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Training: Quantity versus Quality

Running Training

When we consider our running, the desire to go further or the desire to go faster are at the forefront of many runner’s minds.

Practise makes perfect is a commonly used phrase in modern life, and when applied to running, could arguably mean running as much as possible will lead to the desired outcome. Anyone who has succumbed to an overuse injury knows that this is not the case!

Training is defined as the study of a subject to improve your skill in that subject. When the purpose is to improve skill, it follows each training session must have a purpose. When using the terms quantity and quality in run training, quantity quite obviously refers to the mileage covered in a training period; quality refers to training sessions having a specific purpose. You may have heard the term junk miles. Quality training does not have junk miles.

To achieve improvements in fitness, that will ultimately lead to faster race times, and being able to run for longer, we must train the different energy systems. Each system has a greater or lesser bearing on different race distances, but since our focus is on races of 5km and beyond, it makes sense to adapt the volume of training overall, whilst still training all energy systems all of the time.

Quality training 1: Long slow run

Typically a runner performs this training session at the weekend, and it is predominantly training the aerobic energy system. Common mistakes involve running at a pace that is too fast, or starting at a pace that is too fast and dramatically slowing in the latter part of the run because of the overoptimistic start. We start slow and comfortable and go on and on. Each week we increase the distance of this run, whilst having a drop back down in distance every 3-4 weeks.

Relevant for all running: Crucial for Marathon preparation and Half marathon preparation.

Quality training 2: Tempo run

Comfortably hard running. This challenges the heart and lungs. Its not so difficult that you can’t speak, you can possibly say 2-3 word strings before having to take a breath, but its certainly a challenging run. Tempo training sessions take many different forms. The most popular involve a warm up followed by a specified period of running at ‘tempo’ pace followed by a cool down. Or beginning at an easy pace and getting progressively faster throughout the run. For anything upto half marathon, the tempo section of a run can be anything upto 1 hour. It may be longer than that in peak training weeks for a marathon.

Quality training 3: Lactate Threshold

When we consider the energy systems, most people interested in sport will be familiar with the terms aerobic and anaerobic. These refer to energy generation with or without oxygen respectively. Aerobic energy production has waste products of carbon dioxide and water, whereas anaerobic energy production has lactic acid as a waste product. This can cause feelings of soreness in the muscles, and in undertrained or overtrained athletes, we may get the phenomenon of acidosis. When we consider lactate threshold training, our aim is to increase the pace at which we meet the lactate threshold. The faster this is, the faster our race times will be whether they are at a pace below or above the lactate threshold. The Lactate threshold pace is loosely defined as the pace that one could maintain for 1 hour. For most this is somewhere between their 10km and half marathon pace. LT workouts focus on running at this pace for specified periods of time, or specified distances.

A Popular session is the Yasso 800s. 800m run at approximate LT pace, with a recovery period in time equal to the time it took to run the 800m. Another session that really tests is 2000m run at LT pace with 3 minutes recovery x 3.

Quality training 4: Speed

This does what it says on the tin really. In terms of quantity of your training, only a tiny amount should be done at speed. When we consider speedwork, we are looking at training paces that are around your 5k pace or quicker. As such, these should only be done on distances of approx 400m or shorter, and if you have access to a track, they are best done there without the obstacles of curbs etc that you might not see going at such a pace. These are a real test for your Alactic energy system as the first portion of each repetition will be done before significant respiration can take place in the working muscles. Running at speed will help you to run more efficiently. When you are trying to hit specific places you will stand up taller, you will use your arms more, hopefully you will pick your legs up more and use the whole body to propel you forward. The recovery between efforts will allow you to be able to do this all again, so you might get 2-3 km of quality running, over the course of a 5-6km session but you won’t feel nearly as tired. Typical sessions include 10x400m with 90s recovery. 12x200m with 1 min recovery.

Quality training 5: Running form

Speed workouts address running form, however, if you are training for a much longer distance event you may find that your running form deteriorates over the longer distances. There are various drills you can do at a more realistic pace that can help your running efficiency. In a warm up for any of the QT 3 or 4 sessions it is advisable to do 3-5 strides. These are short sections where you accelerate, focussing on the movements necessary to propel you forward that bit faster. One example of a running form drill is the cadence drill. Focus on lifting the legs up with the hip flexors, and having a kick at the back, rather than shuffling along. Try to increase the number of steps in a given time period, even if that means a shorter stride.

Quality training 6: Active Recovery

After all the quality sessions of a training week, you may have a build up of acidosis in your muscles. A recovery run helps to remove this. You run at a very easy pace. Probably a similar pace to your long run pace, but importantly its done to feel. It should feel very little effort at all, although the beginning of the run may have some mobility restrictions due to the build up of fatigue from other sessions. The point of this run is to get oxygen to the muscles to alleviate the feelings of acidosis. This run will also allow you to get your muscles warm for a really good stretching session.

If your run leading up to an important race does not have one of the above purposes, then you need to question why you are doing it. Continuously running at a pace that is somewhere between Quality training 1 and Quality training 2 speeds will not lead to significant improvement in your running performance over time. To achieve success in running, your training must be quality. This doesn’t mean always fast. But it does mean always having an identifiable reason for your run.

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Angela Isherwood

Angela Isherwood is the founder of I Run Success
She is a REPs Level 3 Personal Trainer, a Run England Running coach, and a multiple marathon runner. She is a London Marathon Good for Age runner, a Boston Marathon Qualifier, a parkrun Run Director and Trainer for Goodgym Colchester.

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