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Elite Level Workouts: should you attempt?

I recently received an inquiry from someone using a plan of ours. His question was in regards to when he should do the infamous “Simulator” workout. For those who aren’t familiar with this workout, it’s essentially a 26.2 kilometer effort at race pace. With warmup and cool down, it would total about 22 miles for the morning. Over the last few years it’s become our big test effort to see if we were ready for our actual attempt in a few weeks. In any case, his question got me to asking my own questions. One, how many people read about a monster workout they read about in a blog or magazine article and just decided to rock it without truly knowing the ins and outs of the workout? Second, is it ok (I mean in a non segment sabotaging way) for the average to competitive runner to attempt these monster workouts?

It’s only fair to speak to the big Hanson workouts and I realize that many of you have no idea what I am talking about. With that, let me start with explaining these workouts.

2×6 Miles

This is the OG of Hanson’s workouts. When I came to the program in August of 2004, the 2×6 was the one I was warned about, the one everybody had marked on their calendars! Here’s a quick breakdown of what we would do:

3 mile warm up
6 miles @ goal MP minus 5-10 seconds
10 minutes (most of us jogged or prayed)
6 miles faster than the first attempt
3 miles cool down
Spend the rest of the day crying to your mama.

Total of 19 miles

This is a very tough workout, but it would certainly tell you if you were fit.

Now for the specifics. We would do this workout about 3 weeks out from the race. If you weren’t sure, this is a marathon segment workout. This would be our primary litmus test in a marathon segment. Going into this workout, there wouldn’t be a bunch of extra rest- maybe an extra day of recovery. We would typically only have an extra day of recovery afterwards, too. I have lost track, but I have done this workout close to 20 times since the fall of 2004. It never has gotten easier and as the Miles rack up, it seems to get harder every time.

So, should you do it? Well… it depends. For most people it does not make sense and I’ll explain why. The main reason is that essentially the 2×6 mile is an extended version of a workout that we give everyone in our classic programs- the 2×3 miles. This workout is the toughest of the strength workouts and is placed late in the training plan. In perspective, they are the same workout for different groups. The elites are running 120-140 miles, while the plans are about 50-60 miles at peak. So, percentage wise, the work is about the same. Personally, I don’t prescribe the 2×3 for most people more than twice and that’s only if they are really fit and a seasoned vet. Now, if a person is running more mileage, it’s a fair to adjust the 2×3 mile up a tick. Let’s say if you run 70-85 miles per week, that you are just fine to try a 2×4 mile. If at 85-100 a 2×5 mile workout and then anything over 100 miles per week you can give the 2×6 mile a shot.

The Simulator

2-3 mile warm up
26.2 kilometers at goal pace. Hopefully on a course you can simulate the race course on.
2-3 mile cool down

22-23 miles total.

A little history as to why we even do The Simulator. I know this because I took part in the first one. We did it before we sent a big crew of guys out to Boston in 2006. In northern Oakland County we have lots of hills and dirt roads. We had a stable full of fast runners, so we certainly didn’t need to look very far to find competition. So, Kevin and Keith designed a course that gave us a great look at how the course would feel and was 26.2 kilometers so that we could visualize each mile (except it was a K). It really was a situation where we could get a race feel and go through our routine without big travel or looking for a competition. We had 10 of the fastest guys in the country right there. Aso, it probably kept us under control. We all have a itch to dial the pace up a notch when actually in a race. This was a way to pull the reigns in a bit.

So, should you do it? To be honest, this is why I do say to run a half marathon 3-4 weeks out from your goal race BUT to not race it all out. I tell athletes to warm up, start the race at marathon pace and only pick it up after 10k. We also don’t have the athlete taper much. Maybe only a few miles because the day f the race will be more mileage than usual. We’ll also do an extra day easy before and after the race, but mileage will stay constant.

