I’m not the first and won’t be the last to write this post (take a look at our recent post on racing for a few more examples). Every runner who’s scraped rubber for two consecutive steps realizes there’s no magic pill in distance running. Do the work; reap the rewards.
Except that’s not exactly right. Because there is, in fact, a magic pill (quite literally, according to some of the shadier folk in the sport, but that’s not what I’m intimating).
The rule-all, always works, everyone must do it factor for distance runners is (big reveal!) aerobic conditioning. Hands down. That’s not as obvious of a conclusion as you are thinking, either, if you pause to consider how the vast majority of runners train.
Follow me a moment as I outline this.
What Most do Wrong
Intervals. They are great when you’re gearing up for the final push toward your peak competition. Otherwise, outside of the highly self-aware and carefully intentional athlete, they are likely more of a hindrance than a help. And they are NOT aerobic conditioning.
Too hard too often. A well-known Olympian from our area likes to tell the story of his middle school years and how he trained. He had this 4 mile loop he would run from his house, and every day he would try to run it faster and faster. Naturally, that would be a silly strategy for anyone with long-term aspirations. Incidentally, a great many runners do similar things (trying to go longer every day, further every run, a little faster each time, etc.).
Too symmetrical. The most common symptom of this issue is runners running approximately the same distance most every day. But the other side is running about the same pace for every run. Both are problematic.
Why Those are Wrong
Lots of research by very smart people over long periods of time consistently agrees on the physiological happenings of the primary categories of training (like aerobic and anaerobic). I’m not a science person and don’t do my own research, so I suggest reading their stuff (top recommendation is Healthy Intelligent Training by Dr. Keith Livingstone, but I also find a lot of value in Steve Magness’s work).
I will, however, synthesize one fundamentally essential idea from all of the fancy science: for distance runners (and even middle distance), everything else you do depends first on your aerobic capacity.
The reason the list above is wrong is because none of those things are effective at building aerobic capacity. To completely understand why, you probably need to read the science, but the truth of it is that there is a very small list of best ways to build aerobic capacity. And for a distance runner, the vast majority of what you do in training should come from that small list. Let me break it down.
The 3 Guiding Principles
- Build volume slowly over time. Speed is not nearly as important as distance. But running longer every day doesn’t work either. The common sense approach (popularized first by Lydiard) is to do something like every-other day long/short with every 3rd or 4th long being a little longer than the previous two or three (the traditional long run).
- Vary distance and effort. To oversimplify, just don’t do the same distance and effort two days in a row (or if you do, definitely do something different on the third day). Fans of the 80/20 rule will cringe at what I am about to say, but it needs saying. You should be running closer to 50% of your runs at a harder effort than simple easy running. That said, harder efforts include things like simple fartleks and long runs. I am NOT advocating for interval workouts every-other day, as you hopefully have already realized from above comments.
- Avoid extreme efforts. The fact about growing aerobic capacity is that it is done most effectively through regular moderate-effort runs. In the opposite extreme, though, if a run is too easy, then it may have little or no actual benefit to your fitness. When building aerobic capacity, the best course of action is to make sure every run is quality, but to do that without overtraining, harder efforts need to be moderate enough that they do not require serious periods of recovery after the fact.
At this point, I want to do the practical thing and give some examples. Bear in mind, however, that we do NOT condone people trying to take and replicate someone else’s examples of training. If you do want some support in crafting your own version of this, we are happy to consult with you about your training (we do not claim to be experts and are not looking to coach athletes but are simply happy to offer our opinions and ideas).
How it Looks
Consider this example of a very common week of training for me and Andi (I am outlining both to show how it can scale because we do very different volumes while implementing exactly the same concepts). Also, let me once more mention that very nearly everything I am sharing is informed by or directly references principles founded by Arthur Lydiard and captured in Dr. Livingstone’s book.
