I noticed in recent years I was beginning to sleep less. There were some nights where I found myself waking at 3-4am and having to use the toilet. Occasionally I’d be awake for an hour or two only dropping back off at 5am. Shortened sleep is something older people often find happening and apparently comes with ageing. At least that’s the received wisdom but since I recommenced training hard with more sprints and workouts, yet doing no more mileage, I’ve started sleeping very deeply again.
Growing up I was always a deep sleeper. Some of that was because I wanted to stay up late as a teenager; I was often up until gone midnight, then struggling to get out of bed the next morning. Waking me up for school was a nightmare for my parents and I would often go in still half asleep. When I began working, I still stayed up late and slept deeply but always got up to be on time for work. I’d make up for lack of sleep at the weekends, often sleeping in until almost midday, sometimes a nap in the evenings.
For a short period I kept a sleep diary. Or rather compiled a list of how much sleep I got. There’s probably an app you can get to do this automatically on your phone now. But, back in the late 1990s, I was bored in my job so one small way I passed the time was to log an estimate of how much sleep I’d got the previous night.
What fascinated me was that after collecting three months’ data (yes I really was bored enough to do it for three months) my average sleep for the first month came in at 7hr45, the second month it was 7hr50 and the third it was 7hr40. My body knew what it needed and that was just under eight hours sleep each night. In the week I was working 8-6; so long sleep-ins at the weekend were the adjustment to get me back on track.
It’s apparent to me that the body is doing a lot of rebuilding and healing work between training sessions. I was all-out when I played sport in my twenties. I pushed every session to the limit to the point where it would actually leave me very moody and antisocial and on the verge of depression. The body’s chemistry is in fine balance and sleep is one of the ways it resets itself. The long hours of sleep were a necessity rather than a luxury.
I remained a deep sleeper until a few years ago. I reckon I started sleeping lighter when I figured out how to train aerobically. Even now, despite sleeping deeply because of the 800m training, when I run back-to-back recovery days on Friday and Saturday, I need less sleep on the second night. Somewhere within this is a lesson about the interaction of hard training, speed, miles and sleep. It seems logical to me that if you’re not sleeping deeply the body hasn’t got much to repair in which case you’re not training to get faster.
A quick recap. Back in the parts on Frequency and Duration I recognised you can make quick gains off relatively little training. But once this stalls, you have to get more sophisticated and increase frequency and duration. My suggestion is to aim to run five times each week for 4-5 hours.
Once you up your frequency, there’s no way you can do all your runs at higher intensities and be able to stick to the schedule for more than a month or two. Eventually you wear yourself down and start taking days off or even getting injured. Some of the runs have to be done at very easy, comfortable paces to allow you to get back out the next day.
Research has shown elite runners do 80% of their running at easier paces with only 20% of their time spent on hard intervals or effort sessions. This is often referred to as 80-20 running or polarised training. Unfortunately the majority of amateurs are closer to 30-70 running with the vast majority of their runs being harder efforts and if you’re only interested in shorter events like the 1,500m or mile you may be able to get away with this. Modern training methods have shown that the longer the event, the more mileage you need to do to reach your best.
Simply calculated the 80-20 rule suggests if you’re going to run five days per week then four of them should be easy runs. In the article on intensity I discussed different ways to identify your easy-paced runs and whichever method you use, they have to feel genuinely easy, produce very little sweat, never get hard on breathing and your heart-rate should remain low if measured.
Most runners think training for speed is the way to get faster at distance running, but I suggest it’s about building your endurance to hang onto your speed. By this I mean, most runners could quickly train up to run at 5-minute mile pace for thirty seconds but few train to be able to hold onto that speed for a two hour marathon like Eliud Kipchoge. Building speed can be done quickly, endurance training takes years.
Where many runners fall down is to keep working at speed rather than endurance to get faster. They peak after a year or two of pushing runs hard, progress no further and believe they’ve reached their limit. The majority of amateurs only do 30% of their training at easy paces and training for speed is training time wasted which could be better used on aerobic development.