The pros of traveling to a race include allowing you to go through the entire routine of traveling and getting into an actual race situation. However, if you know you won’t be able to execute your race plan, it might be best to stay home. The other consideration is this, with our plans you are doing regular long tempo runs anyway. In the ODP we do a ton of marathon pace workouts, but aren’t doing 10 mile tempo runs every week. Throughout the course of the year we do, which allows us to spread them out more than we would for recreational runners. My point being, you get tons of practice at running 8, 9, 10 straight miles at your goal pace. You might not need to throw in an even longer one just to say you did it.

Deciding Factors

When doing these big workouts, there are two big factors that dictate if you should take into play when considering these big marquee workouts. The first is that you have to be able to do these workouts without taking a big dip in training. Adding an extra easy day, or two, at the same mileage you always run is fine. However, if you essentially have to have a mini taper to even attempt, I don’t think it makes sense. At the end of the day, a string of consistent workouts is going to yield much better results than crushing one workout. The second is how you can recover from this big workout. Some of this might just be experimenting because you might just not know until you try. However, if you try it and it completely wipes you out for the next three days, it might not be a good idea to try to keep doing that. My advice when doing these big workouts are to focus on the basics- rehydrate and refuel. After that, if you have to go right into work, wear good compression garments. Full tights would be best, half tights and socks would be fine. Here’s where an ice bath or a cryotherapy session might do wonders. At this point of the program, the majority of your fitness is there and we created a lot of extra damage that may warrant desperate measures. Another simple measure might be a big dose of antioxidants or tart cherry juice, BUT NOT anti inflammatories. You don’t want to be popping Advil to get through the next 3-5 days of discomfort. I am also ok with giving yourself an extra easy day, but at the same mileage your typically run.

At the end of the day, I think most people believe our schedules are hard enough. The need to do an elite level workout might be tempting, but consider the big picture. If it jeopardizes your ultimate goal then workout bragging rights isn’t worth it. Besides, in our case it’s the workouts that are in your programs that inspired the elite level workouts.

Getting what you need from workouts

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We recently talked about adapting to training where we really focused on how long it takes to adapt to a workload. Along with that, I discussed the problem with getting too fit too fast. Now, to supplement those ideas, I’d like to discuss two more parts to this whole idea. The first is getting the desired effect out of a specific workout. The second is avoiding the idea that every workout is the most important.

Easy Days

There are a couple problems with easy days that I tend to see across the board. The first is that, the runner will fail to see their importance for overall development. For instance, I just got an email from a runner who was going to take part of one schedule, a 50 mile per week schedule, and then take parts of a bigger schedule, a 75 mile per week program. Can you guess what parts he was going to take from each schedule? Correct, he wanted to take the shorter easy runs from the lower mileage program and then add the bigger workouts from the higher mileage program. The problem is that, at the lower mileage, he would throw off the ratio of hard work versus recovery work. It’s an easy mistake to make because we all would naturally assume that if we can tolerate more work we should. However, if you can’t handle the foundational work of easy running first, the harder work will only bring you down. If you struggle with the idea that easy mileage is junk mileage, then you limit how high the ceiling can be.

The second problem I see is with the paces I prescribe. Let’s say we give you a schedule and you have an easy 5 miles at your easy to moderate pace, which is 8:00 pace to 9:30 pace per mile. Early on, runners will tend to be on the faster side of the spectrum, and I do it too. We are fresh, workouts are light and spread out, so it’s easy to get going and not have any repercussions. However, once we get into the schedule more, those paces slow down because we are simply more fatigued. I don’t how many times runners have freaked out about easy runs slowing down once the heavy training has kicked in. I’m here to tell you that it is ok! A common theme across the training pace spectrum is that faster is not better. If it is the day after a hard workout and your legs are sore, it’s ok to be on that slower side of the pace spectrum. For easy days, it’s not necessarily about the pace of the run, but being able to get work in while allowing your body to recover from the intensity that it’s endured the day, or two, before. It’s called relative rest. Your easy runs are more about time on your feet, than hammering at the top end of your easy pace range. Don’t get caught up in matching your easy run paces for every run.

