Top 6 Lessons for Coaching Runners
Winning tips for winning races.
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
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
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 1,000
meters (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
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
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.
SIDEBAR: 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.
Billat, L.V. 2001. Interval training for performance: A
scientific and empirical practice. Special recommendations for middle- and
long-distance running. Part I: Aerobic interval training. Sports Medicine, 31 (1), 13–31.
Brooks, G.A. 2000. Exercise
Physiology: Human Bioenergetics and Its Applications. Mountain View,
Farrell, P.A., et al. 1979. Plasma lactate accumulation
and distance running performance. Medicine
& Science in Sports & Exercise, 11 (4), 338–44.
Jung, A.P. 2003. The impact of resistance training on
distance running performance. Sports Medicine, 33 (7), 539–52.
Midgley, A.W., McNaughton, L.R., & Jones, A.M. 2007.
Training to enhance the physiological determinants of long-distance running
performance. Sports Medicine, 37 (10),
Midgley, A.W., McNaughton, L.R., & Wilkinson, M.
2006. Is there an optimal training intensity for enhancing the maximal oxygen
uptake of distance runners? Sports
Medicine, 36 (2), 117–32.
Paavolainen, L., et al. 1999. Explosive-strength training
improves 5-km running time by improving running economy and muscle power. Journal of Applied Physiology, 86