DIARY: Planning for a Return

Some runners plan far ahead, some don't. There's a certain charm to people with the attitude of "let's just run", and indeed, for the gifted few who have a truly remarkable understanding of their own body (or vastly superior genetics to your average runner), this approach can bring you quite far.

For the rest of us, planning is a necessity, and to it's generally easy enough, that is, until injury strikes.

Those who have been injured like I am, know that it's hard to to plan the next season when you have no idea when you'll be back in training again. I have a big Excel Sheet ready to go with next year's training. All that's missing? The start date of Base Phase Week 1.

Planning Phases/Peaks
The purpose of a long-term training plan is to ensure that you peak at the correct time and not a month early or a month late. Secondly, it keeps the runner in check and acts as a pointed finger, discouraging the runner from doing any last minute corrections to his program out of panic or overzealousness.

I believe that the phenomenon of trying to cram in extra unplanned training leading up to key races, is one of the most debilitating factors no race-day performance. A good bit of evidence is on my side. The benefits of tapering are well established and Noakes, in the Lore of Running, found countless examples of athletes performing better in key races when they took it easier in the run up period.

The message is simple: Hard work is necessary for improvement, but too late is too late, you'll have to wait. Nature cannot be forced, and I remember Emma Cutts' always reminding me that "in the last three-four weeks you cannot change anything."

So a runner will tamper with his scheduled run-up to key races at his own peril. You should certainly stay flexible (indeed flexibility in your plan is widely regarded as keeping runner's injury free for longer), but never ramp up training close to a big race. Lower the volume (significantly) but increase the intensity instead, and you'll arrive sharp and fresh at the start line.

The Road to the Start Line
As most avid readers of the blog will know from their own experiences, all training programmes are divided into phases. First is always the "Base Phase" where you build up your legs resistance to the damaging effects of running and lay your aerobic base (I won't go into the physiological details in this article). A Base Phase would generally last anything from 4-16 weeks depending on the full duration of your training cycle.

Some people will prefer a 48-week cycle (leaving 4 weeks recovery) covering a full calendar year, while others need to peak twice per year and go for 24-week cycles. Others are race-focused, and they use whatever number of weeks lies between them and their race of choice. Finally, certain runners will not have the luxury of long-term planning and will work within 8-16 week programmes (any less than that and you cannot effectively talk of phases). In an optimal world, you should do at least 4 weeks of the same training. Anything less is simply not enough to cause adaptation in your body.

The base phase then is generally followed by a much more ardeous phase often referred to with names such as "Intensity" or "Build". This phase should always be the same duration as the Base Phase and includes a serious ramp-up of high-intensity workouts such as intervals and tempo runs.

The next, much shorter, phase may be less well-known, and is generally referred to as "Peak", "Peaking" or "Build 2". In this phase you continue doing much of what you did in the previous phase, but you lower your training volume with the objective in mind to increase the speed of your workouts. This phase, to use a metaphor, is "polishing the chrome."

The penultimate phase is generally just called "Race" or "Racing" and this is the period where you should have reached your physical peak and do most of your races. Runners who respond optimally to long spells of base and intensity training, can maintain race form for up to 12 weeks, but rarely beyond that.

Once you drop out of the racing phase, it's time for "Recovery" sometimes called "Rest" or "Regeneration". This period generally takes 4-8 weeks out of your year, and you do little or no running, and your focus would be on easy weight training and other non-impact aerobic exercise (or nothing at all!).

Back to the Issue
So having a plan like this is great, it keeps you disciplined, and should have you arrive to your key races in proper shape. So what' the issue?

Well, as mentioned earlier, if you don't know the start date, you need to be ready to adjust either the weeks you want to spend in preparation for your season, or you need to change your priorities.

My own target is to arrive at the start of the Leinster League in the late stages of the Peak Phase, using the first races to sharpen my form and then hitting the ground running in the mid-LL and when the Trial races arrive (and Snowdon).

Preferably, I will then go into a period of hiatus around August. Every day I stay injured, however, narrows the window I have. At the moment, I can afford to wait until around mid-October if my original plan is to be maintained. So I am hopeful, but need to be open to a change of plans.

Another option would be to plan for two peaks: hill running and cross-country. This is only possible if you don't do the full hill running season or if you don't start competing in the cross-country until a relatively late stage of that season. Otherwise you won't have time to regain your peak before the races start again (not to forget that aggressively competing on two fronts like that may be more than most runner's bodies are willing to absorb).

A third option would be to attack the hill-running season very late and only do the early cross-country races, allowing you to do them as a "consecutive" racing period. Whatever you do, however, make sure you leave time between peaks.

If you're planning to run the Dublin Marathon (intensely, if you're a seasoned marathoner and just want to plod through it, you don't need to be as cautious), you must leave enough space between the hill running season and the marathon to have a full rest, and a base, intensity and peak phase to build-up.

The shortest possible build-up would here probably be 12-weeks (a little less than 4 months) to allow for 8-week Base, 4-week Intensity, 2 week Peak, and 2 week Race, but race performance would be much better with 16-weeks (allowing another 4 weeks of intensity). If you were hell-bent on shattering your marathon time or similar, however, a full 48-week program could be just what you need.

Marathon Anecdote
I'll leave it at that for today, apart from mentioning, anecdotally, that as we are on the topic of marathons, you should strive to do no more than 2-4 over a 2-year period at high intensity. Statistics show that the average runner improves for his first 4-6 marathons, but after that there is stagnation and eventual decline.

Also, any type of racing over 26 kilometres does significant damage to the musculoskeletal system and should be kept to a minimum (unless you're an ultra-runner, but then your training, genetics, and racing speed will be adapted differently). Science has brought to light the very sad fact that the average runner, especially at the elite level, only has 3-4 great marathons in them (of course for an elite athlete this just means the difference between sub 2:10 or not, but for such an amazingly talented runner, it's a difference that counts).

Another disturbing fact, that prospective marathoners should be aware of, is that the more fast marathons you run over a short period of times, the shorter your "running career" will be. By running career I refer to the period of time where you should expect to see constant improvement. Most people's bodies seem adapted to 15-20 years of this type of training before decline becomes inevitable. Running multiple hard marathons, however, significantly hastens "the end of the road", as Ron Hill and Rafael Salazar are painful examples of. The latter had only 3 seasons at the absolute top, and perhaps less than 10 where he could truly express his shining talent.

It's greed that fuels of, of course, to cram in too much training too soon, too up your training before a race when you should be resting, or to run too much inside a brief span of time. I challenge all of us to fight that greed, and take a long-term perspective on our running. But it's the choice of Achilleus, and can we really lament or berate those who follow his legendary footsteps?