How YOU can train to improve
Begin by getting yourself running five times per week. Make one of those runs last 1½ hours – you might need to build up to this by adding five to ten minutes each week. If you’re doing all these runs at genuinely easy paces, I think you’ll be amazed by how easy it is to accumulate 4-5 hours’ worth of running. That it seems so easy may have you questioning what you’re getting out of these sessions and is a reason most people don’t stay with this training.
The first month is the hardest as the body gets used to doing more. It takes six weeks for the body to build each layer of fitness so it might take a while to start feeling comfortable. But within two months you should expect to feel better even if your times aren’t yet improving. What you’re doing in this period is preparing your body to go faster later.
I’ve often found within three to four weeks of starting this programme, my legs begin to perk up and are ready to run faster. Remember the 80-20 rule – you can afford to do one of your sessions faster. You could start to run a quicker parkrun or throw some speedwork in. Even just adding strides – picking up your pace for 10-20secs at 80-90% sprint – helps.
Progression isn’t always a straight line upwards. Day to day runs will fluctuate in pace and sometimes you might have a few days where the legs feel tired. I’ve often found this happens just before a notable improvement. Month on month you should see improvement in your general pace. If you don’t see progress, it’s almost certainly because you’re running your easy runs too fast, or more specifically not running them easy enough. When I struggle for progress going back to slower paces always solves all manner of ills.
There is a temptation once you get into this groove and things are progressing to do more speedwork or harder intensity sessions than one dose per week. Initially this will bring gains and you can quickly push the speed down by a minute per mile from two or three months of dedicated sessions and reduced easy running. There’s nothing wrong with this, as long as you acknowledge it’s for a limited time. But the experience of elite runners is they ‘go off the cliff’ with too much speedwork. Even if you don’t, you’ll find your progress stalls and maxes out at some point. And likely, because you’ve slipped into getting quick gains from speedwork, you’ll forget that it was the 80-20 running that got you there.
The bigger the gap between your race pace and initial easy pace, the longer you’re going to have to stay with this training before you see improvements in your race times. You’ve got to close that gap to create the headspace to run faster.
How I trained to get faster
When I first began working towards sub-20 parkrun; I’d been running sporadically from January through September. I’d accumulated less than 500 miles of training – roughly 10-15 miles per week – on the way to a parkrun PB of 20min42 and running a 5min55 mile. This was classic low frequency, low duration, high intensity running getting me to decent times and putting me up the front of Poole parkrun in its early days.
From October to December I started training regularly with only a fast parkrun every fortnight and keeping all my other runs easy. I logged 400 miles and within two months I was running forty-three minute 10Ks where I’d never broken forty-five minutes before and my parkrun was on the cusp of twenty minutes.
I then started to run hard three times each week and while I initially knocked another minute off my parkrun PB to get close to nineteen minutes; I spent the rest of the year running fast, feeling great but never quite improving. It was only when I went back to a block of endurance almost a year later that I turned up to parkrun one day and unexpectedly banged out a sub-19 with ease.
Let’s recap for the final time. All elite runners train daily – that’s frequency. The duration and amount of running they do increases as the race distance increases. Elite 800m runners do at least forty miles per week but as much as eighty if they’re also racing in the 1,500m. The best 5,000m runners in the world are closer to 100mpw while those doing the marathon can peak at 150mpw.
Extremely high mileages aren’t necessary for ordinary runners but they do need to get out and build their endurance through easy running. Using time to measure your runs is a way of seeing the mileage naturally increase as you improve. When the body gets fitter, you’ll automatically know when you can do more.
The training pattern of elite runners, who do 80% of their training at easy levels of effort, is the route to improving in the long term. When you run genuinely easy four times out of five times every week, you begin to enjoy your running not dread it. It starts getting easier to get out for every run and motivate yourself to do so. You might even begin to look forward to the faster sessions each week that are key to reaching your top speeds eventually.
