What do top milers and top marathoners have in common? They both train consistently, year-round, and their fitness lets them race well at any time at almost any distance.
Case in point: On Saturday, February 2, Shelby Houlihan, who holds the American record in the 5,000m and says her favorite race is the 1500m, finished first in the 10,000m USATF Cross Country Championships. To win, she outkicked Molly Huddle, the American record holder in the half marathon, who is training for April’s London Marathon. Besides being a demonstration of how awesome cross country is, bringing together a diverse range of runners in one field, the race reveals a truth about distance running: Fit is fit. For much of the year, top distance runners’ training is remarkably similar, regardless of their specialty.
While the specific volume and paces of workouts will be slightly different for a middle distance runner and a half marathoner, those are minor if you step back and looking at the larger patterns of training. All distance runners train with a combination that includes lots of easy miles, some long runs, and a small volume of speed work, ranging in pace from tempo to all-out sprints. Each coach varies the timing and intensity of these similar elements for different runners and different goals, but the larger patterns remain consistent.
Most importantly, top runners build their total volume and training load gradually and maintain it, month after month, year after year. Houlihan told Runner’s World that in college she started at 30 miles per week and added 10 miles per year. Turning pro, she initially maintained her level of 60 miles per week when she added more intense speed work, before gradually upping the volume as she handled the new load.
Huddle and her coach, Ray Treacy, take a similar approach, gradually adding volume and intensity over the course of years. Once they’ve achieved a new level of load, they maintain it, with few interruptions. Treacy told the New York Times in 2016, “[Huddle] has not taken more than an annual two-week break for the past three years.” During those breaks, they run an easy 30 minutes every other day, then jump back to their normal miles and workouts.
In contrast, amateur runners tend to only train “for” something—so much so that if you’re seen out on a long run, let alone a track workout, someone will ask you what you’re training for. There’s nothing wrong with having a race on the schedule to provide a target and motivation, but only training for specific races leads to success-robbing patterns.
First is a cycle of too-rapid increases that too often results in injury. Amateurs often add as much to their mileage each month, or even week by week, as pros will add in a year. Even experienced runners will introduce advanced, race-specific workouts too soon, treating them as tests and pushing ourselves to finish them at any cost to prove that we can handle the race and goal pace. If not injured, we expect and accept that the training will beat us up, physically and mentally, and we arrive at race day barely hanging on and anxious for a break.
Second, when we take those breaks, they tend to last too long. In fact, for many, much of the year is a break, interspersed with intense training periods. If we’re not actively training “for” another race, our running pattern falls into daily maintenance runs, or not-so-daily-whenever-we-find-the-time runs, or periods with no runs at all. This becomes the default until we again ramp up training for something new. And since we start at the same low level for each new race-training program, we fail to make progress over time.
Want to be more like an elite? Start seeing every week as a training week, especially when you’re not training “for” a rapidly-approaching race. Train to train. Gradually and consistently build your volume of easy running, always keeping the increase such that it feels normal and sustainable. Every week to 10 days, get in a long run, a tempo run, a small amount of speed workout faster than threshold, and regular bouts of very short, very fast neuromuscular work. No matter what your eventual goal, you will use all these elements. Remember that the mile is 80 percent aerobic, and the marathon requires an efficient stride that stems from running fast.
The result? First, running will become easier and more fun as you gain the fitness to handle an increased load as part of a normal week, and you begin to enjoy using your robust, developed skill. You’ll build to a new level where, when you do choose to train for an event, the changes in volume and workouts are simply refinements of what is already your default training. After the race and a short recovery break, you’ll be able to resume your training at the same level, and gradually increase the volume and intensity so you approach the next season starting at a higher level.
An added benefit: At any time of the year, you’ll be fit to race well at nearly any distance, particularly the many races in the middle.