TRAINING: Worshipping false idols

In a recent article I asserted the truism that, in essence, training has only two principal objectives:

    1. increase your race performance(s)
    2. increase your training capacity to further increase your race performance

When designing your training you will obviously be confronted with the practical necessity of designing more specific objectives to help you reach these two overarching goals; examples of such specific goals will be well-known to all runners as specific sessions, specific mileage amounts, specific training durations, specific training cycles, varying training modalities and so forth.

But beware of false idols: beware of those goals that seem to contribute to your principal objectives at first but turn into autonomous objectives for you to meet regardless of whether they still serve to improve race performance and training capacity. This year taught me some hard lessons about such “rogue goals”, so let me scrutinise the most common perpetrators derailing training.

The Mileage Trap

Any runner will struggle to attain consistent long-term progression without setting down certain markers for how many miles (or kilometres), they aim to run in a given time period. Ironically, this most mundane of goals carries the most potential for misdirecting your training.

Running scores of miles has consistently contributed the most to increased running performances over the years and forms the back-bone of any optimal training plan but a big gaudy  “hundred mile week” target is hard to miss for our egos. Irrespective, course-correct when the danger signs are evident and the time not yet right. If ninety-five miles stands as the limit for what you can absorb in a week, your principal objectives will be better served by abandoning your pursuits of the lower-ranked hundred mile target.

To paraphrase Arthur: “There are no prizes for running miles.”

The Time Trap

A better approach than measuring your goals in raw mileage is the duration of your workouts. That it takes Haile less time to run hundred miles than it would take you is logic plain as day so it makes sense to look at time instead. Lydiard’s boys needed around ten to eleven hours to polish off their hundred-mile weeks, if it will take you closer to fifteen hours, a goal of ten to eleven hours training more closely resembles the workload you are attempting to emulate.

Even time-based runners tend to adopt some loose mileage targets based on the projected duration of their weekly workouts and the expected pace for each session simply to have an idea of how far they will be running and to enjoy the motivative effect mileage targets tend to bring us.

But even duration-based training with loosely embedded mileage aims presents the risk of aiming to run for the “perfect matching” of the projected durations and paces rather than executing the workout optimally. The scheduled steady aerobic ten kilometre run at projected 4:00 min/km may turn into a hard threshold run over the distance when you stubbornly persist at the pace on a bad day. The only victim: Your performance as your aerobic development is sacrificed by premature anaerobic stimulation…

The “Streakers”

Well-intentioned tales of Ron Hill’s twenty-six (and counting) year running streak forms a Molotov cocktail of trouble when combining with a Lydiard-runners tendency for seven-day weeks and morning jogs.

Guilty as anyone I enjoyed a running streak of several hundred days and without doubt, this goal acquired a life of its own, taking precedence even when it harmed the principal objectives.

Do not get me wrong: These goals are wonderfully motivating and running every day can be great for fitness if done correctly, but you wouldn’t run on a broken leg just for the sake of it, or would you?

Well, I proved almost capable of such folly, when hobbling around Keswick at ten o’clock at night after a day’s travel with two bleeding swollen knees at twelve-minute kilometre pace. The training benefits: Inflamed wounds, a trip to the local clinic and delayed return to normal training.

Arguably, if you are looking to acquire mental hardness, this method shows potential but I advise to store up such dogged persistence for race situations where you can at least derive some triumph from dragging your lacerated remains across the finish line

Dangerous Doubles

On this note, Lydiard and the Lydiard Foundation are understandably keen supporters of the old man’s dictum that a morning jog will benefit your overall performance.

This certainly held true for the athlete’s of his era and it may well still hold true for many modern athletes if we attach the caveat that these “mornings jogs” have to be properly executed (e.g. “painfully slow and recuperative”).

Yet again the noble pursuit of a return to more regular running activity springs it’s own trap if you allow it to become a self-contained goal and execute your morning jogs regardless of whether they affect your more important training sessions.

Naturally, there will be a period of adaptation where a certain deterioration of key sessions can be tolerated in order to establish your new routine but if permanent disruption of normal running sessions are caused, refocus only on the normal sessions and re-introduce the morning jogs more slowly later. Certain injuries also respond negatively to any kind of running, no matter how benign, and morning jogs should be avoided when you identify these.

Pete Pfitzinger outlined a similar “double-trap” in his book “Advanced Marathoning” when he enjoins the reader not to introduce doubles until they have reached a weekly mileage of at least seventy. Pfitzinger’s point being that one run of sixty minutes provides greater benefits than two thirty minute runs and doubles are only truly relevant when mileage reaches a level where performing strictly “singles” is no longer feasible. Yet, runners sometimes adopt doubles for their own sake. (Notwithstanding, it’s prudent to try doubles at certain times simply to get a feel for what awaits further down the road and the logistics entailed).

This double-conundrum works both ways: if you have no time for ninety minute afternoon runs during weekdays, then splitting fifty/fifty serves your overall  performance aims better than managing just a single shorter run. The specific design of your training remains wholly subservient to achieving maximal gains to performance and training capacity by whatever means.

Part Deux

For the reader’s sake, this list will continue in a sequel article until then remember but to be ruthless in pursuit of your two principle objectives and sacrifice anything, including subordinate goals, to reach them. The Russians sacrificed Moscow to win their war with Napoleon, we could do worse than adopting their strategy.