The key to performance.
Want to know the single biggest factor in athletic performance?
Go on. have a guess.
Low body fat?
Completing 15 sessions a week?
No, none of the above would be correct, and if we were on a quiz show and I was the quiz master you would certainly be unceremoniously buzzed out if you answered any of these.
The single greatest factor in improved athletic performance is continuity.
Now, if you are a long time athlete or follower of mine you have heard this all before, but keep reading because it is always good to validate and learn about what you may already know.
Any athlete, but specifically an endurance athlete, will continue to adapt to different stimuli over time. But to truly reach your true potential as an athlete you need patience.
The more years uninterrupted, the more volume and load your body can handle, the more load, the more you adapt. Although often people may put the cart before the horse.
They will have a great 5 months, see a great spike in aerobic capacity, and think 'well if 3 quality sessions a week is yielding these results, what would 5 "balls to the wall" sessions do?"
You can see where this story is heading.
The true key is to build up slowly with your quality work, meaning high intensity as well as your volume work, (your long run). Yes the high intensity sessions (the RUNNEZ sessions) are gold, yes they will build your cardiovascular system and improve Vo2max and your lactate threshold. They will also help running economy and mental toughness.
They tick all the boxes.
That is right, but where is the point of diminishing returns?
This is a very grey question, for an athlete who has ran weekly for 10 years can handle more load then an athlete with a training age of 6 months.
But lets first get back to how much high intensity is too much?
As a general rule 2-3 sessions a week, or even 5 a fortnight.
Now those intensities can differ you don't have to leave your interval sessions absolutely stuffed.
There is a time and a place to "go to the well" but remember the true purpose for our session, is to stress ourselves physiologically, then force the body to adapt in our easier days and while we sleep, then over time become a far stronger athlete.
Always aim at 1 hard running day, 1 easy day or even 2 easy days - that doesn't mean do nothing.
The average week for even the most elite runner looks something like this
2-3 quality running sessions, your A sessions, fartlek, aerobic repeats, speed work, tempo, threshold runs, or hills.
2-3 strength and conditioning sessions (running specific)
1 long run 70 min - 2.5 hours
1 medium distance run
a few easy recovery runs
These guys stick very close to what is called the 80/20 rule which basically means 80% of their volume is easier running and 20% is very hard quality running, this yields great results and has been proven to be very effective in not only causing a physiological stimulus but also keeping athletes injury free. Just remember some elites will run 120-180km a week.
That split is not so easy to achieve for a general population runner who may be running 30-40 km a week, the split may closer to 60/40
As an elite athlete they have many years of work in the bank and have built their mileage up over time. They also have the time to get regular massages, take naps and recover properly without holding down full time jobs amongst other "normal" commitments.
So here's my tips for the average person who maybe has ran for a few years and keeps breaking down or hitting plateaus.
1. Get some guidance, an experienced distance running coach, either a face to face or an app or online.
2. Add some running specific strength and conditioning sessions to your program, see my blog on strength training these can done on easy running days or off running days. 1-2 sessions a week, 20-50 min
3. Make 1 quality session your "A" session this is the most important session of your week, aim at being above your goal race pace for your efforts in this session. Avoid running "hard" 2 days in a row.
If you have to run "hard" 2 days in a row make one of them more of a tempo sessions, around 80% intensity.
4. Build up your weekly long run slowly, don't increase mileage too quickly.
5.Listen to your body, if you need more days between runs take them, get a massage if possible and do some cross training, bike, cross trainer, rower. This will elicit the same stimulus we are after without causing an overuse injury. Recover well, sleep well, eat well and regenerate and allow your body to adapt.
6. Be patient, the longer you can remain injury free and consistent the better results in the long run (pardon the pun). Often consistency is more important than intensity.
Set short term and long term goals, Don't force it, the fitness you want will come, you want to be a better runner in 10 years than you are now.
See below a general week for a distance runner who may race 4 times a year and take 3-4 easy weeks a year of some lighter running.
2-3 quality sessions focusing on 1 "A" session, 1 session a little bit easier (tempo session, 80%), and an optional 3rd session done on feel.
1 long run 50 min - 2.5 hours
1-2 strength and conditioning sessions (running specific)
2-3 x mobility sessions- 5-10 min, can be before training or on separate days.