There comes a time in every runner’s life when their knowledge of the sport gels. Understanding different elements of training that will help you become a better runner is great, but do you know how they all fit together? It took me about 10 years to finally “get it” – to appreciate that everything matters and how they all work together.
After over 12 years, now I feel like I have the knowledge and experience to coach myself. I’ve had eight different coaches in my life while running at the high school and collegiate level. I’m constantly reading books, articles, and participating in forums that help me learn more about distance running. It’s been a long road and I don’t think anybody ever reaches the destination (or pinnacle of knowledge), but I get it now.
I want to share some of the big milestones of the past 12 years that helped improve my training. Using these principles, I’ve become a better runner and yes, gotten a helluva lot faster.
Go Minimalist. Kind of.
Minimalism is a great tool for strength, running form, and injury prevention. But it’s a spectrum. You don’t have to choose between doing all of your mileage in bulky ASICS Kayanos or Vibram FiveFingers. Most runners can use a neutral trainer for the majority of their mileage.
Using barefoot running and very minimalist shoes regularly, but minimally (ha!), is what will help you improve. A few strategies I’ve used are doing strides in flats or even barefoot 1-2 times per week, running one run per week in very minimalist shoes, and spending as much time as possible barefoot or in sandals when I’m not running.
Right now I alternate most of my runs in DS-Trainers and Saucony Grid Fastwitch trainers. Neither shoe is hardcore minimalist, but I’ve run 70+ miles/week in these shoes. Occasionally I will do a workout in the Hyper Speed flats (which are my favorite flats on the market right now). Minimalism has helped me become a better runner but more importantly, has helped me enjoy running more than I would otherwise. You could call me a minimalist runner in every sense of the word.
Use Cross-Training to Build Your Base
Cross-training is a valuable tool in my running toolbox that I use frequently to help build fitness. Zero-impact activities like pool running and cycling are the best forms of supplemental training for runners because they help build your aerobic base while having a very low risk for injury.
I advise most runners to wear an Aqua Jogger while pool running because it protects their form from deteriorating. While in the pool, you have to keep your cadence very high to ensure your heart rate gets high enough. For cycling, I have a road bike and love to ride the hills. Spinning classes also work.
Taking it up a notch, I’ve also dedicated a summer to training for sprint triathlons. I was a horrible swimmer, but the extra aerobic exercise from swimming and biking got me in ridiculous shape. I knew nothing about triathlon (and it showed in my swimming) and will probably use a comprehensive triathlon guide the next time I train. Triathlon helped me elevate my fitness to a new level and I’ll definitely be back as a triathlete.
Eat Healthy. But What Does That Mean?
I used to think that because I ran a lot, I could eat whatever I wanted. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that because the body needs the right kind of fuel. There’s great fuel and there’s crappy fuel. Some types of food are even inflammatory and can hurt your progress in recovering from an injury.
In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto by Michael Pollan changed how I look at food and what I put in my body. He advocates “eat food, not too much, mostly plants,” which is one of the principles that shapes my diet today. If you’re not interested in “dieting” then buy this book.
Recently, I’ve started learning more and more about eating a Paleo diet. I tried going mostly paleo after reading Mark Sisson’s The Primal Blueprint, but had some difficulty while running high mileage. Using The Paleo Diet for Athletes, I’ve found a system that allows me to eat paleo for most meals yet still have energy for longer workouts.
A paleo diet works great for most runners who aren’t running high mileage or exercising for more than an hour a day. If you’re running for “general fitness” then learn more about the paleo diet and see if it’s right for you. As a sidenote, it works incredibly well to help you lose weight if you are committed to not eating any grains.
I started reading about running after a few years and I was amazed at how much there was to learn (and how much I didn’t know). Despite what non-runners might say, running is complicated and there are a lot of intricacies to learn. I’m amazed at how much more I know now than just two years ago.
There are some very smart people out there who can change your perspectives on training. Read Runblogger if you’re interested in minimalism, running shoes, and biomechanics. If you want to dive deeper into the science behind running performance, 4:01 miler Steve Magness writes a great blog at Science of Running that spans a breadth of technical topics. Both of these writers use a lot of video which make their examples very visual.
