Are You Training to Train, or Training to Race?


Runners: are you training to train, or training to race? And, what SHOULD you be doing?

Here is a quick look at the types of training a runner could do and what can be done to create a more balanced and effective workout approach.

To prepare the runner to be able to train properly obviously a build in easy paced running is absolutely essential. This not only develops the cardiovascular system but “hardens or callouses” the runner to be able to handle performance training. To run optimally you have to do some of each of the following:

  1. Peak single movement power
  2. Strength
  3. Short anaerobic speed
  4. Long anaerobic speed
  5. Aerobic capacity
  6. Anaerobic LT speed
  7. Aerobic LT speed
  8. Endurance speed

Most runners would list a few of these as their limiters, i.e. those components that are not on a par with the others and have to be developed from scratch. If this is the case, I would call this “training to train”. That means that the individual is not yet ready to train to their maximum capabilities until that factor has been brought up to speed.

The hardest part of coaching is keeping abreast of the fact that run optimization is multi-factorial or, if you want to be “Boulder” about it, holistic. In other words, all factors are equally important in the long term. In the short term the limiters are those factors that do not match the rest. In essence, pretty much all runners have these limiters. The coaching or self-coaching trick has always been to recognize and then maximize the strengths, and also to work on bringing the weaknesses up a notch each season; all in an appropriately periodized fashion. This needs to be done without compromising the strengths by overdoing training on the weakness. On the other side of it, you need to be sure not to also neglect the weaknesses such that the overall training plan still leaves the weakness the same distance away from the other factors ratio-wise, despite having improved them!

Bearing in mind that endurance can most likely be improved till about the age of 40, and that strength (and therefore speed) is already being compromised at about the age of 26 or so, it explains why runners wish to move up in distance and avoid the first five training factors on the list above. In addition, the first five factors barring strength perhaps all involve relative risk of injury, especially when the runner is self-coached or fails to progress rationally (read: in a controlled and relatively egoless fashion) in these training processes. This is especially a risk if they have never focused on these areas, or have neglected them for a long period of time.

 It would be wise to heed the fact that the central system (heart, lungs and other O2 delivery systems) are far more resilient than the peripherals (foot, leg, pelvis and spine bones and soft tissue) when it comes to running. Triathletes who come from swim backgrounds are all too aware of this – the “motor” (central system) can easily handle the demands of running, but the “chassis” (the peripherals) seem to break down in a heartbeat. One of the key advantages of lifetime runners is the adaptation of their peripherals – they have way more bone density in the load-bearing structures and in their soft tissue, like the fascia – this has more spring in runners; meaning it can store & release elastic energy more effectively.

So, how do you train effectively as a runner?

  • Discover your limiters
  • Design, or have someone skilled design a sensible workout plan that gradually introduces the components that need attention – probably the top five
  • Enjoy the increases in performance AND, if properly done, a greater resistance to injury!

Here are the components again, now with suggestions provided for each domain:

Peak single movement power: Explosive work, like quick lifts & hopping or jumping

Strength: Olympic lifts are great here, but squats, single legged squats, lunges, etc. are all good.

Short anaerobic speed: Short, sub 9-sec sprints with plenty of recovery.

Long anaerobic speed: Max intensity runs of 30-45 seconds, also with plenty of recovery.

Aerobic capacity: Work at paces around what you can sustain for about 5 minutes.

Anaerobic LT speed: 30-60 min max speed which is where lactate makes a significant shift (around 3-6mmols). This can be associated with most runners’ 10-km speed. On a Borg scale of effort (RPE – Rate of Perceived Effort) this would be at about 15-17/20, which is about a 70-90% effort (not heart rate!), or on a 10 point scale about 6-8.

Aerobic LT speed (tempo): Best discovered in the lab, but about the pace a runner could sustain for 1+ hours (the point at which lactate rises above baseline which is about 1- 2mmols). The effort on a Borg scale (20 points) would be around 12 (or 60% effort) and on a 10-point scale about 5 or 6. A great rule of thumb here is to build to running just over target race distance (say 10-km) at the next predicted pace up, (e.g. half marathon pace).

Endurance speed: This is predicted marathon race pace. While the runner may never run a marathon, some key sessions need to be run at this effort/pace. I call it grey pace – too hard to be easy & too easy to be hard (for shorter than 26 miles)!

If the runner truly wants to discover what can be achieved if trained properly, this should serve as a primer to what such a plan should eventually contain.

Have fun, go fast & be sensible!

About the Author

Bobby McGee

Bobby McGee is an internationally acclaimed endurance coach, author and speaker. He has been involved with the training and development of an Olympic Champion, world champions and numerous world record holders and Olympians. Through his coaching, lecturing and writing, he has become a much sought after figure in the world of human potential fulfillment. He has appeared on his own coaching slot on national television. He has been a columnist and technical editor for Runner's World - South African edition and has been published dozens of times all over the world. He is the author of 3 critically acclaimed publications: Magical Running (active), on the mental approach to successful running, Running Sports Essentials (active) on training modalities in support of effective running, and his latest book, Run Workouts for Runners & Triathletes (active), providing workouts and training plans from 5km to the marathon, plus triathlon plans. Learn more and visit Bobby's site:'

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