, finishing second and seventh respectively. He managed those times despite never running faster than 28:35 for 10,000 meters. He had been a dedicated journeyman, doing whatever he believed it took. In the late 1980s, he ran himself out of Boston University despite rapidly improving as an athlete, because he neglected his studies altogether.
When he tied the AR, it shocked everyone. Everyone was also surprised when he proved a year later it was no fluke. Except for Jerry Lawson. (Where the fuck are guys like him now?)
At some point before Lawson’s best running, he hired Jack Daniels to coach him. Lawson was in the habit of running over the equivalent of over a marathon a day for extended periods, including, if I remember my Advanced Marathoning correctly, one August of 834 miles. Daniels reportedly bargained with him to do less mileage and more faster work, but I am pretty sure this resulted in some kind of compromise: Jerry would continue to “overtrain” on paper, just not as extravagantly as before.
Meeting people you coach (or are coached by) in the middle is often the only way to get a good result. This is not a concession made simply to minimize coach-athlete friction; it’s simply the best move you have when the cost to an athlete of relinquishing an arguably bad but psychologically vital habit exceeds that value of forcing that person to train like they would if they were literally mindless.
Anyway, rather than explain my reasoning for the above schedule in detail, I’ll see what kind of comments this post generates instead. I can think of a number of ways to tweak the schedule without in my mind materially changing it; I can even see a different distribution of work altogether proving just as effective.
(All photos courtesy of the official video for the 2014 song “Dangerous” by Big Data.)
I love the thought exercise (and subsequent application) about how to train with realistic constraints. This one actually really caught my attention because I am right around this performance level. I ran a 1:01:59 15k in late March. Fairly flat, but windy. Still a good, honest race. I have been averaging upper 30s/low 40s in mileage, but have had 7-8 day segments that went a little higher. Most recently was 100 miles and 14 out of 15 days running. I feel fitter than in March.
Anyway, I have an hour tops most days owing to three kiddos and a marriage I would like to keep. And low and behold I am training for a goal 10 miler on June 18. I am able to run on the course on Saturdays and plan to use that faster finish long run you suggest. Teach the body and mind to close those last 2.4 miles hard. The last turn on the course is exactly that far from the finish. This race is hilly, hot and humid. Including a big one at 4.25 we call the Dream Killer. My first one in 2009 was 1:36:20 and last year I ran a 1:12:23. Realistic goal range I think is 1:07-1:09 this year.
Curious what else you might put in for Tuesday as I don't have time to get to a track most weeks. I was thinking some fartlek like 8x2' w/2' or 10x2' w/1:30'. Also really liked Mona Fartlek in the past. Get through all the gears, but leaves you fresh.
Thanks again for writing this!
Seven hours is marginally over what I have time for in a good week these days. I haven't raced in two years and have little idea what pace I could run in a race now -- at 67 I am in the steep decline in speed range, so past results are little use. But here's what my current "ideal" week would look like (and over the past few years I have often come reasonably close to it, except during periods of injury):
Monday: 30 minutes (5-minute warm-up, 25-minute tempo run)
Tuesday: 45 minutes steady
Wednesday: 70 minutes of some kind of relatively short speedwork (I usually do hills, but you have nixed those)
Thursday: 45 minutes steady
Friday: 75 minutes at a good pace
Saturday: 35 minutes easy
Sunday: 120 minutes
All runs are in the late afternoon, except for Sunday, which is early morning and so gives my longest rest between then and Monday's tempo.