A tale of runners…
Let’s take a common story you can hear within the running community.
Our main character will be John. John never really ran much, a little bit at school, doing some sport with his buddies but never was a regular of the track nor of running in general. Fast forward few years later, John is working but constantly feel tired. After all a full day of work is tiring, how can one go exercise after work or wake up so early when you always feel you lack of sleep? You will agree, this is a pretty common scenario you can hear around through your friends or acquaintances.
One-day John meets his buddy Paul. Paul used to be fatter than John in the old days but now he looks so fit! Paul picked up running few years back and now runs regularly few times a week. Over drinks, he tells his story to John and convince him to come running with him the following week end. Fast forward again a year later, John is “addicted” to running, doing races over the week end and dropped few kilos and belt sizes. However he feels he is no more progressing and despite his training he does not go faster nor runs longer. He also gets injured from time to time, has pain in the hills or knees and in his bad days thinks that maybe running was not for him…
What’s wrong doc?
Chances are that John is facing multiple problems:
- He went “from zero to hero”, ie from not running to running too much too quickly
- He is training in an unstructured way, hindering his progress, in an inefficient way
Fact is like every good things, time is a necessity. Running is using a lot of muscles that need to transition from doing little to suddenly doing a lot. One of these muscles is your heart. It’s actually pretty good and able to improve fairly quickly provided you stimulate it. And that’s the problem… You don’t just use your heart to do any kind of exercise. In the case of running you will use tons of muscles (big, smalls), tendons/articulations, … They actually take much longer time to improve when stimulated. In short, don’t just listen to your heart but also give time for your muscles to adjust. After all, you’re in this for the long run, not for a short stint !
Practically it means that despite you feeling very good while running, don’t pick up too quickly a faster pace. Don’t pile up kilometres like a mad man. Don’t increase the distance you can run at one go too quickly. I know it’s tempting: it actually feels good and you feel on top of the world say achieving in just few months to complete say a 10km race. But no, please don’t. You are very likely to injure yourself going too fast too quickly. That’s the first mistake done by John. And because of that, John was injured from time to time: pain in the hills, pain in the knees, …
John was always running with one or two buddies, often on the week end and most of the time alone when running during week days. That was also one of the reason he was going faster and faster: his buddy Paul was very good and his other buddy George was also quite fast. Not as fast as Paul but definitely faster and stronger than John. And guess what John did… he kept working hard to try to catch up with George. That was the second mistake done by John. Some would call that the “testosterone effect”, some would call that “peers pressure”.
Another thing was that when training with his two friends, John was essentially trying to keep up with them both in term of pace and in term of distance. It actually works well, everyone needs to be pulled forward. However unless your buddy is a following a training programme, it’s very likely you will hit a plateau at some point. That’s what was happening to John.
A good training program
A good training plan first is tailored for your running goal. You are going to have to train differently if you want to finish a 5km race, a half marathon or longer than that. Most of new runners think only of mileage as the key objective to achieve as part of your training. Yes mileage is important (you need to be able at some point to cover your race distance objective without stopping) however I think it’s more important to focus on quality versus quantity.
You have to train smartly, which means incorporating regularly the following type of workout:
- Intervals training
- Speed workout
- Hill training
- Tempo runs
- Long and Slow runs (LSD)
- Non running activities
- Walking (yes, depending on your goal !)
I won’t describe today each of these workouts but only focus on the issue of doing only more and more mileage as this is likely the most common mistake for people crossing from 10km distance to 21km distance. In such a situation, you are likely to try to pack more runs with longer distance and some shorter runs trying to go faster than during the longer runs. In fairness, before being able to run fast on 21km, you should be able to run fast on 10km, common sense is it ? Partly yes, partly no. Yes because it’s true: if you can’t sustain a given pace on 10km, you won’t sustain it on 21km. No, because when you start you will always be slower on a longer distance, it’s just the way it is. And you need targeted training to build the muscles and reserves to be able to sustain the longer distance at a slow pace and to sustain the longer distance at a higher pace.
Most people would run at a fast pace, keeping their heart rate relatively high. I’ve done that and it does not bring much results compared to doing the same at slower pace. To build endurance, you need to “teach” your body to be more efficient and work with less expenditure. From a high level, your muscle contain something called glycogen and when you run you will consume these. Running slow (and therefore with a low heart rate) helps your body build reserves of glycogen. Everyone burn these and when we run out, we hit a wall. Your performance decrease quickly, you get tired, … Running slow builds reserve of glycogen, running fast (or with a high heart rate) does not create glycogen reserves. I’m not saying that one should not run fast, it needs to be done but as a targeted workout (speed workout, tempo workout) not as 75% of the time you spend running.
Also running slowly has another big benefit: you do not stress your body too much too quickly, which gives time to your muscles, joints to adapt (keep in mind you might feel progressing quickly because of how your heart feels but your muscles take much more time to adapt). You also need to be careful with muscles imbalance: some muscles being too strong than others (working in pair). For example, your quads can quickly be very strong, but what of your hamstrings ? What of your knees ? What of your gluts ? If your quads are really strong but your gluts are not strong, you will put a lot of stress on the gluts… and risk to be injured there. Same goes with your knees. If you heard of ITBS (Iliotibial Band Syndrome), that’s a consequence of muscles imbalance (in my layman words).
Enough for today, in the next post, we will cover the different type of workouts (how you can mix them to become a stronger runner and ultimately reach your goals/objectives) and why joining a running club with a structured running program is very important . I’ll share with you my experience running as part of a very active running group in KL (hint, they have a big cat name).