Training to Improve
By Chaim Wizman
Ok, I’ll be the first to admit that the title of this article can be off-putting for some, perhaps even many runners. Who needs to improve, you ask. You run for health, for serenity, for the scenery….whatever. The last thing you want to do is spoil the one simple experience in your life by becoming fixated on the clock. Fair enough, and yes, I hear you loud and clear. But if, like most people, you have a competitive spirit lurking somewhere beneath that mild-mannered exterior or if you need an inspiring goal to get you out the door when Desperate Housewives and a jumbo size bag of Ruffles beckons, read on.
Most chronic running mistakes come in two forms. The gung-ho crowd, raised on mantras such as “no pain-no gain” train too hard. They try to run faster every time they lace up. The inevitable result is burnout, fatigue and injury. Some runners make the opposite mistake. They run the same course at the same pace every time out. Usually, this is done at a slow, comfortable pace. Sure, it’s good exercise, but from a training perspective, this is known as junk mileage.
Rarely do the too-fast or too-slow runners realize that their training is off the mark. Both are running the way they feel, just the way they have always been told. Without some scientific guidelines, neither type of runner is likely to improve. Therefore, ask yourself the following question: At what pace or paces should I be training to maximize my fitness and my running performances? If you can answer this question, you have the key to a successful training program.
Exercise physiologists and coaches generally agree that there are three ways to improve running performance: You can increase your maximum oxygen uptake (max VO2), which measures the greatest volume of oxygen that can be dispatched to your muscles during exercise; you can extend the point at which your muscle efficiency falls off significantly (your lactate threshold or LT); and you can improve your endurance or running economy (RE).
It follows that the most effective training takes direct aim at one or more of these three factors. Training that isn’t specific (e.g. jogging around town) will still produce results, but you’ll get a lot less bang for your buck. Here’s how to train smarter.
Your maximum oxygen uptake is the greatest amount of oxygen that your muscles can use while you’re exercising as hard as you can. It is not just the amount of oxygen that your heart and lungs can provide. As you train, your leg muscles become more efficient at burning the available oxygen. This is specificity of training, which helps explain why a fantastic swimmer might not run very fast and a great runner might not swim very well. Both have great cardiovascular systems, but an athlete has to train the muscles specific to a particular event.
Your max VO2 pace is not the same as your all-out sprint speed. It’s a pace that you could hold for an 11 minute race. Obviously, if you chose to sprint for just 30 seconds, you could run much faster than max VO2. Faster isn’t better, however. The best pace for improving your max VO2 is your max VO2 pace. Running a daily 11 minute race time trial would quickly lead to chronic fatigue. Except when racing, you should not try to run continually for more than 5 minutes at your VO2 max pace. So how do you calculate your max VO2 pace? The only way to get a truly accurate reading is to be tested in a sports lab. Since most of us do not have access to one, I will give you the following formula. For faster runners (45 minute 10k and below), your VO2 max is approximately 15-20 seconds per kilometer faster than your 10k race pace. Thus, if you are a 45 minute 10k’er (a 4:30/km race pace), your VO2 max would be very close to 4:10/km. Slower runners need to subtract slightly more time from their race pace to get their VO2 max pace. Thus, a 50 minute 10k’er would subtract 20 seconds from his 5:00/km race pace for a VO2 max of 4:40 while a 60 minute 10k’er would subtract even more time (30 seconds) from his 6:00/km race pace for a VO2 max of 5:30.
When training for an upcoming competition, it is useful to run a max VO2 workout once per week. A good workout would be 800 meters, 3 to 6 repeats, at your max VO2 pace or 400 meters 8-12 repeats at the same pace. Jog 2-3 minutes between repeats to recover. The idea behind this kind of interval training is that you can safely go up to or beyond your maximum capacity of 11 minutes of max VO2 running because the recovery jogging gives you regular rests. Adaptation without exhaustion is the foundation of all training programs. I cannot emphasize this strongly enough. There is no reason for a distance runner to regularly run intervals faster than max VO2 pace. Leave that intense speedwork to the sprinters. Running too fast will lead to fatigue and breakdown. Running with controlled speed (max VO2 pace), on the other hand, will vastly improve your performance potential.
No matter what your distance, the higher your lactate threshold, the faster you can go before your muscles stage a full-fledged rebellion. Elite runners with relatively low max VO2 levels were able to perform at a world-class level because their lactate thresholds were so high, that they could run marathons at 85% of their max VO2’s while other elite runners could only maintain levels of 75-80%. So how do you improve your lactate threshold? By running at your lactate threshold (LT) pace, of course. This corresponds closely with 85% of your max VO2 pace. Thus, for example a 45 minute 10k’er (a 4:30/km race pace), with a VO2 max of 4:10/km would have an LT pace of 4:45. Half marathon and marathon training should include a weekly LT workout of 5-10 km at LT pace. A good way to do this would be to warm up for 2 km, run at LT pace for 5-10 km, then warm down for 2k. You can also do LT running in the middle of a long run when training for a half or full marathon.
The great thing about max VO2 and LT workouts is that they are very focused. You know exactly how fast and how far to run. Not so with recovery runs. Too many runners who head out the door for easy runs wind up running too fast. As a result, they don’t get the necessary recovery after their harder training days. The secret to easy running is to find the slowest pace that will still provide all the generalized aerobic benefits you want. If you run too slowly, you get almost no training effect, and your workout time is essentially wasted. So the big question becomes, how slowly can you run and still be training?
Research indicates that the dividing line is at about 65% of your max VO2 pace. Many find this pace ridiculously slow in practice but it is good to know that when you are exhausted and simply don’t have the strength to run hard, that you can run much slower and still make deposits into your training account. Anything slower than this pace is likely to be junk mileage which may look impressive in your training log but provides little benefit.