Long Runs

Long Runs are really an extension of easy runs, except for the pure amount of time we are running. Pace wise, we are using nearly the same range. Now, like with all training, how we apply that stimulus will differ as our ability and experience changes.

Many times you will see that people are either pushing the pace on long runs or firm believers in the Long Slow Distance (LSD) camp.

The truth is that there is room for both camps.

Our number one goal is to build endurance. So if you are a beginner, just coming back, early in your segment, or just plain tired, then need for a fast long run isn’t there. For beginners it should be a time to learn how to go out in an appropriate pace and avoid the crash and burn effect. There certainly is some trial and error here, but the idea is to learn from those early mistakes. Also for beginners, every progressive long run they complete is probably the furthest they have ever run, so they simply need to gain confidence in being able to cover ground.

As for those early in a segment or coming back from a layoff, a slower long run is a great way to increase workload and increase fitness without putting too much stress on your currently fragile system. By that I simply mean, you are gradually introducing hard work back into your routine and want to avoid the “too much too soon” syndrome. Beyond that, I think most runners would agree, the duration of the long run is more than enough and running too fast might not even be possible.

We talked before about adapting to training and how the stimulus will need to change over time if we want to keep adapting. Now, the simple answer would be to increase the distance, and that certainly is an option. Many runners will gradually increase their weekly mileage over time, in combination with being generally faster, so upticks in long run mileage is perfectly acceptable. However, that will still only address the are of general endurance. Over time we can change the stimulus without changing the distance.

The faster long run:

The idea here is to purposely run your glycogen low by not eating prior to, or during, your long run. The idea is that you force the body to go into a state where it has to rely on fat as the primary energy source, which will ultimately make your body better at burning fat. For what we really care about, racing faster, is that we can run farther at a faster clip, with less reliance on glycogen.

Now, there’s is a time and a place for this. I personally feel that this is an early segment long run. The reason being, is that this is when the long runs are shorter but still long enough to deplete your glycogen stores. It can be a fairly stressful run at 10-12 miles for people, let alone 16 miles. Also, pace isn’t as important early on and these runs are more about time on your feet, not pace averaged. This is a perfect excuse to enjoy a weekend long run without any thought to pace. Finally, doing these early in the segment will allow your later segment long runs to go better and have you more prepared in case we wish to shake those up a little bit.

Long run with fartlek

I don’t give these a ton, but I do give these in certain situations. The first is when a person is only doing two SOS days a week, like with our “alternator plans” or when they are more spaced out, like our 9 day cycle plans. This is an old Boston Track Club long run where within the long run, you would do some sort of fartlek at marathon pace. I will typically do something like 8×2 minutes on (with 2 minutes off) or 6×3 minutes (with 2-3 minutes off) in the middle of a long run. It is a good way to help runners accumulate more time practicing marathon pace without the monotony of another tempo run. It also helps take them to a very high aerobic level, but below lactate threshold, where they can stimulate the adaptations needed to increase fat burning and maximizing aerobic adaptations.

It is a great way to increase not only general endurance, but also specific endurance (stamina).

I might give this a couple times to athletes in the middle to beginning of the last stages of peak training. So, if they are using a 16 week program, it makes sense to do this between 12 and 6 weeks out from the race.

Fast Finish long run

This is a great long run to really teach your body what it’s like to run fast at the end of a long week. This is also a mid to late segment situation.

This is a very specific race specific workout (and tough), so it doesn’t make sense early in a training segment.

I also wouldn’t do it as one of your last 1-2 long runs, either. It’s a really good one for when you are in the meat and potatoes of your segment. The other nice thing is that you don’t have to do this a lot, once or twice in a segment is good. If you couple that with the fartlek, you have a couple of nice long run variations to add to your arsenal.