Andi’s Week (50-65 miles)
Monday: 10 miles, 30-45min STEADY
Tuesday: 4-6 miles EASY
Wednesday: 12 miles, 30-60min STEADY
Thursday: 4-6 miles EASY
Friday: 6-8 miles, fartlek/striding throughout
Saturday: 14-18 miles EASY to MODERATE
Zach’s Week (85-100 miles)
Monday: 10-12 miles EASY
Tuesday: 14-16 miles, 60min STEADY
Wednesday: 10-12 miles EASY
Thursday: 14-16 miles, 45-60min STEADY
Friday: 10-12 miles, fartlek/striding throughout
Saturday: 18-22 miles EASY-MODERATE
Sunday: 8-12 miles EASY
EASY = low end of aerobic threshold (based on EFFORT, not pace)
STEADY = (borrowed from Lydiard/Livingstone) the effort is something in the high end of aerobic threshold, usually a little slower than marathon pace effort
fartlek/striding = we do a short, fast stride every 3 or so minutes over the course of the run (up to 10 total)
*It is worth noting that neither of us actually run consistently uniform weeks. We are adapting constantly because of schedules and kids. Additionally, these weeks represent what we are doing at our highest sustained point of training. We take at least 6 weeks to build up to that point.
Some Lessons Learned
Understanding how especially nuanced and contextual these things are, I want to include one more contemplation on how we adapt the concepts.
- Trying to train based on effort instead of tangible things like pace is hard. Heart rate monitors are helpful, and some of the newer tech in things like foot pods and such is even better. However, any kind of external measurement is a kind of handicap that ultimately reduces a runner’s ability to effectively self-regulate. Keen self-awareness beats reliance on external data every time.
- For Zach, the focus is much more on sustaining higher volumes and longer moderately hard efforts.
- For Andi, health has prohibited her from extending herself as much, so she focuses a bit more on consistent quality and a bit less on length of individual runs and weekly mileage.
- Zach repeatedly needs to remind himself (check out his July 30th run on Strava for an example) to contain his efforts and fight the urgency to run faster and harder on workout days (Andi is likewise inclined).
- Andi feels the need to race a bit more than Zach does simply for the enjoyment of it (we do both love racing).
- Steady efforts almost always feel too easy, and that’s a good thing. Most of the time, when I finish a steady run done properly, I feel like I can just keep going and going at that pace. That’s kind of the point.
- Soreness is not actually a good thing. In most instances, soreness as a result of hard efforts (not including things like tight muscles and potential soreness from injury-related things) is indicative of some degree of acidosis in the muscles (what happens when you run too hard – lactate threshold kind of idea).
- Effort, whether easy or moderate or steady or otherwise, is always a spectrum and varies based on a multitude of factors like sleep, time of day, hydration, temperature, terrain, etc. It makes no sense to think that because I ran 5:41 pace for an hour a week ago that I should be able to automatically do that or better this week. In fact, I don’t really care whether I run 5:30 pace or 5:50 pace so long as the effort falls within the window of the intended effort for that run.
Other considerations worth mentioning are things like running surfaces (we recommend at least 1 or 2 runs/week on soft surfaces like grass, trails, etc.), type of shoe (neither of us ever train in racing shoes on a regular basis, but there is some merit in wearing a more aggressive shoe now and then for things like fartlek days), nutrition and hydration (Zach almost never takes any kind of aid and rarely even water during workouts, the exception being some long runs, especially if it is hot), and so many other ancillary details.
Ultimately, the importance of effective aerobic conditioning simply cannot be overstated. Raising aerobic fitness is the key to raising the fitness ceiling. Even so, it is inglorious and unattractive and takes time. Lots of time for long periods of time, when done properly (a good marathon training cycle really should be a 6-month endeavor).
So if nothing else, follow those three simple guiding principles and you’ll be well on your way to a powerful aerobic base on which to grow your fitness.
By the way, there’s more! This is the first of three posts Zach is writing on the topic of training essentials. Stay tuned for more, and as always, share your thoughts below!