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Smart Marathon Training: Make The Workout Count

Whether it's burning fat, improving speed, or strengthening certain muscle groups, each workout has a specific purpose.

Along with long runs and speed work, many veteran runners log a lot of additional running. Although the benefits of long runs and speed work are clear—and I’ll talk about the benefits of those runs in the next chapter—what do these other runs achieve?

I can point to a few benefits. One is to maintain overall fitness. Our bodies work on the principle of conservation, maintaining only the amount of fitness needed to accomplish the tasks we ask of it. When we ask for more, the body improves, but when we ask for less, the body relinquishes some of those hard-earned gains. By the body’s logic, there’s no need to carry around extra muscle or to maintain an expanded blood supply unless we might actually need them sometime soon. If our weekly running consisted only of one day each of long running and speed work, our bodies would ramp up fitness levels but would not effectively maintain them at the highest possible levels.

A second benefit, as discussed earlier, is that consistent running improves running economy. The key question, then, is, just how much running is required to achieve these goals? As we discussed earlier, not much. Great benefits can come from shorter, targeted runs. That’s important because there are risks to running higher mileage.

With this in mind, my plan takes a new, economical approach to running: Instead of assuming that squeezing in an extra run is always a good idea, you’re going to refrain from adding in that run unless you can articulate a specific benefit that would come from doing it. Any workout you do—whether it’s running, strength training, or core work—should meet this same test. If you can’t say what exactly an additional workout does for you, then you shouldn’t do it. This is the essence of purposeful running.

Each of the workouts detailed in this book meet this test. Whether intended to trigger fat burning, improve speed, or strengthen certain muscle groups, each has a specific purpose.

A purposeful approach to training spells the end of those dull, slow slogs, where the miles seem endless and little aches and pains begin to add up, perhaps blossoming into a full-blown injury. It is not, however, an alternative to hard work. This program still calls for plenty of time spent in training. Only three days a week of it are for running, but those three days feature tough, targeted runs, implementing a form of high-intensity training. This approach provides more bang for the training buck, making each minute spent working out count more.

Consider this: A study showed that spending more than 60 minutes at constant intensity doesn’t have much impact on mitochondrial density—that is, the body’s ability to generate energy at the cellular level to perform work (Burgomaster et al. 2005; Gibala et al. 2006). Shorter, harder efforts, however, do increase mitochondrial density and also improve endurance performance. In 1996, Izumi Tabata from the National Institute of Fitness and Sports in Tokyo found that interval training of 20 seconds with a 10-second rest, repeated 8 times for a total of about 4 minutes of training, improved aerobic capacity by 14 percent, compared to 10 percent for an hour’s worth of training (Jackson, Hickey, and Evans 2009).

Think about that. Four minutes of hard work was better than an hour’s training. That’s an astonishing finding not only for all athletes looking to improve but also for those of us who struggle to balance the time commitments of training with the needs of family and work.

This article was adapted from the book Smart Marathon Training with the permission of VeloPress. 

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