Saturday, April 30, 2016

Some thoughts about training

A fair few people have asked me recently about my training - I guess I have been saying less and less about it in my usual race reports, or perhaps more accurately I have just been enjoying letting coach Benita tell me what to do (even though I often don't) without my having to think too much about it - so in response I thought I would try to write a post about how I have trained over the past 7 years since I started training for and running marathons.

But first, something of a disclaimer. Every runner is different and what works well for me, may not work at all for you. There is undoubtedly a ceiling limit on mileage for each individual runner before they get injured, burned out or both; mine happens to be quite high. Also, there is a great deal of scientific knowledge underpinning the physiological principles of aerobic conditioning and training. I am not an expert in this field and make no claim to be one. I don't monitor my heart rate, I don't track my VO2max and I do what has brought me success in the past. It may not be terribly scientific but it works for me! Even if I can't really explain this with precision or even coherence.

"A Proper Plan"

Thinking back to my earliest days of running and racing, my training was absolutely random. I ran as far as I wanted (or had time for) every day, rarely did any sort of speed work and almost never ran more than around 10-13km in a day. I raced a few decent half marathons on this sort of training regime - 1:26 in my debut at the distance and 1:25 in my second attempt - but in both instances I slowed down considerably in the final 5km of the race.

It wasn't until early 2010, aged 40 and approximately 18 months after the birth of my second child, that I felt the inclination to follow a formal training plan of any sort. I had friends who swore by their training plans, and after having Amelia I was struggling to get my half time back down under 1:30.

This was my primary motivation for starting to train "properly" - by which I mean that I located, printed out and followed a formal plan that had been formulated by one of the greats of running, Hal Higdon. This saw me extend my weekend long runs and start doing speed work for the first time; I was rewarded with 1:29:48 at the SMH half that year and was officially converted! No more random running for me.

This photo is entirely unrelated but I'm just going to put it in here anyway

Going all Pfitz

I first heard of Pete Pfitzinger and his marathon training book  in late 2010 when I started frequenting the marathon forum on Runners World Online (RWOL). It seemed that all the serious dudes (and there are a lot of those on RWOL) were Pfitz devotees, variously discussing the merits of 12/55 vs 18/55 vs 12/75-80 at some length. The first number (12 or 18) refers to the number of weeks in the plan and the second to the peak mileage reached; at the time I started looking at Pfitz plans I was running around 50mpw maximum (and somehow thought that was a lot, LOL) so the idea of adding a further 30 miles (50km) to that was almost incomprehensible. The most intense plans topped 85 miles a week -- running that much and doing speed work at the same time? Wow.

The rationale for more mileage is to increase aerobic endurance; given that in my previous half marathons and my first marathon (NYC 2010) I had run significant positive splits (whereby I had slowed down a LOT in the latter stages of the race), it made sense that I should start to increase my mileage. So that is what I did, and the results were staggering.

Pfitz plans - and over time I went from 18/55 all the way up to 12/85+ - include a midweek medium long run (MLR) that for me was the key to improvement.  This was characteristically done on a Thursday and initially for me the MLR was 10-12 miles (16-19km), although as I intensified my training it would eventually reach 15 miles (24km). To this day I know that a midweek MLR is one of the most important parts of my training, and rarely a week goes by that I don't include one.

Quantity vs Quality vs both at once, aka running suicide

After the success of my first outing with Pfitz - the 2011 Canberra Marathon, for which I trained using 18/55 and where I took 5 minutes off my NYC debut time, despite significantly underfueling and therefore again slowing down more than I should have towards the end of the race - I was raring to go with the next step forwards.

Canberra 2011.
I have no fashion sense but it's raining madly and somehow I'm having fun!

So it made sense (to me at least) to intensify my training significantly, and in my enthusiasm I decided to not only run more, but also run harder at the same time. Yes! The result? My only major running-related injury of the past 8 years: a stress reaction in my left femur and a nasty case of runner's knee that kept me out for the middle few months of 2011.

The lesson is clear, folks: don't bite off more than you can chew. Increase your mileage and intensity all at the same time, and you'll very likely regret it soon. Which leads to what came next: pure quantity.

Run All The Miles!

Coming back from injury, I was focused with laser-like intensity on my next marathon: CIM in Sacramento, California. But at the same time I was petrified of re-injuring myself, so while I eventually found myself once again following a Pfitzinger plan, I left out ALL the speed and just ran the prescribed daily mileage at a comfortable pace.