At any time you can throw in more workouts but only for a period of up to three months. The experience of elite athletes shows this is the maximum amount of time they can peak before going off the cliff and having to rebuild their base. It’s good to come back to periods of easy running which might not entail any effortful runs.
Recovery is paramount to making progress. The easy sessions should allow you to both train yet paradoxically to recover from the harder sessions. One of the reasons training hard multiple times in a week doesn’t work is because there’s too much to recover from. This often begins to show up as aches and pains, or even injuries. Most runners interpret this as a sign of ageing or their body not being strong enough but really it’s a sign they’ve been doing too much, too soon, too hard. Easing up usually resolves aches and pains in a matter of weeks without the expense of going to a physio or other specialist.
It all seems too simple but it works. Most runners are too impatient believing in the old mantras of “you have to train fast to race fast” and “no pain, no gain”. Undoubtedly there are times when you should push yourself but following a good diet of easy-paced daily runs will make a world of difference for many runners without taking up huge levels of time or commitment.
There’s a certain breed of runner who believes the harder they work, the faster they’ll become. They see their body as a machine to be pushed to its limits in pursuit of their goals yet they can’t understand why their race times aren’t getting faster. What they don’t understand is the value of recovery – you only improve when the body adapts to the training. Do too much and the body can’t recover enough to get you through your next workout. String together months of depletion and you eventually end up in the pit of despair known as overtraining.
“You only improve when the body adapts to the training”
You might think only the truly committed, who run and exercise every day for hours, would be prone to this but my view is it can happen to anyone, even those who aren’t running much. Take the average first-time marathoner who follows a training plan which has two or three runs in the week, maybe includes intervals or hills, and has distance runs on Sunday beginning at ten miles and gradually getting longer. Being a slower runner they begin to spend 3-4 hours out every Sunday to achieve these long training runs and gradually their enthusiasm wanes. Many is the runner I’ve heard bemoaning that they’ve “got to go out and do an eighteen mile long run this coming weekend” and how they’ve “still got the twenty mile run to come” and how they “can’t wait for their marathon training to be over”. That loss of enthusiasm and tiredness is a clear sign they’re suffering with under-recovery. They even begin to drop the other runs in the week to make sure they can do the long runs – which is a way of giving themselves extra recovery. It can happen to anyone who doesn’t value the importance of recovery and balance their training.
Elite distance runners train for up to fourteen hours per week yet professional cyclists and swimmers train for thirty to forty. This difference is down to how the training affects them. With running, each step results in forces of up to 2½x body-weight hammering the muscular-skeletal system. Cycling and swimmers don’t have these forces tearing them down because the weight is born by the bike or water. While training for longer is key to endurance success, if an elite runner tried to do thirty hours every week they’d quickly become worn out and injured.
Yet there are ultrarunners training for many hours each week, but only because the majority is done at slow paces. Their goal is not speed, it’s huge distances. The faster you train, the more pounding your body is taking. While it’s not the only reason, sprinters barely cover any ground in training. Their sessions comprise less than five minutes’ worth of running yet take the better part of an hour to complete when warming up, warming down and breaks between exertions are included. Sprinters recognise the value of fully recovering to be able to give maximum effort on their next repetition. With distance running you’re not looking to be able to attain your top speed but you still have to respect the recovery process.
It’s said that training harder is no longer the limitation in endurance sports, it’s how to recover quicker. Growing up in the 1980s all the doping scandals of the day were athletes taking anabolic steroids. Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson was the first big name to fall but not the last. I always thought steroids were something that directly made the muscles bigger and stronger but after watching a documentary I discovered they aren’t. What they did was speed up the recovery process to allow him to train harder and this led to his muscles getting bigger, faster and more powerful.
Tyler Hamilton, the disgraced Tour de France cyclist who was part of Lance Armstrong’s team, stated in his biography that they used steroids for the same benefit. Although as a Tour rider he wasn’t interested in getting bigger muscles, he found himself struggling on the multi-day tours as the effects of riding day after day ground him down. Eventually the team doctor offered him a pill and having taken it, Hamilton found himself feeling fresh the next day and riding strongly again. His recovery had been speeded up.