Two of the best training books I’ve ever read are Running with the Buffaloes by Chris Lear and Run Faster by Brad Hudson and Matt Fitzgerald. The first book shows you what it takes to compete at the Division I college level. Reading it as a college student, it opened my eyes to how hard some people train. Hudson’s book is a fantastic resource because I think he’s one of the smartest coaches today. Watch any of his talks on Flotrack.
My strength routines have evolved over the years from push-ups and sit-ups at practice every day in high school, to more elaborate routines that combine dynamic flexibility exercises, form drills, general strength exercises, and gym sessions. Doing a variety of these exercises consistently has made me stronger, more flexible, and ready to run more mileage.
Jay Johnson is largely responsible for my commitment to general strength routines. These routines and his perspectives on strength exercises for runners has revolutionized my own training. I credit him to keeping me healthy and able to handle the volume I’ve been doing for the past year.
In addition to just making you stronger and more efficient, increasing your flexibility, and preparing you for a run, these types of routines are highly beneficial after you finish running. By acting as a form of warm-down, 10-15 minutes of core or strength work helps your muscles stretch out dynamically and limits micro-adhesions that can form after hard workouts. I consider the 10 minutes of drills and exercises I do after a run to be mandatory.
If you’re looking for a beginner’s course on strength exercises (that’s also great for losing weight), I highly recommend NerdFitness’ Rebel Fitness Guide. It comes with six months of workouts, videos for every exercise, and is a program that works well for runners who are injury-prone.
Training and Drinking Don’t Mix
In college and even a year or two after I graduated, I thought that I could party as much as I wanted as long as I could get up and run the next day. Having a good time now and then won’t have a huge impact on your training, but drinking a lot consistently can derail your training quickly.
Alcohol consumption interferes with your sleep patterns and you experience less REM (or delta) sleep. This type of sleep is deeply restorative and helps you recover from the hard training you’re doing every day. After a night of drinking, not only are you getting less restorative sleep, but your body actually produces less human growth hormone (HGH) even after only a few drinks. This key hormone is responsible for a lot of the adaptations responsible for making you faster.
These days, I know how to reign in my inner party animal (but sometimes I still make bad decisions) and put my training first over having a wild night. Partying has its place, but a focus on recovery will help you make dramatic leaps forward in your running goals.
Run a Long Run. Every Week.
If you’ve read Strength Running for more than a few weeks, you know that I am a huge proponent of developing the aerobic system as much as possible. The best way to build aerobic capacity is by running a weekly long run. I didn’t really do any long runs for the first 4-5 years of my running and that was a mistake.
Now, I run long every week. Challenging the body to run significantly longer increases mitochondria development, improves efficiency and mental toughness, teaches your body how to burn fat more efficiently, and will recruit fast twitch muscle fibers during the later stages of the run. That last point means long runs are speed training in disguise!
If you’re not doing a long run every 7-14 days, you’re cheating yourself out of fitness and faster race times. Even if you’re training for a 5k (hell, or a mile track race), a long run can improve your performances significantly.
In college I thought I was a running know-it all when in hindsight, I didn’t know half of what I do now. I was probably a tough athlete to coach because I was constantly questioning my coach (in a bad way). I changed some workouts and ran them at different paces because I thought it was better for me. I was wrong.
My senior year, I stopped thinking I knew everything and listened to my coaches. I did the extra work and ran the correct paces for the workouts, even if I thought they were unrealistic and were going to be detrimental. After a few months I ran personal bests in five events, debuted at the steeplechase and placed in the top ten in New England (in only my second steeplechase ever), and was largely injury-free for the entire year.
Your coaches know best. They probably have been running for years or decades, have experience coaching others and not just themselves, and have read more than you. Trust them. If you’re a fairly new runner, considering hiring a coach to put your training in perspective and allow you to reach that next level.
The last 12 years has been a roller coaster of depressing lows and injuries mixed with ecstatic highs of incredible race performances. Each experience has bestowed on me a small piece of wisdom that has helped me become a better runner. While not every running memory I have is positive, each is valuable and has made me into the runner I am today.
My hope is that these pieces of advice and resources help you in your own running and you don’t have to wait as long to learn as I did.
If this article helped you or you learned something from this, I’d be grateful if you could help share it with someone else who will also benefit. Know a runner friend who’s struggling? Send this to them. If you use Facebook or twitter, “liking” this or tweeting it would be great. Thanks!