The effect was astounding. I took another 7 minutes off my Canberra time, and repeated the feat using pure easy mileage in April 2012 for my first sub-3 result. Even in a 90F/32C sauna. There's a reason why most elite/world class marathoners run up to 200km per week in peak training: it really does work.

Boston 2012.
Not waving, drowning.

Over the second half of 2012 and the whole of 2013 I would go on to exploit this discovery and it became part of my normal running routine to cover at least 80 miles (124km) a week and up to 100 miles as part of each training cycle. Yes, you read that right. Routine evening doubles of just 4-5 miles meant I was able to maximise mileage without having to slog through 20km+ every morning, and my home treadmill got a good workout, as did my Netflix account.

For those of us without much top-end speed, working solely on endurance by increasing average mileage is a great, albeit somewhat lazy, strategy for the marathon. I have never particularly liked smashing out intervals or enduring lung-busting tempo runs, so I was content for a long time with running lots of miles and confining my speed work to running portions of my long runs - sometimes up to 12 miles - at my goal marathon pace (MP).

As I got closer and closer to what I consider my ultimate marathon potential, MP got tougher and tougher. After several cycles during 2013 when I found myself stuck around 2:50 (2:49:03, 2:49:21, 2:50:19) I made an important decision: I would get myself a coach.

Putting it all together

The addition of knowledgeable guidance from Benita - who has been my coach ever since November 2013 - took me to my personal record in the marathon: the 2:47:57 I pulled off on Patriot's Day in 2014. We kept the mileage high while adding a judicious amount of real, actual speed work, and the difference it made was  dramatic.

An average week became something like this (in miles):

MON: 8 easy am, 4-5 easy pm
TUES: 9 easy am, 4-5 easy pm
WED: 12 miles incorporating 4-5 miles of intervals or tempo running, 4-5 easy pm
THURS: 13-14 miles easy
FRI: 8 easy am, 5 easy pm
SAT: 10-12 easy
SUN: 18-20 miles with 10-12 miles around MP

Working with Benita I have been fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to run as an elite at Boston and New York marathons, and despite encroaching age and infirmity still managed to put in a rather decent showing at Boston just a couple of weeks ago. It has been a wild ride, one that would not have taken place had I not printed out that first training plan and stuck it to my fridge 7 years ago, and I'm so glad I took that step.


So I leave you with this: for me, high mileage is the key for endurance. Managing to mix in some speed work without getting injured is quite the feat, but worth the effort. 

You need to find your own optimal mileage - if you are a marathoner, the higher the better - and work out how much stress your body can take without getting injured. All of this takes a LOT of time, and inevitably all of us will have to deal with injury, ennui and sometimes just getting sick of running. 

But I think we can all agree that the rewards of running and of making it a part of your everyday life far outweigh the inconvenience of having to get up early to get your miles in at the start of another busy day.

You might even find yourself one day getting chased by a pack of Africans.


  1. Very interesting post. The week you posted looks similar to Tom Schwartz philosophy - two big workouts per week. I am curious to know if you run MP segments during your LR all year long or only in the last weeks of a marathon training cycle. Also - do you ever work on pure speed - eg strides at the end of easy runs?

    1. I virtually NEVER do strides, I just hate them. And as for MP segments - usually only during a marathon training cycle. I seem to be doing a lot of marathons, though, so that's really most of the time.

  2. Great read Rachel. Will have to catch up on the rest of your blogs.

  3. Good post Rachel. You should do more along these lines. Funny reading the 2011 report how you were keen to come back and smash 3:10!
    I can recall doing regular MLRs in the old days (21 - 24k for me) and those (with judicious interval training) are what got me my half PB, I'm sure.
    Also interesting how "all the miles" got you the first sub-3. Keep enjoying those frosty morning runs :-)

  4. Great article. My only question: How did you get over the runners knee? I have been running for 43 years without a significant injury, that is until recently. Now I've got the runners knee and can't seem to shake it.

    1. For me, the problem was a tight iliotibial band on that side. I saw a physiotherapist who got me foam rolling it regularly, he did some other stuff including dry needling and gave me exercises to strengthen my glutes, and within a week things were much improved. Good luck!

  5. Wow, Rach. Your training is super impressive. And your ability to do so smartly without injury has been a huge component of your success. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Glad you enjoyed it! So nice meeting you in Boston.