How to Train: Closing Thoughts

How to Train: Closing Thoughts

It’s here! For those of you who have been following my How to Train blog series – you’ll be sad (I hope) to learn this is my final post of the series. In this post I wanted to summarize my thoughts on everything I’ve said up until now and give you some insight into how I go about training and designing training programs for my clients. Let’s start with what I touched on in Part 4 – I don’t believe there is any one best type of training or training model. My belief is that all training is good training, and that change is critical for positive training adaptation. Secondly (mentioned in my blog about Renata’s training for JMC) I typically ask these three questions when determining my training program, or that of a client:


  • What have you done (Training-wise in the last 4-6 weeks specifically and in your life generally)?
  • How much time do you have available to train (Per week in general and on your heaviest training week)?
  • What are your goals (training and performance wise)?


The reason I ask these questions is multi-faceted – and it’s similar to doing a needs analysis (which I’m going to start off my next blog post with – a needs analysis for a trail runner). The first question aims to determine what the client is used to, what they’re good at, and what training model/amount/intensity to start at when beginning the program. Question two is used to make sure the program will be achievable/realistic as well as to assess whether later goals are realistic or not. The final question helps to organise the training schedule so that enough time is allowed to reach the runner’s goals safely and to prescribe the correct type and amount of training. It’s important to ask the questions in this order so as not to create false expectations by focusing solely on the outcomes (goals/achievements), and to prioritize the process. Additionally knowing exactly how much time you have available to train will guide what type of training you do as well as ensure that you actually stick to the program (I.e. it’s not unrealistic).


So how do I decide what training model to put myself on or a client on? To keep things simple for now, I always use a general-to-specific training plan. This is something not unique to coach Renato Canova (who I’ve been fanboying recently), but something I was reminded of when I started reading about him. Take any sport, hell, take anything you’ve ever done and you’ll find it follows this same logic. You can’t become an expert cardiologist before you understand foundations of health and medicine. Before that, you needed to know how to problem solve (holler grade 7 maths) and so on. Let’s bring it one step closer to home – soccer players start every season with the basics – building up an aerobic endurance base, practicing basic skills and brushing up on tactical basics. As the season grows nearer, they start focusing more on specific skills, specific tactics and specific high intensity conditioning. A weightlifter starts by building muscular endurance and doing hypertrophy (increasing the size of his/her muscles) before doing maximal strength training closer to competition. Pretty much everything you’ve ever done in your life follows a general-to-specific plan, and you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to know this.


Therefore, my aim is always to put my clients on a general-specific training model. Let’s take a case study: a recreational runner who just ran their first park run in a 30-40min range. Let’s assume their answers to my questions. Question 1: A: I run maybe once in the week for 30min and then run park run on the weekend. Question 2: A: I have 30min available every day in the week and maybe 60min on the weekends. Question 3: A: I want to run a sub 20min park run. So what training model do I put them on? Polarised (PT)? Threshold (THR)? High volume (HVT), or maybe High intensity (HIIT)? Well the order of the questions helps me immediately. If I had asked question 3 first – and prioritized the goal over the process – I could find myself very quickly moving to a HIIT training model. HIIT allows me to maximize my training time while working at very high intensities and is great for people who don’t have a lot of time to train, or if you’re trying to overload on your training. Do I put them on a THR model? Elite 5k runners can run upwards of 70km in a training week spending lots of training time at race pace? Asking question 1 first shows me that my athlete is not ready to go into either of those types of training. He/she is already performing 50% of their mileage at threshold/race pace and the other 30min at low intensity. What they really need is consistency in training. Those elite runners putting in high mileage still do long runs far further than their race pace. This is because they understand that even when running distances as short as 1,500m, 85% of their energy is provided by their aerobic energy system. Therefore what my athlete really needs, before anything else, is to build a solid aerobic base. High-volume training (low intensity) is a great option for them to start building consistency in their training. Before this client is able to run “fast”, they need to be able to run “far”.


Breaking it down a little further, let’s say I get them on to an HVT program for 6-8 weeks and their 5km pace comes down to 6min/km. I know that I need to get them down to 4min/km in order to break the 20min 5k mark. I have different options: I could start to build up their tolerance of the 4min/km pace. Before you can run 5 consecutive kilometres at 4min/km, you first need to be able to run 2×2.5km at that pace and 5x1km before that and 10x500m before that. I could put the client on a steady build where we spend progressively more time at threshold. I could go straight into a PT model and keep my HVT training while adding short bursts at faster than race pace. It all depends on how I want to structure the program for that specific person. Knowing how much time they have available to train will help me identify what program to put them on – which is why I always ask that question second.


Let’s take it to the elite scenario. Coach Canova uses different types of training at different times during the year. Exactly like the scenario above, he aims to train from less specific (more general) to more specific. So while running at faster than race pace (goal marathon pace – which is a staggering 3min/km for these elite runners) is not as specific as running at race pace – it’s a good place to start. Coach Canova might make use of a PT model when far away from race day and shift towards a more THR model closer to race day. Essentially his runners need to be able to run for longer periods of time at race pace and as such, he progressively increases the time and distance of training at race pace. However, he knows that in order for an elite runner to improve, they have to be stressed or overloaded. Simply increasing their mileage at low intensity is not going to yield the positive adaptation he needs. “Train slow – race slow”, so he needs to train at high intensities too (hence a PT or HIIT model). The limiting factor for these elite athletes is not time. For most recreational runners, time is limited owing to their jobs and lives outside of running – for elite athletes they have too much time available and they are not physically able to run for all that time, so they have to play with their intensity of training. Once again, change is the key, which is why they will not spend prolonged periods of time training in the exact same way.


So all of this is coming back to the idea of “stitching” your training year together. In my profession this is called “periodization” – have you heard of it? The concept of periodization has come under scrutiny in recent years because of its heritage coming out of Russia (then Soviet Union) whose success before the turn of the century has since been exposed as a result of their affinity towards doping rather than their amazing periodization skills. Periodization is essentially the breaking up of a training plan into smaller, manageable chunks. While it has come under scrutiny in recent years, there is not one good coach who does not try and plan his or her athlete’s training ahead of time as much as possible. You might’ve already experienced periodization when you downloaded that Comrades training plan off the internet. You know the one that progressively builds up your tolerance to run at goal race pace for 90km (sounds like general to specific right?). You might’ve experienced periodization when you started working with that coach who makes progressively tougher training weeks for you and then tapers you leading up to a race. The real trick that comes with experience is knowing how to progressively overload that athlete so that they continue to get better, while staying healthy. Even more important is knowing when to stop with the plan you’re currently on and make a change – something which great coaches are good at.


Periodization is certainly something I will touch on soon which I hope will help you make the right decisions in stitching your training plan together. It is something that is grounded in the principles of fitness, fatigue and resultant preparedness which are basic concepts to grasp. It’s also something that can get super complicated very quickly when you scrutinize it closely. Hopefully in future posts I can help you understand how to periodize your running plan to get the best results. You’ll soon come to see that it’s really not about what training model you follow – but more about when and why you follow the training model you do!

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