Training principles – what I have learned so far

Disclaimer: I am neither an accomplished runner nor someone who is running/training for a long time. I am only trying to document what I have learned so far about training for marathons and ultrarunning in last 2-3 years. I have a long background in mountaineering/endurance activities as a recreationist, but running is relatively new for me as the main activity. However, I read and research a lot, always try to ask why, keen to analyze and scientifically look at ideas and methods – and most importantly, experiment with various ideas to figure out what actually works. There is such a vast of body ideas and advice out there about how one should train for long distance running that it can be very confusing and overwhelming. So, I am trying to write down the things that I have tested, worked with and found helpful. If you find these helpful, please be my guest to apply these, but I am no expert and I am not claiming to be one either..

When I started taking running seriously around 3-4 years ago, I had no idea how one should train for running. I have never been in cross-country or track programs in my school or college – neither I have taken any class or coaching from professional coaches. I have always ran a few hundred miles a year to stay fit for climbing and mountaineering, but never really planned to be a marathoner or ultrarunner until I turned 40 years old. But then, I became interested to run longer distances at a relatively late stage of my life – I wanted to run faster marathons and ultra long distances (50 miles, 100 miles and even more). All these goals looked daunting (still does!) – so I started asking some friends who had been running for a while. I got some standard advice (like build-up slowly, run 50-70 miles a week eventually, etc.), but I kept thinking that there must be more than just running volume in training. How do one decide how much and how long and how fast to run? How do one structure training and manage fitness? How much is too much? How fast is too hard?

So I started reading – to my amazement, I found a huge variety of books, research papers, blogs, podcasts and videos. I read/used many of these resources to realize that there are a number of good ways to train – but how do I know which one is good for me? I did not hire a coach, but consulted a few to get some great advice. And then I experimented as I realized that that’s the best way to understand what may work for me or what may not.

I am still learning and tweaking and refining how I train. And I will continue to do so. But here are some things that I have learned – I am sharing these as some of my friends have asked me several times to share my experience. For someone like me, who never really ran seriously and regularly in his whole life and only started running at 40+ age, these training principles may come handy and useful. I have gone from running very little to run a marathon in 3 hr 26 min, finishing several 50 milers. Last one year, I have not been able to race due to Covid outbreak, but that gave me more options to learn and think more deeply about training, different methods, and the science behind these.

Let me describe some high level principles here, without getting too much into the details or science, in this post. I may elaborate on each of these in later posts..

Principle 1: Run with purpose – with a structure, with deliberation, with a plan

Don’t just run 60 or 70 miles a week. That’s not a plan. Think about training as training – not just a string of runs that you do throughout the weeks to accumulate a weekly mileage goal.

Have a structure. Thoughtful structure – think before starting every run, every week. Where to start? I started by dividing the season (9-12 months) in at least 5 phases.

  1. Base building: beginning of the season when you build up volume and put in a lot of easy and longer miles.
  2. Speed/intensity building: when you apply more and more speed workout to increase your speed, on top of the base that you have created.
  3. Specificity: as you come close to the racing season, think about doing more specific training. For marathon, this may be long fast run simulating marathon race days. For ultrarunning, this may be long days in the mountains with lots and lots of elevation gain on rugged trails.
  4. Maintain the peak: Keeping the peak performance that you have built – through the few races where you want to do well. You can’t be in peak all the year – so aim for 2-4 months max.
  5. Recover and link period: Taking a break at the end to refresh both physically and mentally, and then gradually come back with low volume/intensity to 1st step above.

Beyond these broad structures, one needs to have more granular structural plan in each of the 5 phases. Each phase can be thought of made up of mini-phases – each mini-phases with several weeks.

As an example, you can think of one phase as 12 weeks long – then divide that 12 weeks-long phase into 3 mini-phases (each 4 weeks long). Then, think about increasing volume or intensity methodically for 3 weeks and take a step-back week on the 4th week. Then, plan each week’s 4-7 runs/workouts accordingly.

This all may sound a little complex, but when you get started thinking methodically, it all makes sense. You can write down a plan in the beginning of the season (or borrow from someone else) and try to follow it, but the main thing is to understand the structure and why it is that way – what’s the purpose of each phase? what’s the purpose of each mini-phase or each week? what’s the purpose of each day’s run or workout? You need to know that. Every single run should have a purpose – know it and execute it accordingly. Ok… sometimes – run for fun as well – as it is fun to run when you can run effortlessly. But most other times, be deliberate.

Principle 2: Variety is your friend, consistency is not

This is a hard one to get at first – at least, it took me a while to understand as it’s so counter intuitive. I initially thought that if I am consistent – regularly run similar miles in a consistent way, I will get better. But it’s not true – you need to bring variety to be a better runner. Consistency is good if your goal is to be just a fit/healthy person, but you need to bring variety on top of consistency to enhance performance.

