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6 Ways To Simplify Your Training With Steve Jones

Former marathon world record holder Steve Jones outlines six ways to streamline your training — and set a PR.

Former marathon world record holder Steve Jones outlines six ways to streamline your training — and set a PR.

It’s a warm morning in Boulder, Colo., and the sun is just stretching down the iconic Flatiron mountains in the distance. Steve Jones is clad with a red ball cap and a chai tea in his hand. Everyone who knows him calls him Jonesy, a reference that both fits his modest, man-among-the-people persona and belies his stature as one of the greatest marathoners in history.

“Take off your watch,” Jonesy says, pointing to the wrist of one of his runners. “You’ll get it back after the workout.”

Jones, 58, a former marathon world record holder who now directs a group of runners in his longtime home of Boulder, coaches the same way he trained: Simply. At the end of the day, he says, running is a simple activity that shouldn’t be complicated.

A whistle and a stopwatch dangle from his neck as he approaches his runners, who are performing various types of pre-workout drills and strides. He checks in with each runner, starting the morning off with a joke to lighten the mood before giving final instructions for the workout.

Jones, who ran 2:08:05 at the 1984 Chicago Marathon to break the world record, is known in the running world for his numerous marathon wins in London, Chicago and New York, as well as his fearless front-running racing style. The Welshman raced on feel and would commonly power away early in marathons, always brave enough to give it a try. Jones was never one to follow a pacing strategy. He never ran for records or for big paydays. He was just simply running — as hard as he could.

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In today’s world of professional pacemakers and amateur pace groups, high-performance sports drinks, GPS watches, heart-rate monitors, innovative shoes and special foods, everything is seemingly calculated and quantified — no matter if you’re running in the front, middle or back of the pack. It can be confusing and overwhelming — but it doesn’t have to be.

“Patience, patience, patience,” Jones tells his runners in his thick Welsh accent as they circle the turf field. “Just relax and let it flow.”

Half a minute later he blows the whistle twice, signaling the end of the workout. His runners drop to their knees, some walk in circles with their hands on their head. “Good effort, everyone,” Jones says with a chuckle.

Here are Jones’ six tried-and-true strategies for simplifying your training and maximizing your results in 2014.

1. Stop The Clock

A running watch can be a good way to keep track of your running, but it can also be a limiting factor in reaching your potential. Seeing times faster or slower than expected in a workout or race can cause the brain to hyperventilate. Jones prefers doing harder workouts and runs without a watch. His athletes run by effort, not pace.

“A simple activity has been complicated,” Jones says of the current state of technology in running. “This is a sport that only requires a half-decent pair of running shoes.”

For Boulder-based Newton Elite runner Tyler McCandless, ditching the watch in his workouts helped catapult him from a 1:05 half marathoner to a 1:03:16 personal best at the 2013 USA Half Marathon Championships, where he placed 11th.

“I haven’t worn a GPS watch since April,” McCandless said last fall. “I just focus on my effort, and when Jonesy says go ‘hard,’ I give everything I have in that workout.”

Upon first joining Jones’ training group, McCandless was shocked when his coach’s only instruction before a tempo workout was “run hard.” By carefully following Jones’ simple instructions, however, McCandless has come to see the benefits.

“Running by feel and effort is much more important than running by the pace of a [GPS] watch,” McCandless says. “I think if more people did workouts without knowing the pace they were running instantaneously, they would end up running faster because they wouldn’t have the self-imposed restrictions.”

When you run without a stopwatch, you learn how to evaluate how you’re feeling without a device telling you otherwise. Longtime University of Colorado cross-country and track coach Mark Wetmore calls this “sensory data.”

After months of training without a GPS watch, McCandless blistered through the first 10K of the half-marathon championships not far off his 10K personal best, but he felt good and didn’t allow the clock to hold him back. The result was his best finish at a U.S. championship event and a huge PR. Nowadays, when Jones says “run hard,” he knows that it’s all about hitting the proper effort level.

2. Focus On Your Effort

Jones is a proponent of running timed intervals rather than covering a set distance, which means you’ll need a basic watch (or a coach timing you). “We’re not robots,” Jones says. “We can’t control the speed, pace or distance of the effort every time, so take the stress out of the workout. It doesn’t matter how far you get [in a set amount of time], as long as the effort is the same.”

Jones knows just as the terrain will change, so will the pace of an interval. “The effort to do a specific workout changes every week; the pace for 90 percent effort this week will be different from the pace for 90 percent effort next week,” he said. “So it really doesn’t matter how far you get as long as the effort is consistent.”

