Although there are many paths to success when it comes to running, there are also wrong ways to train and race. As a coach, I see the wrong ways much too often. Errors in your clients’ training and racing will prevent them from meeting their potential. Here are some common running errors with advice to help you correct them.
Wrong: Doing Workouts Too Fast or Too Slow
One of the biggest errors runners make is running at incorrect speeds during their training sessions. If clients run too fast during their workouts, they may not meet the purpose of the workout. At the very least, they’ll add unnecessary fatigue to their legs without extra benefit. For example, say you want to improve your clients’ maximal rate of oxygen consumption (VO2max), and you plan for them to run mile repeats at the speed at VO2max (100 percent maximal heart rate). If running each mile in 7:00 minutes elicits VO2max (and max heart rate), running each repeat in 6:45 will certainly also elicit VO2max. But why run each mile in 6:45 minutes when the same benefits can be achieved by running each mile in 7:00 minutes? Running faster is not always better. On the other hand, if they run too slow, they may not achieve the desired benefit. For example, research has shown that cardiovascular benefits are minimal when running below about 60% of maximal heart rate. One of the most difficult workouts in which to maintain a correct pace in is the lactate threshold (tempo) run. This is because many runners, especially those who are inexperienced, have a difficult time holding back the pace and finding their fastest sustainable aerobic pace.
Right: To Meet Physiological Needs, Run Workouts at the Correct Speeds
To determine a correct pace, the purpose of each workout must be clearly defined. Running at the correct pace will more accurately target the appropriate physiological variable such as VO2max or lactate threshold. Since the goal of training is to obtain the greatest benefit while incurring the least amount of stress, clients should run as slow as they can while still obtaining the desired result.
Follow these pacing guidelines to optimize their training:
- Recovery and Long Runs: 1½ to 2 minutes slower than 5K race pace; 65 to 75% of max heart rate
- Lactate Threshold (LT or Tempo) Runs: For recreational or slower runners - about 10 to 15 seconds per mile slower than 5K race pace (or about 10K race pace) and 75 to 80% of max heart rate. For talented and highly trained runners - about 25 to 30 seconds per mile slower than 5K race pace (or about 15 to 20 seconds per mile slower than 10K race pace) and 85 to 90% of max heart rate. The pace should feel "comfortably hard".
- Long Intervals (2 to 5 minutes for work phase):
- For recreational runners - the speed at VO2max which is about 1 to 1.5-mile race pace reaching 95 to 100% of max heart rate by the end of each work period.
- For highly-trained runners - the speed at VO2max which is about 2-mile race pace reaching 95 to 100% of max heart rate by the end of each work period.
- Short Intervals (1 to 2 minutes for work phase): 1-mile race pace or slightly faster.
Wrong: Running Too Fast During the First Mile of a Race
I used to coach a talented runner who ran the first mile of every race too fast. This caused a dramatic slow down during the latter segments and a disappointing finish. He thought he was better than his workouts reflected. As a result, he let his competitive spirit and pre-race adrenaline obscure the recognition of his true fitness level. It was frustrating to watch him start off so well and then become slower with each successive lap of the track.
The faster your clients run the first mile of a race, the more their muscles rely on anaerobic metabolism to produce energy. With the greater reliance on anaerobic metabolism and muscular work, comes an increase in muscle and blood acidosis and the accumulation of metabolic by-products that cause fatigue. Whether the race is a mile or a marathon, they can’t put running time in the bank. They will end up losing more time in the end than what they gained by being "ahead of schedule" in the beginning. No matter how strong their will is, the metabolic condition caused by running too fast, too early will force them to slow down during subsequent stages of the race.
Right: To Run Your Best Race, Run Even or Negative Pace
Although race strategy sometimes dictates a change of pace during the event to challenge the competitors, the best way for runners to run their fastest possible race is by starting out at the pace they can maintain the entire race. While it may feel easy, especially in the marathon, to run the first mile of a race at the same pace as the last, the patience will pay huge dividends during that last mile. Ideally, the second half of the race should be equal to, or slightly faster than, the first half (i.e., negative splits). To negative split a race requires accurate knowledge of the athlete’s fitness level, the confidence to stick to the prepared pace plan, and a good dose of self-restraint.
