Today, runners worldwide are recording and storing comprehensive training metrics and racing results, along with parallel streams of biometric, topological, climatological and geographical data — and their remarks about them. Like any onslaught of data, this invariably creates a great deal of noise to accompany any useful signals for the evaluator of these training logs.
Given the exploding wealth of available information for the runner, I asked some top coaches what kinds of patterns they would look for if they were to be handed three months’ worth of training data and a plea of “Help me” from a competitive runner.
Tom Schwartz, Tinman Elite:
1. “Skips in performance.” Schwartz, like a lot of coaches, is interested in how often an athlete is actually training. Even if someone is on an upward fitness trajectory throughout the examined period, any zeroes should be accompanied by an explanation, e.g., “planned day off” or “Still sore from the half-marathon.” It’s not that rest is bad; it’s that recurring reduced-training or rest days could signify being too close to the edge of training overload.
2. Comments are extremely relevant. “Just doing the training as scheduled is not the whole story,” Schwartz says. “Training age is also part of the story. If someone is fast and experienced and still consistently writing ‘I’m achy’ there’s something going on.”
This is one example of how competitive spirits can reveal more than they’re letting on in spite of often unconscious efforts to downplay a slowly worsening fatigue or injury issue. If someone is indicating the same “minor” problem over a period of weeks – and if you look at your own log, you might be surprised to see how long we sometimes allow these to accumulate – it’s probably something systematic in the training that needs just as systematic a review.
3. Level of variation. Schwartz looks at three primary elements of running training – pace, type and speed – and combines these in looking for signs of excessive training monotony. Even well-structured workload can lead to stagnation if it only includes a narrow range of volume and time spent at various intensities.
In this area, Schwartz cites the work dating to the 1990s of physiologist Carl Foster. “[He] describes the lack of variance in training load [measured as the rate of perceived exertion times the number of minutes of exercise] from day today as a significant predictor of overtraining syndrome, which results in injuries, illnesses, and declines in sports performance,” Schwartz says.
Amy and Andrew Begley, Atlanta Track Club:
1. Consistency. “The first thing Andrew and I would look at is consistency,” says Amy Begley, a 2008 U.S. 10,000-meter Olympian. “Are they able to train consistently with what they’re doing? Are they having to take unplanned days off due to injuries? What can we help them change to become more consistent and string more weeks of training together?”
Responses to problems identified this way include reducing mileage, the number of training days per week, and paces of runs. In some cases, the Begleys recommend adding cross-training for athletes whose legs aren’t yet ready for a given volume, but want to keep their aerobic work up. When a runner does appear to be training with solid consistency, the next data to look at are the paces are they running. For example, is the pace often too hard or too easy for easy runs or long runs?
2. Hard efforts need to match goals. “Next, we would look at the type of workouts they’re doing each week.” Begley says. “Are they making the hard days hard? Are the workouts and paces consistent with their goals? Are the times, paces and distances of the workouts equal to the goals they are working toward?”
Any training aimed at racing should focus on preparing the athlete for one of more specific race efforts – something people often have a harder time with than you may think. “We want to make sure the hard days match the goals they have set,” Begley says. “If they haven’t, why not? Are they doing too much mileage? Are they running too fast on their easy days?”
The ideal outcome of this training-long scrutiny, Begley adds, is not sacrificing any hard efforts altogether, just scaling them back to enjoy a better week – unless the goal is, in effect, to run what feels like a week-long race.
3. Is the long run long enough? “Athletes should be shooting for a long run that is at least 20 to 25 percent of their weekly mileage,” says Begley. “If they’re missing this key element, they’re missing out on a key building block of fitness.”
If the athlete hasn’t been able to consistently do a long run despite intending to do so, the training log might reveal reasons beyond reluctance. For example, are recovery days generally easy enough? And how is the runner doing with sleep, nutrition and footwear?
Joe Rubio, HOKA Aggies:
Rubio, who works with elite runners from athletes in their prime to those north of 50, often at various stages of their careers, looks to see that a runner’s training log satisfies two essential features: The volume of hard running done at various up-tempo paces should match the requirements of the athlete’s main event, and the overall volume, measured in distance, should be scaled to age.
As an example of scaling, Rubio cites a woman who was on the indoor masters world record 4-by-800-meter relay team. She does the same basic workout structure and number of hard days per week as Rubio’s 26-year-old middle-distance runners, but the volume of work at each pace is much less. So, while the younger runners do a weekly 16-mile long run, she does a 10-miler in about the same amount of time. The same goes for 200s, mile repetitions or tempo runs; the older runner starts and finishes the Saturday morning team track workouts at same time, but covers less distance.
“This is the basic set-up for our entire crew,” Rubio says. “So a 2:17 (marathon) guy might do seven times 1600 meters, the 53-year-old female maybe four, a 2:08 (800-meter) runner might do five, that sort of thing.”