Strategy in running – pulling the right training levers

One of the most undervalued attributes of coaches is the ability to critically evaluate the effectiveness of any training program. A passionate and committed coach will be leaving no stone unturned in a ceaseless quest to identify what could be improved, modified or introduced into the training structure. Sifting through the methods and interventions available to their runners looking to continuously improve aspects of their performance is a core coaching responsibility. As a runner making your own way or following a training program you need to develop aspects of this same mindset.

This doesn’t mean chopping and changing approach for the sake of it, or adopting every new fad that comes along. Generally the first line of analysis needs to be around the basic elements of training that have been tried, tested and found to deliver over many years.

This might seem like rehashing the same old, but there’s plenty of room to innovate and get better at doing the basics well. So before you try extreme measures, focus the lens first and foremost on maximizing performance levels off the simplest training system. This means pulling only those levers necessary to achieve a given outcome and getting their settings spot-on before going too far left or right of center.

Back in my corporate days I used this model as a method to assist strategic operational planning. It breaks any potential actions into two distinct groupings: strategic positioning and operational effectiveness. It comes from Michael Porter – a Harvard University Professor and strategic thinking guru.

It’s very human behavior to look for the next best thing, rather than focus on doing the basics really well. It’s interesting that I found repeatedly in company life that attention invariably drifted towards short term radical solutions or proposals. I’m not adverse to the innovation often associated with strategic positioning. However, it’s easier to leap into, evaluate the impact of and ultimately succeed in new ventures if you already have total command of your current business fundamentals. Seems to hold pretty true for running too.

In running terms this model equates to getting the most out of your training mix and volume using established methods (operational effectiveness) before adopting unproven ideas and technological solutions (strategic positioning). Sadly I read about and often see runners bombarded with quick fixes and silver bullets. New shoe technology, nutritional supplements, compression wear, altitude tents, expensive trips to altitude training centers, anti gravity treadmills are all increasingly on the running menu.

So what are some of the levers in running?

Before you look into adopting extreme training measures or questionable technological solutions to pursue performance improvements you need to master tried and tested training elements. Three of these are building your aerobic fitness, doing some simple strength training and training with proper running technique in mind. But there are literally dozens of good things to try, and the creative part is shuffling these elements around strategically to get the right results for yourself or individuals that you coach. Here’s a few to consider.

Build and/or maintain your aerobic base

This doesn’t mean going from zero to 100km per week in six months, but does involve year in, year out adding some additional running volume or quite reasonably maintaining what you’ve got. Gradually increasing training in 3 to 6 months plateaus rather than adding more mileage each and every week is the way to progress safely. Look towards evolving your training over a few years to where you could run a marathon at a pinch without any additional training. The benefits of this include increased running economy and the ability of the body to deliver oxygen deeper into the muscles and use it more efficiently.

If you haven’t developed your aerobic system sufficiently then interventions such as altitude training or sleeping in an altitude tent are unlikely to have much impact on performance. The reason: you may be able to transport more oxygen in the blood, but if the body hasn’t developed the plumbing (amount and relative density of tiny capillaries) to deliver this oxygen rich blood to the muscles, the benefits will be minimal. It’s a bit like putting jet fuel in a Toyota Corolla and expecting to overtake a Ferrari.

Achieving more off the same or less training

While the aerobic training and volume levers are the easiest and most obvious to pull it’s worthwhile trying to maximize performance levels without going full steam ahead to the end of the line destination. The law of diminishing returns starts to come into play as does the risk return equation. Piling on the work might seem the only pathway available towards success but the number of documented case studies of very good runners getting flat and stale or worse sustaining injury through being coached with or self prescribing a more is better mentality is a pretty long one.

Even superstars like Chris Solinsky can get it wrong – his recent injury woes have their genesis in training longer and harder after already reaching a world-class level of performance. He got greedy: his idea was to do more to get even better as he explained in this insightful Runner’s World article – excerpt below.

The reason for all of this, Solinsky says, was that his 2011 self tried to out-do his 2010 self. In 2010, he had five weeks over 120 miles, and 30 weeks over 100 miles. In 2011, his goal was to double or even triple the number of weeks over 120. He got in 12, counted in the famous “Badger Miles,” where all miles are 7:00 miles. Solinsky and his teammates under coach Jerry Schumacher do nearly all their running faster than that; Solinsky estimates his “120-mile” weeks were above 140. Although his hamstring nagged him, he tried to train through. “I want to win worlds,” he remembers thinking, “so this is what I need to do.”