Athletes don’t run at arbitrary intensities during a race. The percentages of VO2max and lactate threshold which can be sustained for a specific amount of time are predictable. During longer races, the pace should be sustained at a lower percentage of the athletes VO2max. Research has shown that the speed at VO2max can be only be sustained for about 8 to 10 minutes. Talented, highly-trained runners race 3,000 meters at 100% VO2max, 5,000 meters at 90 to 95% VO2max, and a marathon at 80 to 85% VO2max or about 95% of lactate threshold. Workouts should be performed at specific speeds that correspond to specific percentages of VO2max or lactate threshold. This will provide invaluable knowledge of the clients’ fitness level and for accurately predicting their average race pace.
Use the guidelines below to predict your clients’ race pace based on their workouts. Strictly enforce with them the need to run at that pace during the first mile of their next race. The pace differentials listed are for highly-trained runners and will become progressively smaller in relation to their lactate threshold (LT) runs the longer it takes them to run the race.
- 5K Pace: about 20 to 25 seconds per mile faster than LT runs; about 10 to 15 seconds per mile slower than long intervals
- 10K Pace: about 10 to 15 seconds per mile faster than LT runs; about 25 seconds per mile slower than long intervals
- Marathon Pace: about 20 to 30 seconds per mile slower than LT runs
Wrong: Doing Speed Work Without First Running Enough Aerobic Mileage
While speed work improves fitness and performance quickly, it is not the best way for clients to meet their full potential as distance runners. It will improve performance faster than simply running lots of miles. However, any short-term success may likely occur to the detriment of the long-term development. While interval training increases stroke volume (amount of blood pumped with each beat) and cardiac output (amount of blood pumped each minute), sending more blood and oxygen to the muscles from a more powerful heart won’t be very beneficial if those muscles are not equipped to use the extra oxygen.
Right: Before Picking Up the Pace, Have a Solid Aerobic Base
As legendary coach Arthur Lydiard claimed, lots of aerobic running forms the basis of any distance runner’s training program. Whether clients are training for the mile or the marathon, it all starts with mileage. That’s because aerobic running develops many physiological and biochemical traits needed for good endurance. For example, it increases the number of red blood cells and the amount of hemoglobin contained within them, giving the blood vessels greater oxygen-carrying capability. It also increases muscle capillary volume, providing more oxygen to muscles. Finally, it increases mitochondrial volume and the number of aerobic enzymes, allowing for a greater use of oxygen.
The more your clients attend to these qualities of aerobic metabolism, the more they will ultimately get from their speed work. Since recovery is an aerobic process, being more aerobically fit allows a faster recovery during the rest periods in interval workouts. This means a quicker return to the work cycle. Since one of the keys to maximizing VO2max is to spend as much time as possible running at VO2max, the benefit in being able to perform five 1-mile repeats compared to three is obvious.
So, how much aerobic work is enough? That’s a difficult question. It depends on a number of factors, including the athletes’ genetically determined propensity to continually adapt to high mileage and tempo runs, the amount of time they have to run, and the specific racing distance for which they are training. Obviously, the longer the race, the more mileage they need to meet their potential. Research on the training characteristics of the 2004 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials qualifiers revealed that the male marathoners averaged 90 miles per week with a peak mileage of 120, while the female marathoners averaged 72 miles per week with a peak mileage of 95 for the year of training leading up to the trials.4 The best way to determine how much aerobic work your clients need is to slowly and systematically increase their mileage from month to month and year to year, taking care to note how they respond to the training stimulus. Don’t increase mileage unless their prior training and racing experience gives you reason to believe that they will continue to improve with more mileage. If your clients haven’t reached a plateau in their performance at 30 miles per week, there’s no reason yet to increase their mileage.
Wrong: Not Eating After a Workout
It is easy to let time slip away after a workout. But not refueling post-workout is possibly the single worst thing exercisers can do to thwart their recovery. Research has shown that delaying carbohydrate ingestion for just two hours after a workout can significantly reduce the rate at which glycogen (the stored form of carbohydrates) is synthesized and stored in muscles and liver.
Right: Refuel Immediately, Maximize Your Recovery
Refueling after workouts is important for several reasons but most importantly, the replenishment of fuel stores and the repair of cellular damage. For fuel, carbohydrates are the most important nutrient to replenish. Since the late 1960s, it has been known that endurance performance is strongly influenced by the amount of pre-exercise muscle glycogen and that intense endurance exercise decreases that level. Glycogen synthesis is a complex biochemical process largely controlled by insulin and the availability of blood glucose. To maximize the rate of glycogen synthesis, clients should consume 0.7 gram of simple carbohydrates (sugar, preferably glucose) per pound of body weight within 30 minutes after their run and every 2 hours for 4 to 6 hours. It would be more beneficial to eat or drink more often, since a more frequent ingestion of smaller amounts of carbohydrates better maintains blood glucose and insulin levels. Doyle et al.2 found that when subjects ingested 0.2 gram of carbohydrates per pound of body weight every 15 minutes, glycogen was synthesized at nearly double the rate found in other studies in which carbohydrates were ingested every 1 to 2 hours. van Loon et al. found that the rate of glycogen synthesis significantly increased when subjects ingested 0.3 compared to 0.2 gram of carbohydrates per pound every 30 minutes.