The structure is pretty simple. I like these to be a gradual pick up in pace so that you are truly practicing race day strategy. The first few miles are nice and easy. From there you gradually pick the pace up so that by ⅔ of the way in to your long run, you are at the top end of your moderate range. Then, when you get to the last 2-3 miles of your long run, you ratchet the pace up once more time to reach marathon goal pace. It’s a pretty tough finish, but it will teach you how to be mentally tough and that you can run fast even when you are tired.

Long Moderate Distance (LMD)

This is a natural progression from the LSD model. Most beginners are in the LSD mode as they just need to focus on general endurance. As that improves, they naturally run faster and this is the next logical step. Before attempting any of the other long run variations, I’d get comfortable with the LMD model.

This will again, be a new stress that will put a little more pressure on the body to burn fat better.

You’ll also be able to gain more confidence in the ability to run faster, not just farther.

The key for all that we’ve talked about with long runs is recovery and replenishment. We talk about that extensively in other places, but I have to reiterate that immediate recovery. Regardless of whether you supplemented or not during the long run with gels, you have taken your stores to critical levels. Beginning the process of replenishing these levels will allow for the adaptations we want to take place and will allow the body to bounce back quicker to do the next workout. Remember, it’s not always the work itself you did, but how you recovered from the work you just did.

Tempo Runs

While long runs are pretty fool proof, you just go out and run for a long time, the tempo run can get tricky. The goal with the marathon pace tempo is three-fold. The first, to learn how your actual race pace feels at increasingly longer distances. The second, is to maximize the running economy, fat metabolism, and aerobic capabilities. The third is to gain confidence at race pace. This last one is always big for me. A lot of people focus on the long run as their source of confidence, but all that tells you is that you can run pretty far, pretty slow. A tempo run, however, shows you that you can run pretty far at pace, all during the middle of the week. To me, it’s a much better confidence booster.

For the beginner, there tends to be a couple ways that we can’t quite get the max benefits. The first is when the runner is low mileage and just now attempting to run a tempo. Sometimes these folks are short easy runs are faster than what their goal marathon pace is. So there is the tendency to run the shorter marathon tempos at an even faster pace, since this is supposed to be a workout! The logic is definitely there, however the real problem is that the person’s general endurance is not there. I don’t get too worked up about this early on, because I know that when the mileage kicks in, the paces have a tendency to work themselves out. However, I think patience is key on tempo runs and I would stress these runners to slow down on the tempo runs and try to learn what that pace feels like. Otherwise, we do run the risk of getting hurt. The advanced runner can run these early runs quick as well, but it’s typically because the early attempts are fairly short. To you, I say the same thing- slow it down.

The bottom line is that the harder you make the early part of the training, the earlier you get into cumulative fatigue and run the risk of actual overtraining.

Now, you may experience the opposite. You may struggle early to hit your goal marathon pace. This may be true when someone is trying to make a big jump to another level. The faster you get, the tougher those adjustments become. A beginner may not even notice a 10 sec/mile adjustment as they are improving pretty rapidly, whereas an advanced runner may notice every little increase in pace. The faster you get, the less variance you have across the board in pace. The point is, if you do struggle early on, don’t give up. Your fitness on day one isn’t going to be the same level your fitness is at during the last month. If it is, we have messed up pretty bad. Let the pace come down naturally. If a number of weeks go by and you still simply can’t get the pace down, well then it might simply be a nudge to adjust your pace back a little bit.

Strength

At 10 seconds faster per mile than goal marathon pace, the initial thought a lot of times is that these will be easy. So the runner will be 15-20 seconds fast, sustain that for a rep and then start the decline to a botched workout. These are deceivingly tough, due to the higher volume, short rest, and the gradually increasing lactate levels in the blood.

When fatigue hits on these, you become well aware!

