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Training

Copying the Pros: Do This, Not That

Three things you should, and two things you should not emulate from your favorite professional runner’s social feed.

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I love following a select group of professional runners on Instagram. Getting insights into their training and racing, and the occasional photo of their pet, is so much fun.

That said, what we see on social media must be filtered before it’s applied to our own training. As someone whose coached multiple USATF champions, I know that what you see on Instagram is, as you might have guessed, just a snapshot into what training and racing at that level is really like.

Where’s The Sleep?

For example: the first thing you need to understand is that the athletes you see on Instagram must sleep more than you do to handle the training loads that make them elite. A 10-hour night of sleep, plus a 60-minute nap, are very common for elite athletes, yet this crucial aspect of training doesn’t lend itself to an engaging post. Before social media, fans read articles and interviews to get a glimpse into the lives of these athletes. Deena Kastor, former professional runner and current American Record Holder in the marathon (2:19:36 – London, 2006), said in an 2007 interview that she slept 10 hours a night and took a 2-hour nap each day. In other words, she spent half of her day sleeping.

I wasn’t surprised to read this as her coach, the legendary Joe Vigil, outlined her training prior to her bronze medal in the marathon at the 2004 Olympics. She had two weeks of 140 miles a week, separated by down weeks of 100 miles a week. Couple that with the intensity of Coach Vigil’s training and Kastor needed a volume of sleep that is unrealistic for busy adults.

Knowing that there is a big part of the professional runner lifestyle we’re not seeing, let’s look at three things you can do that your favorite athletes are doing.

See This/Do This

Make Time for the Little Things

The best runners in the world do dynamic warm-ups and muscle activation exercises prior to their run. They do general strength and mobility, as well as fascial release daily. All of these athletes can do a high volume of body weight strength work, and most will be in a weight room several times a week.

The key is not to copy what they do, but rather to ingrain into your mind a simple fact: If you want to stay injury-free, then you’ll need to do the little things each day that you run. When I work with adult marathon runners many of them only run five days a week, yet they’ll still do my SAM (Strength and Mobility) routine on their cross training day, meaning they do SAM six days a week. Regardless of the plan that you and your coach have, you must value the non-running work as much as you value running. Seeing your favorite athletes do this work daily confirms that this work is vital if you want to stay consistent.

Take Easy Days Seriously Easy.

If you dig around deep enough, through the descriptions of various posts, you’ll often find professionals mention how easy they run their easy days. I’m a big fan of marathoner Molly Huddle, and in this Instagram post she says she “shuffled” through her easy day. What pace was she running? Roughly 8:25 a mile. To put that in perspective, she can run 5:35 a mile for a marathon (her PR is 2:26:33) and 4:44 a mile for a 5k (14:42 pace). She’s running roughly three minutes a mile slower on a 6.3-mile easy run than she can run for a marathon.

Don’t get caught up in numbers here and look for a magic equation regarding the pace of your easy days. You simply need to say to yourself, “Can I run this pace for 75-90 minutes today if I had to and be okay?” Since your recovery day is likely 60 minutes or less, this rule of thumb works well. Remember, once you’re fit, you’re not gaining much additional fitness from easy days, but rather they are a bridge to the next hard day. As I say in my books, Easy Days Easy, Hard Days Hard, something the best runners in the world are doing.

Eat Mostly Nutritious Foods

I love seeing what professional athletes eat. They truly view food as fuel. When you see their lunch or dinner plate there’s a balance of carbs, vegetables (you won’t see as many posts about breakfast as that’s a light meal prior to training). And often the plates of food look as good as anything you’d see in a restaurant. The flip side is over the course of a couple weeks you’ll see them showing off their favorite sugary treat. And it’s this balance that I think is important: food is fuel and nutritious food is necessary to train and race at a high level. And, everyone needs a treat now and again.

All of this said, there are times as a single father with a hectic life, I roll my eyes at the meals I see. I’m barely getting rice cooked in the Instapot, broccoli sautéed and a pineapple cutup after picking kids up at school and getting us fed at a reasonable hour. If you’re a busy adult like me, cut yourself some slack and know that you may only have one meal a week that looks as good — and tastes as good — as a professional runner’s meal.

