19. März 2021

Swiss Trail Tour, Training Differently

After more than a decade of running, I figured it’s time to understand how training actually works. Unsurprisingly, after digging through three books on the art and science of exercise, I have changed how I train for the Swiss Trail Tour this year. Maybe such research will change your training, too.

Last year, I took the online course The Science of Exercise by Robert Mazzeo [1] after a recommendation from a friend. It was the first step to get me more interested about why, what & how training works. For example, this course taught me about maximum oxygen intake and the cardiovascular system. I also looked into Lactate Threshold Training by Peter Janssen [2], of which I cared about the accessible introduction into how muscles are supplied with energy. Curiosity about nutrition lead me to taking the online course Food as Medicine by Monash University [3].

This year, my curiosity took me further towards more running-specific material. I expanded my bookshelf by three additional books: Run Faster from the 5K to the Marathon by Brad Hudson [4], Brain Training by Matt Fitzgerald [5], and The Science of Running by Steve Magness [6].

Why read three books? I think it is because I identify more with the fox than the hedgehog and prefer to look at multiple models about training before being ready to change my own training habits, based on a single big idea. It’s also useful to hear opposing views, or see the same concept named or approached differently. All three books, though, turned out to have their merits and I subsequently made changes to my training.

I was never a big friend of detailed training plans. Or so I thought. In fact, reality is a bit more nuanced and I am in fact just reluctant to let my training plan dictate my life. But having absolutely no training plan is the other extreme, particularly when you’re a bit ambitious, after all. Thus, I realized that I might be able to have it both─a training plan, and having the last word about it.

Robert Mazzeo’s The Science of Exercise is a great foundation. This course explained me how to frame training using four broad principles: the principles of (1) overload, (2) specificity, (3) reversibility, and (4) individuality. There are two reasons why I find these useful. First, these principles help me doing further literature research. For example, a lot of the content of the three running-specific books can be─unsurprisingly, maybe─mapped to these principles. Second, these principles can also map to common sense, and that’s useful because I don’t want to end up in a place where I do a literature survey every time before I go on a run.

The overload principle states that that your body adapts when stressed─this is the very foundation of why training works. The specificity principle states that only the systems stressed will adapt. The reversity principle states─essentially─that if you don’t use it, you lose it. Finally, the individuality principle says that while we’re all human, everyone responds differently to training to a certain extent.

I moved on to reading Brad Hudson’s Run Faster from the 5K to the Marathon, which I found written in an accessible style, which I found quite enjoyable. Until I reached the page showing a weekly mileage chart: according to which, with my weekly mileage, I do not even count as a beginner. I had already known that 25 km / week were on the low end, particularly for a (ultra) long distance runner. But this confirmed my suspicions that I likely needed to get up from the sofa and out running more if I wanted to progress, whether e.g. over 10 km distance on which my first ever race after nearly a decade was still my fastest.

Thus, I increased the weekly distance slowly from 25 km to 50 km per week over the past three months, doing so slowly in order to reduce chances of injury whilst increasing the distance. I have a dashboard and a daily email report that shows me a trailing 7-day average over running distance, which I use both for training more consistently, and to hold myself back when noticing that I move into unchartered territories in terms of training volume.

The second thing I learnt from Brad Hudson’s book was his Adaptive Running Principles, a golden nugget. You may already have figured by now that I am a sucker for principles. So why a golden nugget? Because one of the principles clearly states how the training plan must be adapted daily. So you create a training plan just in order to destroy it in light of recent, better information? That sounded pragmatic to me: having no plan is usually worse than having a plan, but sticking to the plan for the sake of sticking to the plan is foolish.

Inspired, now, I am scheduling my training for each day in a spreadsheet roughly 1-2 weeks ahead, with a forward-projecting 7-day average and also expected effort (rest, recovery, easy. moderate, hard) in order to make sure I put in a good mix of easier and harder training efforts. This plan includes some coarser milestones like (unofficial) races sprinkled over the months, and with a rough idea in my head on what to emphasize in which section of the training season. I’m starting modestly here, though, avoiding getting too excited while planning, and contenting myself with improving training gradually whilst not ever losing sight of the fact that I do running for fun.

Taking a step back, it’s easy to cargo-cult stuff from training plans. I still want to have an idea on why something might work when incorporated into training. This is where Magness’ book The Science of Running has turned out to be a treasure. In particular, Steve Magness has both background as professional coach and in sports science. His writing is more focused around critical treatment of the subject at hand rather than accelerating a hype or feeding the latest fad. Therefore, I can warmly recommend this book for its fairly extensive, critical treatment of the science of running, in theory and practice.

Scheduling training only 1-2 weeks ahead misses the bigger picture, and that’s how to progress training towards the race, in my case the Swiss Trail Tour (see Swiss Trail Tour, Beginning or Comeback). How to avoid training to have a horizon of only two weeks?

A particular practical model I found in Magness’ book was the multifaceted base pyramid model, which explains how to structure training over longer cycles (a.k.a. periodization). He succinctly puts it as

Start backwards. Work the extremes. Bring it together. Never leave anything behind. Progress everything. (Steve Magness)

I will not be able to treat this in detail, but I found this a very handy and memorable sentence. I am using this sentence as a crude mechanism when evaluating whether my training makes sense.

“Starting backwards” means focusing on the goal, which in my case is predominantly about completing the three-day stage race over 103 km and 6000 m elevation gain in total, along with looser constraints on target pace. “Work the extremes” means to start in the training with what Magness calls “general endurance” and “general speed”; both providing the foundation for later moving from generic towards specific which will “bring it together” such to meet the race-specific demands. “Never leave anything behind” is referring to the principle of reversibility, so training adaptations must be maintained over the season. Finally, “progress everything” relates to the overload principle, and reminds me that in order to see training effects, I need to increase what I demand of my body over the season.

I am still very much at the beginning of understanding the collective experience of training, gained by coaches and athletes over the past decades. I am still very much at the beginning of understanding the science behind exercise, the science specifically behind running. I am still working on understanding how to best package up the science and experience into a set of principles, which in turn I can use to shape my actual training in practice. This is a journey, and my goal with this article was both to sort my thoughts and hope to inspire you to let your curiosity guide you through a similar journey of learning. A journey about learning how to perfect the training, not a journey how to train to be perfect.

References

  1. Mazzeo, Robert. n.d. “Science of Exercise | Coursera.” Coursera. Accessed May 23, 2020. https://www.coursera.org/learn/science-exercise.
  2. Janssen, Peter Gjm. 2001. Lactate Threshold Training. Elsevier.
  3. “Food as Medicine | Monash University.” n.d. Accessed 2020. https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/food-as-medicine.
  4. Hudson, Brad, and Matt Fitzgerald. 2008. Run Faster from the 5K to the Marathon: How to Be Your Own Best Coach. Three Rivers Press.
  5. Fitzgerald, Matt. 2007. Brain Training For Runners: A Revolutionary New Training System to Improve Endurance, Speed, Health, and Results. Penguin.
  6. Magness, Steve. 2014. The Science of Running: How to Find Your Limit and Train to Maximize Your Performance. Origin Press.