For beginners, yes, there is probably some grey area physiologically with these. However, we are still getting higher blood lactate levels in the blood, which will allow you to clear blood lactate levels much better. You will also be just below your lactate threshold, which will ultimately allow you to tolerate higher and higher levels of lactate in the future. The end goal is an increase in lactate threshold, which will mean you can run faster farther before fatigue sets in. And if you are sparing carbohydrate/glycogen, which is where lactate comes from, you are setting yourself up to be a lean mean aerobic machine.

The problem arises when you crank these too fast.

When you do that, you simply overload the body prematurely and the workout becomes survival, not training. Remember, we build fitness from the bottom up, which also means we push threshold up from the bottom, not pulling from the top. Think about it this way- we can do a lot more work when we are just under the threshold than we can when we put ourselves over the threshold right away. That’s where speed comes in.

Speed

Last but not least, and I know we have speed in the beginning of the segment. To be honest, the speed is where the mistakes are made and being at the beginning of the schedule, can really dictate how the rest of the training will go. In the traditional sense, like for 5k and 10k development, speed is more about developing top end speed and VO2max. Now, I’ll be honest, if you are a beginner, you’ll see an increase in VO2max by the culmination of everything else we are doing. For advanced runners, we aren’t looking at increasing your VO2max from 60 ml/kf/min to 62 ml/kg/min.

That’s not going to make a whole heck of a lot of difference in your marathon.

In other words, the speed we are doing is speed relative to the event training for. For the vast majority of people, this means at 10k pace. What’s the benefit in that? Well, we’ve talked about it before, but doing speedwork really fast early in a segment can cause something called acidosis, or the changing of pH in the blood. This can actually stunt the aerobic development. However this occurs at paces faster than 5k pace. On the flip side, we want some speed, but putting it at the end of a marathon segment doesn’t make much sense, either. The compromise is to back of the paces, and put it early in the marathon training block.

Side note: This is also why we don’t like marathon after marathon because you ultimately never hit any truly fast paces in training if you do.

Don’t worry, if we don’t get in 5k paces, we are still getting plenty of benefit at 10k pace. For one, our muscle fiber recruitment will improve. We can first, recruit fast twitch and intermediate fibers that may not have been used in a while. Once we “wake them up” we can start teaching them to look like what we really want- slow twitch aerobic powerhouses. And, even if we can’t change them too much, we still recruited them which will be a nice back up to when your slow twitch do gradually tire out in the late stages of the marathon. Also, at 10k pace, we really teach our body how to buffer lactate and tolerate pretty high levels. So again, this is really a little bit of precursor work to when we do strength workouts. It’s also preparing our bodies to handle much longer runs and much longer runs at faster paces through the neurological improvements and the muscle fiber recruitment improvements. The key is that going faster isn’t going to improve this.

If we shock the body too much too soon, we will stunt the very aerobic development we are trying to improve.

Being patient here will be the key to a successful segment. It is truly the foundation to being able to effectively handle all the other work we will do later on.

The last note I want to make about speed, is that the tougher we make the speed, the tougher we make the tempo, which makes the long run tougher. If we do this too much too soon, we put ourselves on a trajectory we simply cannot maintain for 18 weeks. This is the number one reason people fail at this program. Part of that is the Cumulative Fatigue and the idea that it’s not a single workout that does us in. It’s cheating the speed down a little bit, followed by a tempo that felt so good early one, followed by a long run where I just had to stay at the top end of my prescribed paces. We tend to maximize the paces we can early because they are easier, but fail to look at what effect that has on the next workout, the next week, the next month, or how we’ll be coping when we get to the 6-8 week out mark and you hate my guts! In short everything you do, doesn’t affect just today.

Every day should be an opportunity to look at your plan and think, what do I need to get done today. Nothing more, nothing less. Repeat.

