To run fast, you need to run fast
I have never heard a runner expressing that they do not want to be able to run faster. People at the running clubs are often overheard telling their friends about their latest “best performance” or that they perhaps had a ‘bad’ race; this being synonymous with a slower than expected finishing time. We all want to be the fastest runners we can be.
When we look at the running population in general, we see that there is a huge variation in the types of runners that exist with a huge variation in body type and experience, not to mention the obvious fact that we have male and female runners. Yet, for some strange reason, we see very different people using the exact same strategies.
“Run slow to run fast” is a half truth
The philosophy that is most used, from my observations, is the “run slow to run fast” strategy. People naturally admire champions and look to them for training advice. In most cases these champions would fall in to the category of either being born fast, or have a history of running track from junior level; runners who have developed their speed through intensive training over the past 2 decades. These fast runners can often make further gains in their running careers by simply running more – and even at fairly easy efforts, by developing the aerobic systems more completely. Their performance gains come through further developing a greater resistance to fatigue rather than by gaining more speed per se. In essence they learn to slow down less. In steps the amateur runner who strikes up a conversation with the club champion following the weekly club run. He is amazed to hear that the club champion has been running his lifetime best times on a mixture of steady weekly runs and easy weekend runs, but with a fair dose of distance per week; no track running at all and no speed training what so ever. The club champ even goes on to explain why the aerobic training is so effective, describing how important aerobic efficiency is.
Convinced that the club champ holds all the secrets to unlock his endurance performance, the amateur runner embarks on a journey of high mileage, mostly low intensity training. After a month he can already see the benefits. His half marathon time has come down and he is looking forward to his marathon that he has been preparing for all summer. He too is running ‘faster’, and he thanks the club champion for the stellar words of wisdom. The problem the amateur runner faces, 18 months down the line, is that he reaches a plateau and doesn’t improve any further. So, he decides that if he is to improve, he needs to increase his volume of running. He increases his volume of running and despite putting massive effort in, he still does not run any faster. Eventually he succumbs to an overuse injury and convinces himself that if he had not become injured, he would have improved further.
This scenario is played out all the time amongst distance runners. The prevailing mantra seems to be “run slow to run fast”. This method is only really effective on people who are already fast. LSD will make you a bit faster, by allowing you to slow down less, but it won’t improve your base speed level. The converse is also true; running low volume, high intensity will make you faster, but it will not effectively improve your efficiency when compared to higher volume training regimens and too much fast running will greatly increase your risk of injury. There are many training strategies to become a faster runner, but not all of those ways will work effectively on all athletes unless the strategy accounts for individual differences in people. The training you do needs to elicit adaptations within your muscles and cardiovascular system that make you both faster and more efficient. I find it interesting that people always seem to become adherents of one of two diametrically opposing viewpoints. Common sense, along with science, tells us that the population will follow a bell curve type distribution in terms of body type and athletic ability. The most optimal training methods would therefore need to take individual differences in build, running history, gender and genetic predisposition into account.
Learning the hard way
There was a period back in 2004 when I tried to improve my marathon time by focussing on shorter, more intense workouts. I neglected volume totally, as I had read about various studies showing the benefits of doing HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training), on improving VO2 max measurements. I joined the local university middle distance track runners, some of whom were Olympic finalists, and for 3 months I tried my best to keep up. Did I improve? Sure I did! I developed an ability to run a 1km in training in under 2 minutes 50, but for me I found that my marathon time, if anything, deteriorated. One of the greatest contributing factors was my expectations. I expected to run fast over the marathon because I felt fast; I had put in the work. Or so I thought.
Two years later I embarked on a high volume approach of running 160 km (100 miles) per week, because running economy and efficiency was a theme that was gaining prominence in my research. The high mileage approach definitely made me stronger, and running sub-3 hour marathons became a regular fortnightly practice. But, did running all this volume make me faster? Was I able to run a marathon faster? Sure. A little. I definitely slowed down less. For me though, the effort of running 160km per week, coupled with the niggles, injuries and fatigue that plagues the high mileage approach was simply not worth the relatively small improvement it gave me.
I got to a point where I assumed that, genetically, I perhaps just didn’t ‘have it’. The assumption was that all training methods had been tried and tested, and that both work reasonably well. But, nothing REALLY works. There was no ‘magic bullet’ so to speak. My next train of thought was to examine which elements of each type of those training methods worked, and why they worked but also which elements posed a risk to injury or did not work, to then try combine the positive elements into one training approach. For 9 years I experimented, tinkered and researched a myriad of training methods on myself and on hundreds of athletes that I have coached. I also subjected myself to the training methods of numerous coaches from around the world, to see first-hand what worked and what didn’t work. In the end, the results are quite convincing; all facets of the physiology need to be trained in order to maximize adaptation to running fast. These elements have been incorporated into the development of the MPG (myprogramgenerator.com) software, and that is why it has produced such phenomenal results in a very short space of time. Most people training with this approach, myself included, have continued improving - month after month after month.
