Beginning and veteran athletes alike might occasionally find themselves wondering how their coaches come up with the workout designs they do-- and, the truth is, the formula is often unequal parts science, habit, personal idiosyncrasy, and sport psychology, with the relative size of each constituent part reflective of the degree and quality of effort the coach in question has applied in his/her design.
Athletes (and readers) might be surprised to learn that "science" is often only one consideration in the design of any one workout. Good coaches have always intuited what exercise science is now revealing to be true
-- that the body is not all the precise in the way it responds to any particular training stimulus. When it comes to training to run long distances, the basic stimuli (easy aerobic running, interval training at maximum oxygen consumption, and running at "anaerobic threshold") overlap considerably to produce what we commonly refer to as racing "fitness". Runners will often be surprised when they, for instance, run a personal best for 5k after a long period of mainly easy aerobic running, or when they enjoy a great cross country season after a long spring and summer season of racing middle distances on the track. Sometimes these anomalies are the result of seasonal "carry over" (e.g. benefiting from the specific training one may have done two or three seasons back), or simply of ongoing athletic maturation. The fact is, however, running is, largely, running; if we can stay healthy enough to do it effectively, almost any kind of training is helpful.
So then why bother with precise workout design-- and, indeed, with seasonal periodization-- at all? If there are indeed many routes up the mountain of distance running success, why not just work "hard" however and whenever we feel like it? In fact, why bother with coaching at all?
The answer is that, while perhaps less important than some coaches and athletes may have believed, and than some may still believe, the degree of specificity in each kind of training stimulus remains important in the longer term
, and when attempting to truly maximize lifetime performance. But, just as importantly, the psyche of athletes must be protected from the inescapable stress and monotony of serious training for the sport. Varying workout venues and terrain, and the normal variation in seasonal training conditions, can provide some relief; but, more crucially, the type of training stimulus must be varied seasonally, and, within seasons, the dosing of this stimulus-- including, on the quotidian micro level, the actual design of workouts-- must offer sufficient variety to keep athletes' interest, and to forestall as long as possible the "not this again" moment that we all experience when faced with the identical difficult task for the nth time. There are always exceptions (of which a little more below), but the general rule is that athletes need things mixed up a little in order to stick with it long enough to reach their full potential.
Thanks to the great Arthur Lydiard (and a few more minor figures), we know that different running speeds and durations produce different physiological adaptations, and that the basic aerobic conditioning derived from easy running is the secret of success at all distances, from 800m to the marathon. And thanks to the perhaps less seminal, but equally great in his own way, Jack Daniels, we have a pretty good idea how to target these different stimuli in the basic design of training sessions (their pacing and duration). If Lydiard showed us roughly the correct proportions of each broad kind of training stimulus within a yearly training plan (the now famous 80/20
formula), Daniels provided an excellent guide to measuring, and thus better applying, these stimuli within a given workout.
Thanks to Daniels' brilliant translation of his laboratory research on elite distance runners-- encapsulated within his VDOT training tables-- we have a clearer understanding of precisely what we are (or should be) striving to achieve in each of the basic kinds of running workouts we do within a given phase of training, and thus roughly how much stimulus we should be attempting to apply in a given session.
Our running is "easy", according to Daniels, when we are not producing lactic acid in our muscles. Within this broad range, he argued, we should consider the optimal pace to be that which produces maximum cardiac stroke volume
(i.e. at which the left ventricle reaches capacity, but not stroke rate
). The actual amount of easy running within a given plan he understood would be a general function of the athlete's longest competitive distance, level of experience, and demonstrated capacity to recover from training (usually a function of age and experience, but also of personal physiological makeup).
