Training Basics Part 1: Big Ideas

This is the first in a series of articles outlining the key concepts in understanding the foundations of running specific training.  

As runners we put a great deal of thought into planning and strategizing our training. Whether you are a beginning runner looking to get more serious or experienced runners looking to find the edge that is going to lead to the next breakthrough, we think hard about this and have a lot of questions. How do I train for a marathon? What training plan should I use for a half marathon? Should I cross train? Should I lift weights? How long does my long run need to be? How often should I get on the track? It is easy to get overwhelmed or lost in the details to not see the forest through the trees. The best way to tackle a hard problem is to take a giant step back and ask yourself one simple question:

What problem are you trying to solve?

When framing a problem that way, you stay focused on the goal you are trying to achieve and ensure everything you do supports attaining it. What problem is a runner trying to solve? I want to run a given distance as quickly as possible. That's it. You want to run the mile, 5K, 10K, Half Marathon, Marathon, etc. in as little time as possible.

So how do you do that? You have to train or teach or prepare your body to cover that distance is as little time as possible. What is training? Training is a cycle of specific stresses followed by periods of rest at cause your body to adapt to that stress thus making you better prepared for it (getting better). This stress-rest cycle is applicable at both a micro and macro level. Within a week, you might have a rest day, a few moderate maintenance days and a few hard days. After a long training build up and peak race, you might take a short rest cycle into your training.

Training stress can be thought of as the combination of intensity and volume that constitutes your training. Additional stress (training) doesn't produce a linear result (more does not always equal more). The benefits of training have diminishing returns meaning each additional unit produces a smaller return than the one before it. You might see significant gains when going from 30 to 50 miles of training per week but marginal gains when going from 100 to 120. In addition to providing diminishing benefit, each additional unit of training produces an exponentially greater risk of injury, illness or burnout. When determining the level of stress you are planning to take on, know that you will see diminishing returns and increased risk of breakdown. However, reaching your true potential and achieving peak performance requires enduring an ever decreasing return on your training efforts and risking a greater probability of breakdown.

Specific stress is an important thing to remember. The training you do must be specific to the objective you are trying to achieve. This is often lost on people new to running as they are coming from a mindset where any activity is a good thing. Not to say it isn't but an hour of yoga, while beneficial probably isn't in most case as beneficial as an hour of running. There are a number of proven training types that stimulate the specific physiological adoptions required to run the various long distance running distances contested. 

The next article in this series explores the different training zones, the associated key workouts and how to apply them to training for different races.