Running requires various substrates (primarily carbohydrate and fat) to be converted into energy. For the purposes of this discussion, we will only address the metabolic considerations as it pertains to the performance of the muscle. The muscles need energy to perform work, and this is provided by catabolism (breaking down) of glycogen and fat as well as through creatine phosphate pathway to provide the cell with ATP. Understand this: all energy systems are active during running but the level of involvement of each respective one varies in relation to the intensity of the work performed by the muscle. At extremely high intensities, of less than 15 seconds duration, the creatine phosphate pathway is involved maximally to provide sufficient ATP. At very low intensities the predominant supply of ATP comes through the breakdown of fat. Glycogen metabolism is the greatest contributor to the supply of energy between those two extremes. Maximizing the effectiveness of each and every metabolic pathway is the best way to maximize ‘metabolic fitness’ in the athlete. To do so, we need to perform training in such a way so that each metabolic pathway is stressed, to the degree that they can adapt accordingly. Neglecting an energy system will result in a reduced capacity for energy production from within the muscle cell and performance will be sub-optimal. As you can see, from a metabolic perspective, we need to train in each and every physiological training zone so that we stress each energy system, and maximize the total contribution of each system towards efficient ATP production.
Looking at work performed by the muscle cell, we know that if you walk into the gym for the first time and try to bench press 100kg, the muscles will very likely not be able to complete a single repetition. In the same way, you cannot expect your muscles to be able to carry your body at 3 minutes per kilometre for 5km, when the fastest pace you run is at 4 minutes per kilometre. There are muscular components that need to be developed in order to achieve the ability to maintain this speed. This can be done if the muscles are stressed towards that goal, within the bounds of what adaptations are already in place in order to cope with that additional stress. For example you may be able to run at 3 minutes per kilometre for 400m before the muscles fatigue and you slow down, but completing 10 of these 400m repetitions, with rest periods in between, will get your muscles to build the necessary adaptations to tolerate running at that pace. Eventually the 400m will become 800m and hopefully one day in the future, you will achieve your goal.
In the same way, if you want to run a long distance race at a fast pace, you need to train the muscles to adapt to that level of muscular stress, for that period of time. Running your long runs at 6 minutes per kilometre, at a conversational effort, will never provide your muscles with sufficient stress for them to build in muscular adaptation sufficient to carry the body at 5 minutes per kilometre for that same period of time. That is logical, yet the vast majority of runners do this exact thing. They expect to be able to run fast over a long period of time without having run fast for a long period of time. The muscles are simply not physiologically adapted to perform that rate of work for that amount of time.
The other mistake runners make, particularly with people training for ultra-endurance events, is they run too far in one go, and cause too much muscle damage. It is common practice for people to go on these long 50km plus training runs at a conversational pace, and then suffer from muscle pains for the next week. This is neither wise training practice nor does this practice achieve the desired goal of developing fatigue resistance, or an increase in in capacity for the muscles to perform a specific (increased) amount of work over an extended period of time. So, what do we do if running far causes damage, and running slow is ineffective? We run faster, for shorter distances, multiple times in the same day; we run far and we run fast but we do it cautiously, progressively and we do it wisely. Muscular damage is caused by the eccentric nature of running combined with a depletion of glycogen. If we can achieve the result of getting the muscles to adapt to increasing distances at faster speeds, but allowing the muscles to recover before we damage them, we will achieve this goal. It is well documented observation that muscle damage starts to take effect gradually after 2 hours of running in well trained athletes. How do we then adapt to running for 5 hours or more in an ultra-endurance event? The answer lies in allowing the body to have the time needed to recover between runs so that the runner can add multiple runs to the long run day which will ensure that the total running completed on that day is faster and the combined volume of running is greater than what could have been achieved with one single ultra-long training run.
Putting it all together
It is extremely difficult, for athletes and coaches alike, to implement and transfer these concepts to a user friendly training program. First, the athlete profile will need to be established. Is the athlete naturally fast or slow, quick to fatigue or slow? Second; how much volume of training do we allocate to each physiological zone or energy system? How do we progress the training so that we do not overstress the body, yet adapt in the way we need to? And finally, once we have established all these parameters, taking into account that they must all be measurable, how do we make the workouts user friendly?
This process is very time consuming and requires many hours of work by the coach. But, this work is essential if the coach is to achieve the goal of really and truly tailoring the program to the individual. I hope you are able to take some of this information and use it to become the best runner that you can be. That is our goal for each and every athlete.