Let’s unpack this a bit more – in simple terms, it means that you have to run in various speeds or intensity (e.g. tempo vs. interval), you have to run in various degree of volume (e.g. 1 hr runs vs. 3 hr runs), you have to run in various conditions (e.g. in flat roads vs. hilly terrain, in cold or comfortable conditions vs. warm and hot humid conditions). This variety, of course, needs to be planned or structured (as in Principle 1) – not randomly distributed.

I will give an example here. When you think of intensity, think of running in various intensities

  1. Slow intensity – longer or recovery runs. At pace at least 60-120 sec or more slower than your target marathon speed. Pretty slow and relaxed.
  2. Marathon speed training – running at 0-20% range lower than your target marathon pace. Getting intense.
  3. Tempo speed – this is your comfortably hard or generally 10K speed (speed that you can maintain for 1 hr). Should feel intense as you maintain this pace for 30-50 min.
  4. Interval – 5k pace or higher – intervals can be 3 -12 minutes longer, with 1-2 min recovery. Very intense running.
  5. Repetition – really hard pace to repeat 400 m or 800 m with recovery in between. Gasping for air, lungs coming out, hunched over after a repeat – but man…so much fun and…pain!

The main idea here: when you run in various intensities, you are training for specific things. Either you are building endurance, or your strength or pace or speed endurance (enduring speed for a longer distance). If you always run at the same pace, your improvement stalls. Each run affects certain physiological improvements – sum of all these make one a better runner.

Same thinking is applicable to other aspects too – don’t make all your runs 1 hr, but vary from 45 mins to 2-3 hours or more. Don’t always run on the same course – run up some hills sometimes, run on soft surface, run on tracks or go for some trail running. Mix it up, do not run consistent miles on consistent surface under consistent conditions in consistent pace.

Principle 3: Train polarized or 80-20

The idea behind this is simple: 80% of your run/training should be slow and 20% should be hard. Nothing in moderate level – hence called “polarized”. You are either running very slow (recovering and building base) or running really hard (building speed and performance). Nothing in-between.

Moderate range training only makes sense in later part of the season when you are maintaining peak and don’t want to run too much or too hard. But, most of the season, this concept of “polarized” training makes a lot of sense. You will likely have less injury – and you will also improve as a runner. Most elite runners do this. Not very easy to execute though – no body likes to run very slow, or very fast. We all like moderate running as it’s comfortable and also feels like good training without having pain or pushing hard – but polarized training is used push our body/mind really hard only little at a time and then let us recover and rebuild. Scientifically, it makes total sense and when one can put this in practice, it works too.

Main thing to remember here: remind yourself before every run where today’s run fall in that 80-20 spectrum. Execute with discipline.

Principle 4: Strength training is a must for runners, but blend mobility, balance and stability to really dial it in

If you want to stay injury free (very hard to do so when you run a lot), you have to take strength training very seriously. Do more strength training in the beginning of the season and then mellow it down later in the season (when you are most probably running hard or racing).

There are lots of advice on what kind strength training is good for runners – building running-specific strength, instead of thinking beautiful looking muscles and adding body weight. Focus on lower body, legs, glutes but also focus a lot on your core – core joins lower and upper body and without core strength, body can’t move with ease and form degrades.

But with strength, one also needs to focus on mobility, stability and balance. Using various simple equipment, like wobble board or stability ball or step-up platform, one can introduce these elements into strength training and thereby, increase performance in these areas. I won’t go into details here as that will take a whole page – but think about this way: instead of doing simple planks, use a stability ball to do elevated planks, or do dynamic planks (e.g. lift one leg or one hand or both or do climbing planks). Another example is plyometric drills – use that to not only increase explosiveness but also improve balance in a dynamic way with a emphasis on mobility of the entire body. Another good example is using kettlebell – swings and various other dynamic drills are powerful to not only increase strength, but also other factors that I am talking about. Strength with mobility and stability can really help one make a better runner – can also help stay injury free. And it does not take long – on average 15-20 min a day is all you need here. Much easier than you think once the habit is formed.

The main thing to remember here: strength training is a must, but it’s even better when the intention is towards improving strength with mobility, stability and balance.

Principle 5: Long runs need to be more than just long runs

This one is also a hard one. When I started training, I learned from others that I should run my long runs slow. But only later I understood that I can’t simply run long mileage and expect my performance to go up. It is very easy to fall into the trap and run slow and happy for entirety of your long runs, but every now and then, you have to introduce long AND hard runs.

What is a long AND hard run? Example: warm up for 3-4 miles at slow pace, then run 5 miles at 20% slower than target marathon pace, then next 5 miles at 10% less than target marathon pace, then finish off with 1-2 miles as fast as you can run and cool down.

