Updated: Jan 4
The current restrictions brought about by the corona virus create a unique set of challenges for endurance runners. But can avoiding all the on-line challenges etc. and focusing on your own fitness needs be a way of turning the situation to your long term advantage? Our resident coach, Andy Brooks, discusses in this blog.
Putting aside the genetics that they were born with, the number one reason that the best endurance runners in the world are the best endurance runners in the world is that they have huge aerobic ‘engines’.
The number two reason is that their bodies are extremely robust and able withstand the rigours of the training that they do to reach peak fitness for their Olympic / World Champs finals.
Yeah, there are lots of other reasons too, but none of them are any good to them if they don’t possess the above two things.
So, how do they create a huge an aerobic engine and a robust body?
Simple really: they spend many hours a week doing exercise that is well within their comfort zone. Mainly low intensity running supplemented with some conditioning exercises.
BUT, and this is quite a big BUT, they’re only able to spend so many hours doing exercise that is well within their comfort zone because:
they have built up the amount they do over a long period of time AND
they know that the fitness gains only come through adequately recovering from each bout of exercise they do.
If they build up too quickly and/or they don’t allow enough recovery between workouts, then – very quickly – they'll drift outside their comfort zone. This is because they’ll be too tired or sore from the previous workout. So rather than getting fitter, they’ll quickly become injured or ill if they persist.
At this point you’re probably thinking “yeah but what about all the high intensity intervals, tempo runs, progression runs etc. that they do?”
Sure, they do all that stuff, but – and another big BUT – it’s a relatively small percentage of what they do in the whole scheme of things (20% at max) AND their huge aerobic engines and robust bodies are what enables them to put this icing on the cake that is their training regime. Which takes us back to the top of the page.
Anyway, let me get to the main point I’m trying to make. Which is as follows.
The vast majority of endurance runners can never reach their true potential because they can’t follow the ideal path. A path that is at the heart of the principles of both Lydiard and Maffetone philosophies, two the most prominent gurus on the subject. See this earlier blog for more info on their work.
This is that you should patiently build up your volume of low intensity, purely aerobic, within your comfort zone, exercise. With faster running restricted to sessions that don’t push the heart rate up to the extent that you become anaerobic (such as occasionally doing a few very short sprints or allowing legs to go faster down hill). And that you should continue doing this until the pace improvements gained from this gradual build up start to plateau, however long it takes.
To enable your body to do this: as well as adequate rest and recovery, the fuel you put into it is key. Refined sugar and highly processed carbohydrates are the enemy of improvement. Greens, fresh vegetables and natural fats are its best friends.
For those that are relatively new to running, or have never properly invested in their aerobic base, this process may take many months. For those Olympians, it may be a few weeks. And it could be anything in between.
It’s an individual thing with lots of factors behind it. Other sports you’ve played in the past, the kind of work you do, the amount of stress you’re under, etc etc.
Why can’t (or don’t’) most endurance runners (i.e. nearly all of us) normally follow this ideal path though? Well, the reasons for this are numerous too. But the main ones in my experience are:
Everyday life gets in the way. Commuting, work, child-care etc. don’t allow time to train more and/or recovery enough between workouts.
The desire to be social and run with others draws us into running at a pace or intensity, or over a distance, that isn’t ideal for our own aerobic development.
They have a race coming up in X weeks and feel they need to jump into some ‘speed’ (or other race specific) work if they are to perform at their best.
Yeah, I’ve still not really got to the point have I?
So here it is:
The current restrictions brought about by the corona virus situation may give many of you a golden opportunity to train like an Olympian, and get that base fitness to a place it’s never been before. The usual excuses that prevent it are out the window if you’re grounded at home. And, investing of the time you’ve now got in doing it, may improve your running for many years to come.
The alternative is: continue training like a demon for a specific race that may never happen, or get sucked into all sorts of crazy virtual races and challenges that are happening via social media.
The former will put you in a pretty good place when normality returns, whenever that may be. Those with a really solid base will always be able to jump into a race fairly quickly and do pretty well, even without having the ideal amount of ‘race specific’ training. Plus training that way is also a great way to boost and maintain your immune system.
The latter will…… well you can probably figure for yourself, if you’ve digested the above.
What could your ‘train like an Olympian’ programme look like?
As always, it depends because we’re all individual, but you could do worse than take things back to the basic principles. Which, in my view, could be as set out below.
Make the most of your daily outside exercise time while staying within your comfort zone.
Run (or do another form of aerobic exercise) every day to the extent that your current fitness allows you to be ready to go again the next day, and every day as if this were FOREVER.
Spend a few minutes doing some simple conditioning exercises as part of your warm up or at another point in the day.
If you feel your fitness doesn’t allow exercising every day just yet, slow right down and walk if necessary. But the they key is to remember to act as if you may be doing this every single day for the rest of your life.
If recovery starts to feel more difficult as the days go by, or you develop any niggles, take this as a sign that you misjudged what you could do every day forever.
So, back off a bit and recalibrate. Take a day or two off if necessary to reset.
There’s no specific maximum or minimum time allowed each day, just be guided by what you personally could sustain forever, and government social distancing guidelines of course.
And eat well - keep off the sugary crap
If you think, "okay then I’m fit enough to go out for a four hour run”, ask yourself whether it could be detrimental to your ability to run every day forever? And rethink if necessary - it probably will be.
If you get to the point where you could honestly run for four hours every day at a reasonable lick, and still remain completely in your comfort zone, bear me in mind for a share of your sponsorship earnings when you win that Olympic medal!