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Time to Step Out and Try New Training

An open-ended race calendar gives us an opportunity to take risks in training, try something new, and build improved skills and habits for the future.

If there is a silver lining to the fact that most big events are still on hold, it’s that you have more freedom to experiment and take “risks” with your training without the pressure of an upcoming goal race.

When you’re training for a big goal race, you work hard to ensure little is left to chance. You take into account everything from the race date, course, weather, and field size to improve the chances of having your best performance.

Unfortunately, that usually means not taking any chances in your training either. “Distance runners tend to be 100 percent creatures of habit,” says Pete Rea, the coach of the professional team at ZAP Endurance in North Carolina.

And if you tend to move from one important goal race to another, each training cycle can start to look the same, according to Eric Heintz, the Director of High Performance for the Atlanta Track Club. “Too often runners prefer to repeat the same old song and dance but expect a different outcome,” says Heintz. But, Heintz says, you have the opportunity to improve your performance in the future by testing changes now.

Rae agrees, saying, “the benefits of adding a tool to your training and racing tool box are potentially huge. Personal records, fewer injuries, and psychologically just changing your daily routine can make the journey more enjoyable.”

Here are three recommendations of “risks” to take with your training now that can pay dividends in future training cycles for your goal races:

Flip Your Focus

If you tend to focus on one particular type of race, now is a good time to focus more on the opposite end of the training spectrum, according to Olympian and personal coach Juli Benson. For example, if you tend to move directly from one marathon training cycle to another, now is a good time to put the focus on 5k/10k efforts and corresponding faster-paced track work — or maybe even the mile.

Benson says she doesn’t like to force this type of change on her runners but tries to help them understand the benefits of focusing on a neglected energy system. In her experience, runners often enjoy the new training more than they expect and find elements they want to carry over to the training for their preferred events.

Heintz also recommends spending time focusing on training that is the opposite of what you normally do — although he goes farther down the training spectrum by recommending what he calls “real” speed work, which distance runners tend to overlook.

No matter the distance you normally focus on, Heintz says time spent on high-intensity speed work will pay dividends. “It increases muscle recruitment, improves running efficiency and economy, and makes you feel young again,” Heintz says.

Two examples of the kind of “real” speed work Heintz recommends are:

• 4 x 60m at 99% effort with a 340m jog rest, jogging directly into the next sprint

• 10 x 8-10 second hill sprints at 99% effort with walk down + 60 seconds of jogging recovery

Heintz says this type of work can be included as part of an easy day and recommends keeping at least two easy days before and after these sessions. “These are intended to be fast, not hard, so stay relaxed and loosen up,” says Heintz.

masters runner sprinting
Photo: 101 Degrees West

Confront Your Struggles

Rea says that the lack of races means no real risk of “failure” in your training, making this a great time to work on areas of your running that you have struggled with in the past. And because you don’t have to worry about being race-ready, you can spend more time on it than usual, and allow yourself to do “badly” in some workouts because you’re not testing, your building. “Take an element which has been a weakness for you in your training and racing and really focus on that one thing,” says Rea.

As an example, Rea says if you’ve struggled with longer tempo runs you can put several of them on your training schedule. Then you can experiment with starting more conservatively to allow you to close better and build confidence. Or, you might use the open-ended calendar as an opportunity to focus on something that takes time to adopt and is initially going to make you sore and need additional rest, like building foot strength by gradually introducing barefoot strides and short runs.

Heintz says one thing he often sees adult runners struggle with is the idea of taking true recovery weeks for fear of losing fitness and falling behind in their race prep. But, without an upcoming goal race, it’s the perfect opportunity to see how your body feels after taking a week without running.

“A purposeful week of no running, combined with yoga and stretching or just taking walks every day, can allow your body to heal all of those nagging pains and aches that plague runners who train at a high level most of the year,” says Heintz. “With no race pressuring you to get out the door, why not get more sleep and prepare to start your next cycle refreshed mentally and physically?”

You may find that adding in full recovery weeks actually makes for better, healthier training than continuing to just push forward, and that taking them in the future, even in the midst of a high-pressure training plan, will no longer be a struggle.

Increase Mileage

The most obvious “risk” to take with your training might also be the best — simply running more. Increasing your mileage will improve your overall endurance, and is more manageable when you’re not doing a lot of high-intensity, race-specific work.

And it won’t just make you better at your long runs for your next training cycle. “Higher mileage provides the aerobic foundation necessary to support those interval and tempo workouts that are the meat and potatoes of most training programs,” Heintz says.

Being able to handle more repetitions, at a higher intensity, for a longer duration will help take your race performance to a new level in the future regardless of which race distance you prefer.

runner on open dirt road
Photo: Getty Images

Manage Risk

No matter what changes you decide to make with your training, there are always risks that come with doing things that are new to you. “When you’re thinking about making a really big change you have to be smart about it,” says Benson. She recommends taking two to three weeks before you start the new training to work on getting your body ready by focusing on strengthening and stretching exercises.

Benson also says that it’s important to start with small amounts of the new training and increase gradually, which is easier to do with no rush to get ready for a specific race.

Heintz recommends taking extra care to go easy on your recovery days when introducing new training elements and to make sure to take down weeks for recovery every two to three weeks.

Benson says although some soreness is normal when trying new things, you want to pay particular attention to how your body feels with the new training. Any soreness that you feel more on one side than another is a particular signal that you need to pull back, according to Benson.

Measure Success

Without races to gauge your progress, you may be left wondering how to measure the effectiveness of your “risks” to determine if they’re worth including in your training when races resume.

Heintz says that you may well start to see the results in your training runs, though he cautions against using your performance on easy runs as a marker as it is hard to isolate the cause for incremental changes you’ll see day to day in metrics like heart rate. You should instead focus on paces in speed workouts and your perceived effort level during hard runs.

Benson agrees that it is most helpful to attempt to gauge effectiveness in hard efforts and recommends either a time trial or a hard workout that you can measure against previous efforts every three to four weeks.

Also, when comparing efforts, take into account all conditions. Weather will have an impact, for one. “Given that this is the peak of summer, you may not begin to see the fruits of your labor until the mornings cool down in early September,” Heintz says.

Stay Patient

Finally, it’s important to remember to stay patient when making changes in your training. Benson says that a willingness to be patient is key and that runners aren’t always great at it.

Rae agrees that runners tend to look for benefits right away, but says it’s likely to take at least twelve weeks to really be able to gauge how much the new training is benefitting you.

That may seem like a long time to experiment, but that’s the advantage of doing it without upcoming races. Heinz says, “the truth is, with little to lose in this environment, this is not so much a risk but a calculated, intentional change to your training in order to progress and adapt.”

And what better way to turn the negative of no races into a positive than to come into the training cycle for your next big goal race a better and stronger runner?

First published July 2020