When performing typical "interval" training-- shorter bouts of running at efforts approaching or exceeding race speeds-- Daniels cautioned us to understand that athletes typically achieve their maximum levels of oxygen consumption (MV02) at the pace they average when attempting to cover as much ground as possible in 11 to 13 minutes-- i.e. at personal best 5k pace for the very best in the world, and at P.B. 3k pace for the average recreational runner. Workouts designed to produce race specific stresses-- and, crucially, no additional
stress-- on athletes preparing to race at MVO2 should maximize the amount of time the athlete spends running at exactly this pace (controlling as well as possible for conditions). The interval of rest between bouts of running, he thus instructed, should be just long enough to allow the athlete to maintain the correct pace, and the bout of running itself should be long enough to enable the athlete to reach MVO2 at the desired pace. By correctly manipulating these two variables, he showed, a coach could create a workout in which an athlete was able to run more
than the 11-13mins he/she could run uninterrupted at MVO2 pace. Make the recoveries too long in relation to the work bout and the athlete would either run faster than required to produce the desired stimulus (and thus increase impact stresses), or else not achieve MVO2 within the work bout. Make interval too short relative to the work bout and the athlete would be unable to sustain the required pace beyond the first or second work bout. Either way, total time at MV02-- the purpose of the classic "interval" workout-- would be reduced.
We also learn from Daniels' lab researches that the maximum pace a rested athlete can maintain for 60 minutes is also the pace slightly above which his/her blood lactate levels would begin to rise un-sustainably-- the so-called aerobic/anaerobic "threshold" pace. "Tempo running" sessions, he thus maintained, should target this pace, and should typically total 20-40 minutes, not including brief recovery periods, when recoveries were employed. Attempting to go for long periods at faster than this pace would likely be counterproductive, because the accumulation of lactate would force a reduction of pace, distance, or both. Going slower, on the other hand, while permitting the athlete to go longer, would not condition him/her to run at this maximum sustainable aerobic pace (a very useful one in training for races from 10k to Half Marathon). Finally, the 20-40 minute guideline was in recognition of the fact that athletes typically do tempo sessions in the middle of a training week, and thus when not fully rested, making the full hour he/she could be expected to go at "tempo" pace when fully rested excessively stressful for a single training session.
Other paces, Daniels surmised, had their place as "practice" speeds, even if they did not correspond to specific, basic, physiological states. Running at, for instance, 1500m race speeds could help athletes preparing to race this distance learn to relax at, and thus better cope with, the required pace. But, it might also help athletes preparing to race at longer distances achieve more efficient muscle recruitment, maintain better balance, and relax more completely when launching finishing drives. Likewise marathon race pace could be used by both marathoners as highly specific race prep, and non-marathoners as a challenging recovery during fartlek sessions, or as an intermediate pace during longer "progression" (pace-cutting) runs.
Other coaches have tried to push the science of workout design beyond the systematic (but still somewhat loosely grounded) guidelines offered by Lydiard and Daniels. It is quite surprising, however, how little the substance of the most successful training plans of the past 50 year has deviated from the basic principles enunciated by these two figures, one operating through trail and error and the other on the basis of laboratory-based physiological test data. The majority of the difference between different training plans in general, and in the design of the specific workouts that are their bread and butter, concerns matters of form.
The question of form in workout planning is largely one of personal coaching style, experience, and intuition. Workouts of equal effectiveness in terms of substance (i.e. the target physiological stimulus) can take an infinite variety of forms, based on a coach's own training experience, and his/her general understanding, or even "feeling", about what kind of design might work best at any given time for a particular athlete or training group. However, any coach at any time should be able to explain (in 100 words or less, or at least concisely enough not to delay the start of the workout!) both how any given workout design fits into the larger training phase, and why it is perhaps preferable to the conceivable alternatives. And if the answer is simply that the session is "hard", or that it's "what we've always done", it may be occasion to ask deeper questions about said coach's overall training philosophy.
