Rethinking How to Train

My training philosophy is shifting.

For the last four years, I trained like a mule. I focused on two things: piling up weekly mileage and tempo runs. The virtue of my plan was that it was simple. Run as much as you can and then do some faster stuff on tired legs. Every now and then I would make a half-hearted foray into hills or some mile repeats, but mostly I just piled up easy volume and moderate tempos and fartleks, week after week.

Ain't nothing wrong with a mule.
This approach got me post-collegiate PRs at every distance. I got stronger and faster. It worked, in a way. But a few things began to bother me.

First, my marathon only improved a little over 2 minutes--a mere 4 seconds a mile--over the course of 4 years [if you are doing the math, that is one second per mile per year!], even though I had essentially doubled the volume of running that I was doing. Second, I wasn't making legitimate progress towards the two goals I had when I started this whole project back in 2007: beat my college PRs and run under 2:30 in the marathon. Third, I was dealing with a series of nagging injuries and daily fatigue that was at levels that didn't make me feel great. Fourth and finally, there was the sinking revelation that if I was going to take my marathon PR to another level I would have to do MORE than what I had done before. Yikes!

So, for the first time in way too long, I listened to my body (and mind) and shut it down. I stopped worrying about my weekly volume. I took days off. I stopped thinking so much about my racing goals or fitness and slipped back gently into the steady thirty or so mile per week routine of the runner who runs because, well, he enjoys it.

I stayed there for about 9 months. Then, out of the blue, a couple of months ago, I was invited to race in a cross-country race. Turns out it didn't go great, but it didn't go too badly either for a guy who wasn't really training. More importantly, it ignited once more The Itch.

But this time around, I am going to be smarter. I swear.

Training, like living, is an art and a science, with both quantitative and qualitative dimensions.
A quick word about my dumbness: Like many of you, the internet resources on running were a revelation to me. I got on sites like and and saw what others were doing--elites and normal runners--and it literally blew my mind. I saw that I could be working harder, smarter, better. Doing things differently.

But I also believe that I over-reacted a bit to the prevailing internet wisdom, which was that running volume is the key to success. 100 mile weeks. Or at least I misunderstood what that meant. I read it as a shortcut, which is a sort of strange way to put it because you wouldn't normally think of running 100mpw as a shortcut. It sounds like something that takes a lot of discipline and hard work.

It was a shortcut, though, because what I proceeded to do was throw most of what I had learned in 12-15 years of running out of my mind and just try to get to where I could run 100mpw, mostly in easy mileage, because that was the sum of internet wisdom (or at least how I read it.)

I had some success doing this, but one fact haunted me--the simple fact that I ran quite a bit faster on 60mpw in college. Not just that, but this training felt different than it did when I was making progress as a young runner. I felt tired a lot. I felt slow. I did not feel sharp. I did not want to race frequently. It took me a while (maybe too long because I am a stubborn person and also because I wanted to see the experiment through) to come to the realization that this was a shortcut. That maybe it would take me 5 years of time to get to where I could run 100mpw and feel sharp doing it. That even though I ran in college and was a "good" runner, did not mean that I could just do the 100mpw thing. Even though the key to running fast is aerobic fitness, that the method to becoming aerobically fit meant paying more attention to development than to volume.

Sounds good in the abstract, but what does this mean in the concrete? I am trying a few new things.
1) Short doubles. My easy days are broken into two 5 mile runs. This gets me to a sweet spot in volume for me (70ish mpw) with minimal stress.
2) A regular day off. I am shooting for the 8th day or so. I get in a full "week" of 75miles, then take a day to absorb it.
3) For now, limiting the long run to 10-11 miles.
4) Running two workouts a week. Thus far, these have been aerobically oriented, but one workout does include a hard mile. Workout #1: 6 x mile w/90s easy run (hitting 5:45-5:30). Workout #2: One mile w/u, 5 miles tempo (~HM-MP effort), 1 mile easy, 1 mile hard (under 5:30).

I am about 6 weeks into this training, and I am going to race a 5 miler this weekend, so we will see how it goes. I have been feeling strong on my runs and have noticed a few things that are promising. It takes me almost no time to feel warmed up (I can run 7:00 pace out the door), and my nagging injuries are gone. I feel perfectly healthy for the first time in 4 years. Perhaps most promising, I can begin to feel a little power back in my stride.

It feels good to feel good again, if you know what I mean.

(For a three month update on this, read: Rethinking How to Train, Continued and a six month update, read 5 thoughts on how training for a 5k can help your marathon.)


  1. Very interesting Jeff. I think I know where this is coming from based on some historic posts.

    I think as with all training the body needs shaking up to keep it guessing and further develop.

    I am impressed with your open mindedness to changing pretty much your thinking over the past 15 years.

    Look forward to hearing how it pans out over time.

  2. Richard, that's a very perceptive comment; the body (and the mind) does need shaking up when it stops responding to the same stimulus.

    I am not so sure that I am changing my thinking tremendously, but maybe just remembering the dangers of being reductive in training--too pig-headedly stuck on one variable of training like volume. The basic principles: consistency, volume, variety, and specificity are all there. But maybe I will be better at paying attention to a fifth and sixth: recovery and development.

    Here's hoping!

  3. Yes the basic principles is what most people say they understand but don't often remember or know how to apply properly.

    I am still new to running (3 years in) and still learning how to keep these in balance. You give me hope that it's a life long pursuit :-)

  4. Will have to process your processes and possibly proceed with progress. Joyous Fall!

  5. Yep. This is almost exactly what I'm doing.
    Well, except less mileage. And slower. And no doubles.

    But almost exactly. Good luck on Saturday!

  6. Thanks, guys! Excited for the race.

  7. Interesting thoughts. I've been coming to similar relevations myself, having reduced the mileage, added a rest day each week and added 2 quality workouts per week. I seem to be making progress for the first time in a couple of years and feel much better.

    Good luck in your race.

  8. You say pig-headed like it's a bad thing.

  9. Ha. Well, I ran 27:29 in my first race back, which is a second faster than my (soft) post-college PR. So, that was a good sign. Will race a 5k this weekend. Workouts have been pointing to progress, so we will see.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

What Is an Easy Run?

Eulogy for a Great Coach: Van Townsend

Hansons' Marathon Method and Pfitzinger's Advanced Marathoning -- the two aspects of marathon training