Regarding repair of cellular damage, protein is another important nutrient to consume after hard and long runs. Clients should consume 20 to 30 grams of complete protein (those which contain all essential amino acids) after their run to repair muscle fibers that are damaged during training. Some studies have found that eating protein and carbohydrates together also maximizes muscle glycogen storage.
Other studies have reported no benefit with the simultaneous ingestion of protein. The total amount of calories consumed seems to be more important for recovery than the carbohydrate-protein mix.
Instead of eating a plate of spaghetti or preparing a tuna sandwich right after a workout, try reaching for a drink. Nutrients in fluids are absorbed more quickly than from solid foods. For most commercial sports drinks, the recommendations for post-exercise carbohydrate intake correspond to nearly four 8-ounce glasses every hour for a 150-pound runner. Admittedly, this is a lot to drink. Despite the many highly-advertised commercial sports drinks, any beverage that contains a large amount of carbohydrates will be great for recovery. Current research has shown that chocolate milk is an effective alternative to commercial sports drinks for recovery from exhausting exercise because of its high carbohydrate and protein content.
If athletes want to get the most from their training and racing, it’s time to make some changes. Make sure they do their workouts at the right speeds, run negative splits, preface speed work with more aerobic work, and drink chocolate milk after long runs. By changing the error of their running ways, not only will your clients be rewarded with new personal records, you’ll have some memorable quips to impress your fellow personal trainers with at your gym.
- Carrithers, J.A., Williamson, D.L., Gallagher, P.M., Godard, M.P., Schulze, K.E., and Trappe, S.W. (2000). Effects of postexercise carbohydrate-protein feedings on muscle glycogen restoration. Journal of Applied Physiology. 88:1976-1982.
- Doyle, J.A., Sherman, W.M., and Strauss, R.L. (1993). Effects of eccentric and concentric exercise on muscle glycogen replenishment. Journal of Applied Physiology. 74(4):1848-1855.
- Ivy, J.L., Goforth Jr., H.W., Damon, B.W., McCauley, T.R., Parsons, E.C., and Price, T.B. (2002). Early postexercise muscle glycogen recovery is enhanced with a carbohydrate-protein supplement. Early postexercise muscle glycogen recovery is enhanced with a carbohydrate-protein supplement. Journal of Applied Physiology. 93(4):1337-1344.
- Karp, J.R. (2007). Training Characteristics of Qualifiers for the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials. International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance. 2(1):72-92.
- Karp, J.R., Johnston, J.D., Tecklenburg, S., Mickleborough, T.D., Fly, A.D., and Stager, J.M. (2006). Chocolate milk as a post-exercise recovery aid. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism. 16(1):78-91.
- Rotman, S., Slotboom, J., Kreis, R., Boesch, C., and Jequier, E. (2000). Muscle glycogen recovery after exercise measured by 13C-magnetic resonance spectroscopy in humans: effect of nutritional solutions. Magnetic Resonance Materials in Physics, Biology and Medicine. 11(3):114-121.
- Tarnopolsky, M.A., Bosman, M., Macdonald, J.R., Vandeputte, D., Martin, J., and Roy, B.D. (1997). Postexercise protein-carbohydrate and carbohydrate supplements increase muscle glycogen in men and women. Journal of Applied Physiology. 83(6):1877-1883.
- Van Hall, G., Shirreffs, S.M., and Calbet, J.A.L. (2000). Muscle glycogen resynthesis during recovery from cycle exercise: no effect of additional protein ingestion. Journal of Applied Physiology. 88:1631-1636.
- van Loon, L.J.C., Saris, W.H.M., Kruijshoop, M., and Wagenmakers, A.J.M. (2000). Maximizing postexercise muscle glycogen synthesis: carbohydrate supplementation and the application of amino acid or protein hydrolysate mixtures. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 72:106-111.
- Zawadzki, K.M., Yaspelkis, B.B., and Ivy, J.L. (1992). Carbohydrate-protein complex increases the rate of muscle glycogen storage after exercise. Journal of Applied Physiology. 72(5):1854-1859.