This does not mean, however, that a workout cannot be very simple in its basic design (such as the classic 20x400m), or that a coach who uses the same basic design for every kind of session (e.g. 20-30mins straight for every tempo session, or 10x 800 for every interval session)is necessarily an inattentive or unqualified one. There ARE benefits to very simple workout designs (e.g. they work well for refining pacing skills, they and allow for clear tracking of fitness), and some athletes thrive using them. And, in fact, fancy workout design can be the hallmark of a certain kind of poor coaching (when design complexity is gratuitous, it can mean that a coach is attempting to cover for his/her lack of basic knowledge and experience, or that he/she is really an artist at heart, whose creative passion might be better deployed elsewhere). Some of the most poorly designed workouts I have ever seen were also the most creatively designed (e.g. a tempo session in which the recovery period was different for each athlete in the training group, and determined by the roll of a dice!; or, an interval workout in which no repeat or rest period was the same distance or time, but that had the supposed virtue of adding up perfectly to the race distance being trained for, and of finishing at the track's official finish line). Elegant design is of no real use in and of itself; and, if it makes a workout difficult for the average athlete to follow while executing the session (and I knew a coach whose workout designs were so ornate that he had to pass out cards before each session-- which he would eventually have to laminate, to protect them against the weather-- for his athletes to consult mid-workout, lest they lose the thread!), then this kind of creativity can actually be counterproductive.
Whether simple or complicated, a particular workout design, after it has passed the substance test (does it address the correct stimulus?; is it physiologically possible?; does it fit the training plan for the week?), should address the psychological problem of workout execution from the athletes point of view
. As I've argued elsewhere, effective coaching in distance running is about empathy. When designing a particular session, a coach should be able, himself, to imagine in detail what it will feel like at each stage of completion. An effective coach will also be able to anticipate, based on her knowledge of her athlete's psychological makeup and propensities, the ways in which it is possible to fail to properly execute a particular session. Good workout design will thus manipulate the key variables of distance, recovery, and pace, such that a given athlete is more likely to achieve the targeted physiological stimulus. For example, and athlete who habitually likes to exceed the targeted pace will often do well with shorter or more active, fartlek-style recoveries (which can be set in a way that makes it impossible to run faster than the targeted pace); or with, and athlete who likes to ease more carefully into workouts, the session can be made slightly longer, allowing for a couple of early "throw-away" reps.
In my own practice, I like to use a mixture of sessions I have found to be highly effective over the course of my own career, and that I know from experience tweak the runner's brain in interesting ways, and that better prepare them psychologically to race. Typically, I favour sessions that induce a fairly high and steady level of aerobic distress throughout, and that reward precise, even pacing (on the track, interval sessions with active or minimal recoveries, and on the road and turf, farlek sessions, which mimic the often varied effort and blind pacing entailed in these kinds of races). Like many coaches, I like to alternate completely new sessions with "touchstone" sessions, in order to both offer variety, and prevent athletes from probing for precise feedback on their fitness before their fitness has actually had time to improve. And I sometimes like to prescribe a session that I know from experience will provide very precise feedback on race fitness (even if I don't let the athlete know this till after the session, if at all). Finally, I will sometimes prescribe a session that I know to be psychologically easier to complete for that reason alone (knowing that athletes just need to go through the motions some days).
Knowing that there is a fairly high degree of overlap in terms of physiological stimulus between different kinds of running, we shouldn't worry all that much when our coach's workout designs and preferences contain a degree of the personal, even the idiosyncratic (such as when some universities coaches have their teams do the same annual signature workout each season), particularly if his/her personality jibes well with our own. In fact, a little expression of personal style-- whether of the iron-willed, "every-workout-must-be-simple-and-hard" type, or the more loose and poetic "ever-workout-must-express-a-different-mood" type-- can be part of what attracts an athlete to a particular coach, and induces him/her to "buy-in" to the training plan-- which is itself an important variable in coach/athlete success. The purpose of any training plan is, after all, simply to keep the athlete healthy and consistent for as long as possible-- and there are many different personal styles compatible with achieving this goal.