To be clear, none of this is to suggest you should be looking to acquire illegal PEDs as you train for running, only to explain the importance of recovery and how it impacts training and performance.
The best legal method of aiding recovery is to do nothing. Kenyan runners, who train twice each day, sit around between sessions doing as little as possible. They’ll just sit or lie down during the day to pass the time. Of course few ordinary runners have this approach available to them amidst their busy lives. A more achievable method is to ensure you get a good night’s sleep. Paula Radcliffe said when she was at the peak of her marathon training she needed ten hours of sleep. Early nights and getting a lie-in at the weekend are a big part of this. When I’m training hard I find the occasional afternoon or evening nap is unavoidable especially when I’ve run early in the morning!
“Ensure you get a good night’s sleep”
The conclusion you might draw when told about the importance of recovery is that it means taking days off from running and resting completely. But in this series I’ve been talking about the need to get out frequently so, as runners, we need to think about active recovery. Those days where we go out for an easy jog to get blood flowing to the muscles and provide them with nutrients for rebuilding. Sometimes people cross-train for active recovery and that’s fine, it’s not quite as effective as running because it’s hitting different muscle groups but it’s better than nothing. The closer cross-training activity mirrors running the better.
Of course the occasional rest day is fine, even necessary, to give the body extra time to adapt and refuel. If you’re training effectively and hard, taking a day off isn’t something to worry about. It’s better to be slight undertrained than under-recovered when you reach your next race.
I wrote this series of posts while parkrun was cancelled due to Covid19 on what you can do to improve your running and set yourself up for a PB. It begins by looking at the four factors to consider when constructing a training plan.
I only became a serious runner as I was approaching forty, but there were a few times before that when I focused on running. When I was eighteen, my sister wanted to go out running so I went with her. She promptly gave up and moved to London while I stuck with it for the next six weeks.
I didn’t have a training plan or a goal, all I did was run to the bottom of our road and back. I’d stand at the back door, start the timer on my Casio digital watch and sprint off as fast as I could. We lived on a hill so I got an extra boost with running downhill and, while it eased off, it was downhill all the way to the bottom of the road. Once there I’d turned right and come back up another road that seemed fairly flat. Of course by now I was huffing and puffing away, gasping for breath but the worst was yet to come. The final section was two steep uphills with a short flat section inbetween. The flat gave enough time to slightly recover from the first uphill, push up the second and arrive home gasping for breath at our backdoor. Plotting the route now I find it was 2.6km with 30-metres of fall and rise. I kept no logs but I recall running this route in seventeen minutes. That seems a bit slow as it’s six minutes per km but given that I wasn’t that fit at the time I can believe it may be correct. The only thing I had going for me was a will to push myself to the limit and give it my all.
I decided I was going to try and run every night of the week but I also gave myself an out – I’d accept running six days out of seven. That’s a pretty smart way to train because while you’re setting yourself a standard, you’re also accepting you don’t have to be perfect and it’s ok to miss the odd session here and there. I trained like this for six weeks and then I got invited to do a charity swimming event so I started going swimming regularly and forgot about the running.
This first foray into running certainly wasn’t the best way to train but it ticks the box on two of the factors that go into making a training plan.
I was running regularly – six days per week.
I was accumulating mileage as a result of running regularly. It may only have been about ten miles per week and totalled 1 ½ hours but it was a beginning.
Where it failed was on the third factor – intensity. Had I slowed some of these runs down I would have been able to run further and longer and I would have been able to build up.
The fourth factor is recovery. You only get faster if you recover from the training you’ve done. Being eighteen years old I was still young enough to cope with running all-out for fifteen minute, six times per week. The day off each week was likely enough to get me through but I could certainly have been smarter in the balance of my training.
It’s the interaction of these four factors that get you FITteR
Frequency – how often you run
Intensity – how fast you run
Time – how long you run
Recovery – allowing your body to recover and adapt
In part two, I’ll talk in more detail about Frequency of training and how often you should aim to run.