Tweaking your schedule magically produces fast results.
When Alberto Salazar took over as Dathan Ritzenhein’s coach in 2009, Ritz quickly set personal bests over 5000 metres (an American record), 10,000 metres, and the half-marathon. A similar thing happened when Mo Farah joined Salazar’s group in 2011. And Jenny Simpson’s 1500-metre silver medal at 2013’s World Championships came after a coaching switch to Mark Wetmore and Heather Burroughs. It’s a familiar story: Runner changes coach and lights the world on fire. Does the new coach have “magic” workouts? Not necessarily. Sometimes the magic is the change itself.
Every training plan, no matter how well thought out, becomes less effective if you do the same things week after week and year after year. Your body responds most strongly to unfamiliar stimuli, and after prolonged repetition even the toughest workouts suffer from the law of diminishing returns. Making your workouts a bit faster and a bit longer each year does force the body to keep adapting, but it’s still responding to the same basic stimuli. In contrast, athletes who move to a new coach usually encounter a whole new set of challenges –workouts that include different types of intervals, cover different terrain, have shorter recovery, and so on. You can get similar benefits in your own training (without firing your coach) by adding a new stimulus to your routine every season.
Change Your Intervals
Classic interval workouts such as 1600m repeats are a staple of any serious training program, but after a few years you may be doing your favourite sessions on autopilot. A few subtle tweaks will change the rhythm of these familiar workouts, forcing your body to continue adapting and keeping your mind engaged.
Classic workout: 12 x 400 with 75 seconds rest, at 3K race pace
New stimulus: Run the 8th interval as hard as you can; take no additional rest, and just try to survive the last four.
Classic workout: 5 x 1600 with 2:00 jog rest, at 10K race pace
New stimulus: Instead of aiming for a steady pace, start 10 seconds slower than 10K pace and make each interval five seconds faster.
Change Your Long Run
The first time you run 32 kilometres, it’s a big deal. The 50th time. . .not so much. Elite coach Steve Magness suggests renewing the stimulus of your long runs by incorporating surges or progressive accelerations every other week. The faster running recruits fast-twitch muscle fibres and trains them to kick in even at slower paces.
Surge runs: Magness suggests inserting 5 x 30-second surges with 2:00 easy running between them during the last few kilometres of your long run. Keep the surges comfortable, around tempo pace.
Progression runs: Run the first half of your long run at a relaxed pace (e.g., 60 to 90 seconds slower than marathon pace), then speed up by 10 to 15 seconds per 1600m so that you reach (and hold) marathon pace for the last three to five kilometres.
Change Your Weekly Routine
There are many ways to combine hard and easy days into a seven-day cycle. If you’re used to one particular pattern, change it up for a four-week block during your next base-building period, then return to your usual pattern.
Double up (more than once): Add easy morning runs (of 5 to 8K) on your hard workout days. It’s a good way to add mileage, and doing it this way also helps you learn to run fast on tired legs.
Go medium-long: If you usually do two or three interval workouts per week, replace one with a midweek medium-long run. Aim for 70 to 80 per cent of your long-run distance, and don’t be afraid to push the last few kilometres up to tempo pace.