Another example is alternate tempo – warm up, then 1 mile slow tempo and another mile medium tempo pace and keep going for as long as you can. This one is super hard and should only be done sparingly.

An easier long-hard run will be to run most of your run easy (80%) but 20% hard – put this hard running part anywhere in the run as you please but do it even if you don’t feel like it.

There are many such runs one can design but the main idea here: don’t just run a lot of mileage in your long run. Introduce shorter duration of higher intensity to build speed endurance. Do this carefully – listen to your body to understand how much to push and when to stop.

Principle 6: Hill training is underrated, but can be the secret weapon

One of the best way to improve is to do some hill training. There are generally 3 flavors

  1. Short hill intervals – 10-20 secs sprint on a steep hills for 8-10 times – early in the season, to build strength
  2. Medium hill runs – 45 sec -2 min long run on a moderate hill – 6-8 times – as fast as you possibly can to build both speed and endurance
  3. Long hill runs – 0.5 to 1.5 mile long hills with gentle grade. This is staple for trail/ultra runners. This is the key to build endurance

If you don’t have hills to train on, use treadmills. But hill training is fun, hard and essential as you will see that you use different muscle groups while running up hills. This not only helps with injury prevention, but also you get the benefit of speed training without killing your legs. And yes, practice running downhills too – specially on the trails.

The main thing to remember here: though hill running may feel slow and sometimes sluggish, it has huge impact on your body and mind.

Principle 7: Cross-training is critical as you ramp up training volume

I am still learning the benefits of cross-training – I am not doing a lot of cross-training yet but plan to do more and more as I have started adding more and more volume. With more running volume, you want to transfer some extra volume to cross-training (like biking or elliptical) to not only save your body from repetitive impacts and potential injury, but also train other related and relevant muscle groups, so that your body/brain can recruit more muscle during the run and clear lactate more efficiently.

Main thing to remember that Cross training is not strength training, but another aerobic activity that is lower impact and potentially something that you enjoy. This also helps to fight any monotony of running/training and great for mental freshness.

Principle 8: Recovery and nutrition are not after thoughts but needs to be planned as well

A lot has been written about the power of good recovery – recovery days, recovery run, sleep, massage, stretch, taking micro-breaks and season-end breaks – these are all required for not breaking down the body, but actually let it recover and over-compensate and become stronger than before. You get stronger when you recover – not when you train. But we all often ignore recovery and keep piling up training hours.

Nutrition is key too – eat well. Balanced food – with plant-rich and healthy nutrients. It’s ok to eat fast food every now and then or go for that favorite ice cream or a pint of IPA beer – but overall, one needs to make sure eating and drinking properly during hard periods of training.

Nutrition during the run is also key. I am lately doing more and more long runs in fasted state or by not eating too much to encourage my body to improve fat metabolism. But staying hydrated is key – food can be experimented with in training to gain certain advantages (such as fat metabolism).

Principle 9: Learn/practice good running form

This is the last one, but you can also think of this as the most critical one. Good form definitely helps – everyone can run, but when you see a good runner gliding effortlessly, you know.

This is also a huge field nowadays – lots of written and discussed about this. But there are some simple things anyone can practice –

  • use shorter steps/higher cadence to make sure you are hitting the ground not too far out while running,
  • use your core strength to keep your upper body straight but relaxed – head above your shoulder specially
  • use your arms swing on the side of your body plane to propel yourself
  • slight lean from ankle upward to increase speed – in other word, use the gravity to run, rather than pushing off the ground. Fall forward and catch yourself with your legs

“Run from your guts and run with your glutes”- I heard this from another experienced runner and it’s a useful thing to remember.

Summary

Hope the above 9 principles help. I have seen too many people training without thinking too much – just following a plan or whatever advice they get from internet or blogs/podcasts. For me, that did not work.

I tend to always ask the “why”s – rather than just taking advice and random suggestions. I love structures and plans – and then follow through with flexibility and agility. I think that experimentation with new things and seeing what works for me is a good approach.

As I said before, I have learned all these through a lot of reading and research and experimentation, but I am not an expert or pro-runner. But I am happy to share what I have learned so far if it helps anyone out there. Not all of us can hire a coach, but we all have goals to improve, be a better runner and better human in the process.

One last point to remember: law of compound interest. Best way to increase money is to let interest earn interest. Same goes for our body and fitness and training. Build your fitness each year, use that in the next year to build on top of that – more fit you are, more hard work you can put in and more improvements you can possibly experience. There is a compounding effect of training years over years – so patience and commitments are two key words. I am sure there is an upper limit for all of us, but as a famous marathoner (pretty good runner from Kenya with a sub-2 marathon time!) said “no human is limited”.

Best inspirations come from within – realizing what possible and feeling the transformation of the body and the mind.

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