The volume of each workout varies throughout the year and even throughout each training cycle. In a typical two-week span, Jones’ athletes run five hard workouts — three one week, and two the next. The style of the workouts remains consistent throughout the year, with the only real variables being the length and intensity levels of each workout.

To keep his athletes in line with their effort levels, a Tuesday morning speed session may require longer intervals, such as 5-minute repeats. Some athletes will run much less than a full mile, while others may cover more ground. The next week, the group may do 3-minute repeats. The faster runners may run 1K, while slower athletes will run half a mile or less.

The second speed workout of the week, which usually falls on a Thursday or Friday for Jonesy’s crew, is usually comprised of a tempo run or shorter intervals, depending on the race distance an athlete is training for at the time. The third hard workout of the week, which only takes place every other week, calls for hill repeats on Saturday morning.

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Jones believes in consistently working speed, stamina and strength year-round by using three different types of workouts, just as he did 30 years ago:

1. Interval Workouts (Example:
5 x 5:00 hard with 2:00 jog recovery between reps)

2. Tempo Runs (Example: 25 minutes at a steady effort)

3. Hill Repeats (Example: 12 x 90-second hill repeats with a rest interval of jogging back down the hill)

Each workout is based on time and effort, not distance — if you’re having a great day, you’ll run farther, but if you’re having a bad day, you’ll cover less distance. Thirty minutes of hard running is 30 minutes of hard running, whether you’re feeling great or feeling horrible. In this way, every workout can be a good workout as long as you’re putting in the right amount of effort.

3. Simplify Your Training Locations

Jones usually has his athletes run their workouts on soft rolling trails or unmarked open fields and roads. This way, his athletes can focus on hitting the proper effort level and not a specific pace. Pace, like the terrain, will vary, but the effort you’re putting forth should remain consistent — just like in a race.

Jones’ athletes rarely hit the track, unless they’re gearing up for a track race. The track is like the clock in that it’s calculating and can set limits. It should only be used sparingly in the final transition toward the peak racing period so the athlete can see efforts matching pace, which helps boost confidence.

On recovery runs and easy days, resort back to Rule No. 1: Ditch your watch and either run a familiar loop or an out-and-back route. Or just head out the door and run easy for a set amount of time, with no care for distance covered. On easy days, don’t be tempted to race a previous version of yourself. Whether you’re going hard or running easy, ensure you’re getting what you need out of the day effort-wise.

For most easy or long runs, Jones has his group running the trails along the Flatirons of Boulder. No one can check their watches for mile markers, and the effort of the run is easy to moderate. The key on these days is to just run.

4. Run Bravely

“Don’t be afraid to go out too hard,” McCandless says about Jones’ philosophy. If you’re in search of a big-race performance or a PR, it starts in practice. Practice running brave before the race.

“Learn to hurt in workouts,” Jones says, “and you’ll be able to hurt more in races.”

In some workouts, Jones’ instructions include six words: “Hands on knees in the end.” Translation: This will be a really hard workout.

The idea of going out too hard in some workouts is in building yourself back up afterward and gaining the confidence to do the same in races. You can’t do anything in a race you haven’t practiced first, so it’s important to play with fire in some workouts and know what it feels like to get burned. You might fall to pieces and barely finish the workout, or you might surprise yourself and destroy the limits you previously thought existed. You’ll never know until you try, and Jones believes in testing your limits throughout the year.

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5. Be Consistent

The most important element of a successful training program is consistency. While your weekly volume of mileage will vary throughout the year, following a similar workout rhythm each week means you’re always just a few weeks away from being in good race shape.

“Everyone that sticks at it and believes in what they’re doing will improve,” Jones says. For his athletes, it’s rare for a week to go by without some sort of workout, even an easier, less intense one.

Training doesn’t always goes as planned, however, and occasionally life events can deter you from getting in your structured workouts or long runs. In these cases, shift the focus a bit and just run.

6. Believe

When you get to the starting line of your next race, believe in the work you’ve done. No training block leading up to a race is ever ideal, and most races rarely go completely as planned. Be adaptable, and focus on what you have done rather than what you haven’t. Jones believes you can only do what you can do, and it’s important to believe in what you have done.

In a world of information overload, breakthroughs can be harder to come by because you always know where you stand — or you think you do. Ditch your watch, run unmarked trails or roads and leave your limits at home. Renew your focus away from the stresses of external gadgets and let the performances and new PRs you yearn for find their way to the surface. It’s that simple.

RELATED: The Magical Powers Of Mental Mantras

This piece first appears in the March 2014 issue of Competitor magazine.


About The Author:

Bobby Reyes is a freelance writer and sub-30-minute 10K runner based in Gunnison, Colo.