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Top 6 Lessons for Coaching Runners

There’s a wrong way and a right way to do almost everything. For example, going down a park slide head first, throwing a paper airplane at your high-school teacher and not buying your twin brother a birthday present (claiming you forgot) could all be considered errors in judgment.

As a physiologist and coach, I often see runners doing the wrong things. Although training and racing imperfectly won’t have as severe a consequence as landing head first off the slide, it will prevent your clients from meeting their potential. Here are my top 6 lessons for coaching runners.

1. Run for Gold by Training the Lactate Threshold

From the time of the classic study by Farrell et al. (1979), research has shown that the lactate threshold (LT) is the best physiological predictor of distance running performance. It represents the fastest speed your clients can sustain aerobically.

All running speeds have an anaerobic contribution, but at speeds slower than the LT, that contribution is negligible. LT training allows your clients to run faster before they fatigue—and before anaerobic metabolism begins to play a significant role. The longer the race, the more important LT training becomes.

For recreational runners, LT pace is approximately 10–15 seconds per mile slower than 5K race pace or about 10K race pace (about 80%–85% maximum heart rate, or HRmax). For competitive athletes, it’s about 25–30 seconds per mile slower than 5K race pace or about 15–20 seconds per mile slower than 10K race pace (about 90% HRmax). Subjectively, these workouts should feel “comfortably hard.” Here are some examples of workouts:

1. LT run: 2–4 miles (or 10–20 minutes) at LT pace

2. LT cruise intervals: 4 x 1 mile (or 5–7 minutes) at LT pace with 1-minute rest periods

3. LT + cruise intervals: 2 sets of 3 x 1,000meters (or 3–4 minutes) at 5–10 seconds per mile faster than LT pace, with 45-second rest periods and 2 minutes’ rest between sets

4. LT long slow distance (LSD) combo: 12–16 miles with last 2–4 miles at LT pace, or 2 miles easy + 3 miles at LT pace + 6 miles easy + 3 miles at LT pace (for advanced marathoners)

2. Ramp Up the Intensity With VO2max Training

While increasing your clients’ weekly running mileage will increase their VO2max if they currently run less than 40–50 miles per week, high-intensity interval training at or near VO2max is the most effective stimulus, especially for trained runners (Billat 2001; Midgley, McNaughton & Wilkinson 2006; Midgley, McNaughton & Jones 2007). While long intervals (2–5 minutes) provide a greater load on the cardiovascular system, short intervals (< 1 minute) can also increase VO2max, as long as they include short, active recovery periods to keep VO2 elevated throughout the workout (Billat 2001).

You can use current race performances or heart rate to tell you the velocity that elicits VO2max (vVO2max). vVO2max is close to 1-mile race pace for recreational runners and 2-mile race pace (10–15 seconds per mile faster than 5K race pace) for competitive athletes. Your clients should be within a few beats of their maximum heart rates by the end of each interval. Here are examples of VO2max workouts:

1. 3 x 1,000 meters (or 4 minutes) at vVO2max with a 1:≤1 work-to-rest ratio

2. 4 x 800 meters (or 3 minutes) at vVO2max with a 1:≤1 work-to-rest ratio

3. 20 x 200 meters (or 30 seconds) at vVO2max with a 1:<1 work-to-rest

3. Run Workouts at the Correct Speeds

If your clients run too fast, they won’t meet the purpose of their workout. And if they run too slowly, they may not improve the physiological variable you’re trying to train. For example, to improve VO2max, you have clients run mile repeats at vVO2max (near 100% HRmax). If running each mile in 7:00 minutes elicits VO2max (and HRmax), running each mile in 6 minutes 30 seconds will certainly also elicit VO2max. But why have clients run a distance in 6:30 when they can run it in 7:00 and still get the same benefit?

You must know the purpose of each workout. To obtain the greatest benefit while incurring the least amount of stress, have your clients run as slowly as they can while still obtaining the desired result.

4. Have a Solid Aerobic Base

While training at a faster pace will improve fitness more quickly than simply running a greater number of easy miles, any short-term gains will likely be to the detriment of long-term development. It all starts with mileage. Aerobic running develops many physiological and biochemical traits needed for good endurance. It increases the number of red blood cells and the amount of hemoglobin contained within them, giving blood vessels a greater oxygen-carrying capability. It also increases muscle capillary volume, providing more oxygen to the muscles, and increases mitochondrial volume and the number of aerobic enzymes, allowing for greater use of oxygen (Brooks 2000). By attending to aerobic metabolism, your clients will recover faster during the rest periods of their interval workouts (which allows them to run more repetitions in each workout) and between workouts (which allows them to do interval workouts more often).

5. Put the Dumbbells Down

Unlike most sports, which require strength, speed and power, distance running is primarily limited by the delivery and use of oxygen, neither of which improve with weight training. There is little scientific evidence that weight training improves distance running performance or two of its main physiological determinants—LT and VO2max (Jung 2003).

If your clients want to lift weights, the best type of workout is power training, either with very heavy weights or plyometrics, which focuses on the neural component of muscle force development. These two power training methods may enhance endurance performance by improving its third physiological determinant—running economy (Jung 2003; Paavolainen et al. 1999), which is the amount of oxygen used to maintain a given submaximal speed.

I suggest your clients weight train only if they have already maximized their running training by increasing both mileage and intensity; if they cannot handle the physical stress of running more miles; or if they have reached their genetic limit for adaptation to their running training.

6. Run at an Even or Negative Pace

The faster your clients run the first mile of a race, the more their muscles rely on anaerobic metabolism, which is accompanied by muscle and blood acidosis and the accumulation of metabolites that cause fatigue. Running time cannot be “banked.” Your clients will end up losing more time from fatigue in the end than they gain by being “ahead of schedule” in the beginning. Have them start out at a pace they can maintain the entire race. Ideally, the second half of their races should be equal to or slightly faster than the first half (called “negative splits”). Your clients’ workouts are invaluable for providing you with knowledge of their fitness levels and for predicting their average race paces (see Lesson #1 for more on relationships between race paces and LT pace).

If you want your clients to get the most from their training and racing, use these lessons. Clients will be rewarded with higher levels of fitness and new personal records.

Sample Aerobic Training Program

Jason R. Karp, PhD (exercise physiology), is director and coach of REVO2LT Running Team. He is also a freelance writer and a competitive runner. He has coached high-school and college cross-country and track and
field, and currently coaches athletes of all levels through RunCoachJason.com.

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