Wrap Up

Knowing the purpose of what you are doing, as well as making a few mistakes along the way, are great learning points. Just don’t keep making the same mistake over and over. One thing I have found that has worked well is to program your workouts into your GPS. Yes, it takes a little bit of time, but it can keep you on point. I remember someone saying to me, “but the beeping is so annoying!” That’s the point- if you are learning how to control your pace, there’s nothing better to teach you pace than an annoying beeping noise that will only go away if you hit the pace.

I have found this to be very successful in the long term.

Another thing is rewarding yourself, but the only way you can get it is to hit your paces for a week, or two weeks. I don’t find this as effective because I would probably just buy it anyway! The point is to get creative. Make it a game, how close I can come to pace. Whatever works for you. It is work, but over time, you become a natural and those annoying beeps will only be a figment of your imagination. Anyway, these are the lessons I’ have learned the hard way over my first 85,000 miles of running and observing for my first 12 years coaching.

Some speedwork observations

May marks the annual tradition of Tuesday night speedwork seesions at Dodge Park in Utica. For those unfamiliar with the area, Dodge Park has a hard packed dirt path that winds through the main park for just short of a mile. Since most of our adult runners will never run a track race, this path is a perfect compromise for getting fast work in and being on a similar surface that they will race. Our speed sessions attract over 100 people (of all pace ranges) in the summer, and this makes it much more usable for everyone. So, at any rate, we have now completed our first three speed work sessions, and in that time, I have made some observations.

1) As much as the word “intervals” has been thrown around in mainstream running publications, the idea still seems to cause a great deal of confusion to the average runner.

Let’s start with the basics. Intervals at their basic structure are intervals of faster and slower running. They can be based on a set distance, time (or pace), or both. So, a typical Interval workout is 12×400. This means that a person will complete 12 fast intervals of 400 meters.

As far as time and pace, there are a couple ways to express an interval workout. For instance, you could express the same workout above in even more detail: 12×400 @ 5k pace. So, now we give a set pace for what the intervals should be run at.

A second way to approach the interval is by only time. When a track or loop is not available, you can simple say something like, 12×2 minutes at 5k effort. So now the emphasis is to run for a set amount of time, regardless of distance traveled. I usually only do this if a person has no idea where they are at with their fitness, or it’s winter and a track isn’t going to be accessable.

Where people really get confused: When adding a recovery jog. A complete interval workout may look something like this: 12×400 meters @ 5k pace, with 400 jog recovery. When runners see the complete workout written, they often get confused and think that everything should add up to 12. This is not the case. The number you are given in a workout is always the number of faster intervals that is being prescribed. The recovery jog whould always be listed as a seperate component.

2) Most people really don’t know how to approach intervals.

This past week’s speed session was a perfect example. We were running 600 meter intervals. Just long enough that proper pacing will be crucial for completion- by completion, I mean not having a big time discrepncy between the first and last interval. My observation was simple this week, people go out way too hard and try to end up racing their group mates. I love the group training because it gives you someone to get through the workout with, but I hate when they just try to run faster and faster until one, or more, of them break. Interval workouts are not meant for racing- that’s done on the weekends. The goal of interval workouts is to stress a specific physiological system in order to make long term training adaptations. When you start out too fast and finish way too slow, the only thing you have gotten better at is slowing down. The majority of time, that runner will do the same thing in their weekend race.

If you have to walk on your recovery you are running your intervals too fast! That’s the one thing to remember.

3) Regardless of age, speed work can make you faster.

We have all ages, men, women and kids who attend the speed nights. One thing that is constant, is that they all get faster. Maybe not in the first few weeks, but over the course of the summer, the majority are doing things that they didn’t think possible and doing them faster than when they started. If you are unsure of speedwork, I suggest finding a group. With our groups as large as they are, nobody runs alone and there is someone there who can show you the ropes.

I have seen some pretty amazing changes with runners across age groups. If you are in the Detroit Metro area, we do speedworkouts from May til October. Dodge Park, which is at Dodge Park and Utica Roads in Utica. Announcements and warm up at 6:30 PM.