The lesson here is don’t assume doing more of the same will continue to make you better. Perhaps if Solinsky had maintained his base and pulled some different levers he’d be healthy and on his way to London?

It’s worth testing the elements and stepping off the train at a few stops along the way to check your progression. This means constructing opportunities in the medium to long term plan to back off the gas and race – see what you can do with what you’ve got. The results might surprise.
This gives you objective data to work with to adjust the mix going forward. Rather than running more miles, consider a block of strength work or change the weekly training structure, make recovery a priority, alter the composition of running sessions, even changing your goal distance event for 12 months is worth a try.

Strength training

Developing the strength and coordination to run with good technique is a fundamental training practice that every runner should master. But surprisingly few distance runners seriously attack this area despite the evidence that it’s a proven training technique. Part of the problem seems to be knowledge and fear related: what to do and how to execute without interfering with the actual running training. But the good news is that it’s not as complex or mysterious as many people think – again it comes down to doing some basic training really well and blending it intelligently with the running program.

For a few ideas about where to begin check out my speculative piece on the strength training system used by Nike coaches Pascal Dobert and Jerry Schumacher. A few months after I wrote this series Pascal was kind enough to email me and confirm that what I’d outlined wasn’t too far off the mark with a missing element being around flexibility and mobility.

The current domination of the world marathon scene by Kenyan runners has been linked to the relatively recent adoption of structured strength work and better access to gymnasiums. 2010 Athens Marathon winner Raymond Bett told veteran running journalist Pat Butcher about these developments.

Bett thinks that the introduction of the gymnasium into Kenyan social life has been crucial. “There were never gyms before two years ago, now we all go to the gym to do strength work. It’s made a big difference”.

The improvements are comprehensive and well worth chasing for joggers and weekend warriors alike. And it’s not about bulking-up, studies have shown that strength improves by:

  • the central nervous system and muscles learning to work more efficiently;
  • better coordination between groups of muscles;
  • eliminating muscles activating at the wrong time; and
  • assuming advantageous postures allowing muscles to express their maximum strength.

Including some strength work in your running program is smart and mastering the basics provides many early benefits. Before you move onto tossing kettle bells around, leaping off platforms or purchasing the latest generation of abdominal work-out machine make sure you can activate the correct muscles and adopt the right postures for simple exercises. This means knowing how to complete old favorites such as bridging, leg press, lunges and squats really well.

Training for proper running technique

There’s no doubting the structured adoption of strength training, combined with a slow build up of your aerobic profile is likely to lead to a certain level of spontaneous technical improvement over time. I think this especially true of younger runners, although it is by no means guaranteed.

You can approach this indirectly or directly, with an indirect approach likely to provide good results where the runner’s technique is not too far off the mark.

Indirect measures might involve closely monitoring training sessions and pulling athletes off when technique & strength begin to fail. Further benefit might be had through changing the footwear mix, hills, strength training and being judicious with and mostly avoiding the use of training sessions likely to blow yourself or an athlete up too quickly.

Direct intervention is best approached cautiously and with a long term view. Sometimes one or two small tweaks or a mental cue combined with other training measures will be sufficient to trigger a learning process that leads to beneficial changes over time.

Conclusion: The next level of performance

Once you’re confident you are maximizing your performance and have mastered running fundamentals you can look towards different training stimulus. This includes explosive plyometric training, altitude camps and more advanced strength training. The foundations will invariably remain the same but you can then introduce and evaluate the effectiveness of new measures. This being done safe in the knowledge that you’ve made the most of the low risk, well proven and high reward training strategies.

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7 Responses to Strategy in running – pulling the right training levers

  1. Greg Strosaker May 25, 2012 at 6:29 am #

    This is another terrific summary Brian, I love the way you use simple graphics to illustrate your points, and then link to relevant content as needed. Definitely bookmark-worthy.

    • Brian May 25, 2012 at 7:39 am #

      Thanks Greg, much appreciated. Helps me to write it down and use the diagrams to find some clarity!

  2. Tony May 17, 2012 at 10:13 am #

    Great Article Brian.

    • Brian May 17, 2012 at 10:15 am #

      Thanks Tony, good to see you smashing out some great performances recently!

  3. Pro Gait Analysis May 16, 2012 at 8:19 pm #

    Thanks for sharing your post, I very much enjoyed reading it.

  4. Adrian May 16, 2012 at 8:04 pm #

    As usual, another great read Brian 🙂

    • Brian May 16, 2012 at 9:02 pm #

      Thanks Adrian, plenty of good stuff out there to try!