A look at the “Big Data”
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Ok, so I have to admit that I was awfully intrigued with Amby Burfoot’s new article for Podium Runner. I was very curious to see what insights there’d be into the world of marathon training for recreational runners, or as they were called mid packers. And then someone asked if I’d share my thoughts on this and compare it to my own thoughts on training, so it was a win-win.
Now, before I jump into this, I want to set the tone a bit. A few years ago, Outside Magazine published a bunch of Strava data on marathon performance and training. While it was interesting, I was left with more questions than when I started. Ultimately, I asked myself the question,
“Just because this is what people do, does it mean they should?”
I left really believing that most people could run a lot faster if they just trained a little differently, but hey, that’s my job, right? That’s my responsibility to show that messaging and show how my athletes do it! I do really feel that if recreational runners learned how to train, or at least take ideas from what elites do and modify to their situation, then we’d see improvement in marathon times across the spectrum. Anyway, I simply point out that data shows that US marathon times have declined steadily for decades. Yes, more people are running, so there are multiples of more people running now than in the ’70s and ’80s, but the trends have continued to decline for the last 10 years. So, data shows us what people are doing, but it doesn’t mean it’s the most successful way of doing it.
Alright, Mr. Burfoot gives 5 main points as to what the data suggests people should be doing and I want to address these points one by one. I’d like to give what the data shows and then my take. Right off the bat, though, I am left wondering why I should take his word for it, since he claims that the math is complicated and we should just trust him- that’s always an invitation to not trust something!
Point 1: Training more, even at a slow pace can make you faster.
I agree 100% with this and easy to moderate running is the basis of our programs. It’s not junk miles and anyone who tells you it is, doesn’t understand this principle. Easy running is the foundation that your house is built on. The better/bigger the foundation, the more solid the construction and the bigger the house that can be built. Easy running supports the demands of hard running!
Point 2: Fast training builds your endurance more effectively than slow training.
It depends. If I am training for a marathon, is my time going to be more affected by doing small amounts of training that are really fast or bigger volumes of training that includes lots of longer runs at easier paces? I think part of the problem here is that endurance isn’t defined. The truth is, a combination of these two variables would probably the most complete way of doing things.
In terms of the HMM philosophy, I would say that faster training would be the speed that we do at the beginning of the marathon segment before transitioning to the strength and marathon specific work over the second half of the training plan. I believe it’s also part of the reasoning behind the 3/2 rule: No more than 3 marathons in 2 years so that you can work on faster paces.
Point 3: Elite runners generally don’t push as hard in training as mid-pack and slower runners.
Yes, it’s a simple percentage game. If I am running 100 miles per week, the percentage of “fast” running is going to be less than if I am running 50 miles per week. My workouts might be bigger in absolute volume and intensity, but from a percentage standpoint, there’s a limit to how much you can do. If we both do 5k worth of 5k pace work in a week, then for me, that’s 3% of my weekly volume. If the runner doing 50 miles/week does the same workout, it’s 6% of their weekly volume.
Now, I will say this, too. When you look at a 4 hour plus marathoner, there is a big blurring of lines. They can go out and run their 4-6 miles “easy” and average faster than their goal marathon time. Citing back to one of the previous points: their general endurance is fine, but their specific endurance is lagging. Lots of reasons why this might be, but usually, their training just doesn’t match the event.
Personally, this is why low volume, minimal days per week plans may make you feel fast, but ultimately give you a false sense of where your fitness truly is.
Point 4: There’s a limit to how far and how hard you can train.
Yes, absolutely. We all have that limit. When I was younger, not married, no kids, and running as a job, I could run 140-150 miles per week at my peak and then recover from it. I coach CEO’s and stay at home moms that train their butts off, but that means 40-50 miles per week. However, the biggest lesson you can learn is what we’ve already talked about- easy days are not your enemy and these, when done right, allow you to run more overall and train harder on the designated days.
Point 5: Adopt a new pattern for your training. Focus on training weeks, not individuals. Alternate your weeks (hard, hard, easy, moderate).
For part number one, yes, agreed 100% and this is the basis of cumulative fatigue. Your fitness isn’t going to come from an individual workout, but rather, the cumulative effects of weeks and months of consistent training.
For the second part of this, there is one main problem I have with this. This is basically what the most successful people were doing. But more successful than who? Oh, more successful than the people who trained the least and ran the hardest. So, it wasn’t the strategy that would yield the most overall success. It was the strategy that was most successful in the group being looked at. It doesn’t mean it’s the most effective.
Secondly, my question is, was that rotation out of necessity? How many people who ran hard for two weeks were forced to take that third week incredibly easy so that they could recover enough to have a little bit harder 4th week? Again, some questions I’d like answered.
To wrap up, the whole caveat to this is at the very end. 47% of the people running were UNDER-TRAINED. So to me, that makes the case for the HMM. It’s not a just go run 40 miles per week plan with 20 of it coming from the long run. It’s a step up between a common low mileage high long-run plan that will allow you to survive a marathon. However, it’s not an 80+ mile per week plan either. It’s a moderate mileage plan with a lot of easy running and hard workouts. I read this article and was further verified that the HMM is the plan that can take a recreational runner who thinks that 3:35-3:45 is where they’ll be and instead get them to a 3:15-3:30 marathoner with a little more training and a lot of understanding of why you are doing what you are doing.