Three Overlooked Factors in a Training Plan

Fri, 24 May 2013 - 10:01 p.m. MT
Credit: ARA Staff - American Running Association

Individually, we all have different mileage needs. Even two equally experienced 5K runners who decide to increase race distance to include the marathon, and set a similar time goal, will differ in their weekly mileage based on other factors. One may be better suited to ramping up distance. Likewise, the most effective training load will differ not only between runners but even for the same runner in subsequent years. So, in trying to decide how much you should run, it’s necessary to individuate while keeping in mind some core principles.

Mileage isn’t the best measure

In general, longer races entail heavier training loads and thus greater and greater excursions into the training-volume unknown. And do think in terms of training volume rather than strictly mileage. Because two runners differing in experience and ability aren’t really performing the same training when they run equivalent weekly mileage--one is putting in a lot more work than the other. A 2:30:00 marathoner running 70 miles a week might average 7:00 per mile in a typical week, meaning that he is putting in a little more than eight hours of running in a seven-day stretch. A 4:00:00 marathoner, on the other hand, is likely to average about 10:00 pace, so a 70-mile week would require close to twelve hours of running. The 2:30:00 marathoner, averaging 7:00 pace, would log 100 miles for that amount of time, a state of affairs that may well lead this talented athlete to break down, and almost certainly will in the absence of a gradual build-up. This fact needs to be taken into account when you are calculating your training load.  

The idea for most people is to train at something as close to an optimal level as possible without becoming injured. Only when runners are at least reasonably familiar with what they can likely handle at any given time, and with the main factors determining this limit, can they be confident of approaching this optimum.

Replacing miles with explosive workouts

New research from Finland looked at what happens if you suddenly decided to chop 20 percent of your usual miles from your weekly regimen and then replace that lost mileage with explosive training requiring a comparable amount of time.

Many runners fear that such a move would deplete maximal aerobic capacity (VO2max) because of the lower overall volume of endurance training conducted. Some coaches and runners would say that the change would produce a drop in fitness and race performances, because of the necessarily abridged maximal aerobic capacity. Given such thinking, it is not at all surprising that so few runners carve away at their mileage and substitute explosive work for their endurance-type training.

At the Research Institute for Olympic Sports in Jyvaskyla, Finland, researchers asked 13 well-trained young runners (nine males, four females) who were training about 8.8 hours per week to pare 1.7 hours from their weekly logs (leaving about 7.1 hours of endurance training). They were then to incorporate 1.7 hours of explosive training into their schedules each week for a period of eight weeks (thus maintaining the usual 8.8 total hours of effort).

The explosive training was carried out three times a week (which meant that each session lasted for about 34 minutes). The workouts consisted of high-speed sprint intervals, jumping exercises (alternate-leg jumps and hurdle jumps), and "gym exercises" with fairly light resistance (half squats, knee extensions, knee flexions, calf raises, abdominal curls, and back extensions). For the gym exertions, two to three sets of six to 10 repetitions were utilized, and the underlying philosophy for all of the explosive movements was to use very high action velocities.

Muscle strength, jumping ability, and 30-meter running speed were measured in both the explosive and control groups at the beginning and end of the eight week period. Compared with a 12-person control group of similarly aged and fit runners, performing a maximal anaerobic running test--a series of 150-meter runs, with 100-second recoveries between runs and a five meter flying start before each 150-meter effort--the explosive training paid major dividends. The maximal speed in the test (the velocity attained for the last 150-meter sprint) increased by 3 percent in the explosively trained runners--but failed to budge at all in the regular, endurance-trained subjects. Furthermore, 30-meter speed (the top velocity achieved in a 30-meter sprint which was preceded by a 20-meter flying start) advanced by 1.1 percent for the explosive runners--but was stagnant for the controls.

Many runners are adverse to the idea of dropping mileage and replacing the lost miles with explosive strength training, but this new research reveals that such a strategy can significantly improve maximal running speed and leg muscle power, without any loss in maximal aerobic capacity. 

To crosstrain or not to crosstrain?

Finally, when it comes to crosstraining, keep in mind that the ACSM guidelines recommend it for overall health—not for sport-specific performance. This is crucial because it reconciles what sometimes seems like conflicting evidence.

If you want to be a better runner, you have to run—regularly, consistently, and with a training plan that forces you to gradually increase your distance and speed. If you want to be a better cyclist, you have to ride and train according to the same principles. Whether you crosstrain or not depends on your goal.

The American Orthopedic Society for Sports Medicine encourages it as a total body tune-up.  They also say that you may experience less overuse injuries. This makes sense. Giving the knees, feet, and other heavily taxed body parts a rest one or two days a week by taking up low-impact crosstraining activities can save you from injury. However, this is a way to reduce repetition injury, overuse, and excessive loading. It won’t necessarily make you faster.

Still, for most of us, exercises that increase heart rate like weight lifting, stretching, and balance exercises are a great way to build lean muscle mass and contribute to overall fitness. It’s only if you are forsaking necessary distance running for these other activities that you may be compromising your training. This is one reason why few coaches recommend weight lifting in the weeks leading up to a marathon or other major race.

Each sport uses highly specific muscles and nerves. Using an elliptical crosstrainer may feel as if it is exercising your running muscles, but it is not giving you the same kind of training that running does. Nor does it train the muscles you need for cycling. 

Specificity of training is a principle always worth keeping in mind. But among the general running populous, weight training and some other low-impact crosstraining on a regular basis are appropriate and contribute to overall health. The harder you run and the longer your running distances, the more likely you are to get injured. Among the factors not associated with running injuries is participation in other sports., “Volume Control: How Much Should You Run?” by Kevin Beck, September 13, 2011


Running Research News, Replacing Miles with Explosive Moves,”  September 17, 2011


New York Times, “Perks of Cross-Training May End Before Finish Line,” by Gina Kolata, August 15, 2011,


(RUNNING & FITNEWS® September / October 2011 • Volume 29, Number 5)

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