Personally, this is where an investment in a quality blender and making two days’ worth of green smoothies really helps. I can make four — two for me, two for my oldest daughter — and that’s our fuel for the first part of the morning. Greens, berries, vegetable protein, and a combination of hemp hearts, chai seeds, flax seeds ground and added make for a simple, nutritious and tasty drink (though with certain combinations of berries and greens it’s going to look a bit brown – but it tastes great!).

The point I’m trying to make here is simple: the pros view food as fuel, and so should you. But the pros are in part paid to eat well and their Instagram photos of dinner are usually going to look better than yours. That’s fine, so long as you’re eating enough and getting in enough nutrition. And don’t skip the treats!

See That/Don’t Do That

Don’t Double

You simply don’t need to run twice a day to be a competitive adult runner. The first reason is simple: the fitness gain you’d make — which would be mildly impactful — comes at a fairly high risk, and that risk is you getting into a cycle of overtraining. Keep things simple, run once a day, and have a great training plan to get the most out of those single sessions.

The other fact with double runs, and one that was pointed out to me by my college coach, is that it takes a significant amount of time to get ready for the second run and then to shower and change clothes again. Plus, you should be doing things like leg swings and mini-band work before the run, and at least 5 minutes of mobility or active isolated flexibility after the run. This all accumulates into a notable time commitment.

Leave the double runs to the pros and focus on getting the most out of your hard days, and running easy enough on your easy days to be ready for the next harder session.

Don’t Go to the Weight Room

Here’s the deal: A middle-aged athlete like myself can get a lot of benefit from a weight room session. The decline in absolute strength as you age is real. Upregulation of human growth hormone (HGH) and testosterone are so important for adults, and you don’t get those benefits from a recovery run, or even a track workout.

But the problem again is time: Do you really have time in your week to get to the weight room after your harder sessions? If you believe that hard days need to be hard and easy days need to be easy, then you have no choice but to schedule the weight room work on the hard days. Now you ask yourself the simple question: “Do I have the time to go to the weight room after my threshold run?”

I’ve never made weight room work part of my coaching when working with adults. I’ve always made general strength work a key part of the training. For the athletes I advise, every day they run they do at least some body weight work. After several months of this we can move from body weight work to light external load, which simply means using a medicine ball or a kettlebell… tools you can keep in the trunk of your car and use at the park, trailhead or track.

You don’t need more than 20-25 minutes of strength work after hard days and you only need 10 minutes or so after easy days.

The one exception I’d make to this is that a handful of serious runners I know have constructed a solid weight room set up in a basement or garage where they can do heavy loads – hex bar deadlifts for example – and take only 10-15 minutes more to do this than my athletes who are doing their anabolic work near their car. Yet this is not a must have. A makeshift weight room in your home is a long way down the list of things you need to have to be an excellent adult runner. In the context of what you’ve learned thus far, I’d argue the best investment you can make after reading this is the quality blender, even before you buy a medicine ball or kettlebell. You can do a lot of great body weight exercises that have an anabolic effect and not spend a lot on equipment.

Reality Check: Does This Sound Like You?

A professional runner can (and probably should) be expected to do three training sessions on their hard days. Their workout in the morning will be at least two hours, a weight room session that’s likely an hour mid-day, and a second run at night, somewhere between 30 minutes and an hour. Add one of Deena Kastor’s two-hour naps between the weight room session and the double run, then add the time it takes to cook a great meal for dinner, and they have a full day.

There is little chance that you have the time in your life to replicate this type of day. And that’s why you need to be mindful of what you choose to emulate when you scroll through your feed and see what your favorite runners are posting. Filter their images and stories through a simple question: does this photo — which looks so cool — apply to my training?

About the Author

Jay Johnson is the author of the book Simple Marathon Training. You can find him on social media @coachjayjohnson, as well as at www.coachjayjohnson.com.