Varied Training Approaches for Running Events

Written by Jenn Brooks, NASM CPT, CES; USATF running coach

Multiple Training Approaches to Run Performance
One hears a lot about specificity in training, and it is certainly true that some very reliable ways to run faster are to run more, run faster, or both. Do you want faster race times?  Run faster intervals in training. Are you racing a challenging distance? Practice longer segments of runs at goal pace. These approaches generally work.  However, there are some good reasons why this is not always feasible or even necessarily best.  Can you train for a running event solely by running?  Of course, but I don’t recommend it.  Unless you have been blessed with biomechanical perfection and a variety of available running surfaces, it’s a great setup for injury.  Can you train for a running event without running at all?  Yes, but I wouldn’t recommend that either.  There are aspects of running, such as cadence, force transfer, and repetitive fatigue that are very hard to equate in other training modes. So, what are some factors to consider when putting together a training plan and deciding to when to run and when to cross train?

What are the limiters?  
Evaluate the distance and course of your goal event, and try to find limiting factors that can be addressed without running.  Are there a number of long downhills? Quadricep fatigue may be a stronger limiter than aerobic fatigue.  Steep climbs are likely to send hip flexors on strike, particularly if you have underactive glutes.  Multiple or very long sustained climbs can be pretty evil to achilles tendons and calf muscles (Mt. Washington Road Race runners, I’m talking to you), and a long, flat course can be punishing to stabilizing muscles such as the posterior tibialis. Often, particularly in longer races, it is a failure to maintain form due to muscle overload, or simply straight up muscle failure, that becomes a major limiting factor.  These factors can be addressed without running, and it may even be preferable to do so.  Targeted strength training against your identified limiting factors allows you to focus on activating the right muscles, with the right form, without risking further breakdown through running.   Running is an activity that happens at high speed; odds are good when running you will use the muscles your brain is in the habit of using.  Overactive quads will remain overactive, and an anteriorly tilted pelvis will be very comfortable maintaining an anterior tilt. Strength training gives you the time and control to retrain your neuromuscular system to hold new alignments and to move in a more balanced effort.  Strength training also allows you to mimic the specific demands of the course without incurring the damage of running.

What are the goals of the workout, and can the benefits be achieved in another way?
Long runs provide some unique stresses; they train the mind to be comfortable running farther, train the digestive system to accept hydration and fuel simultaneous to significant cardiovascular demand, train connective tissue in the ankles and knees to endure sustained stress without injury.  Tempo runs and interval workouts also provide unique benefits that are difficult to match with a different activity; they create a familiarity with faster cadences, teach the body to run with greater power, teach the stomach not to revolt at high intensity jostling.  While the cardiovascular and overall fitness gains that come from speedwork can certainly be matched on a bike or in the pool, it is difficult to come by these subsidiary benefits that are unique to running.  Easy days, however, are another story.  The goal of moderate and easy runnings days is typically to increase blood flow, train cardiovascular systems, and set the body up for the next hard effort.  None of these benefits is unique to running.  They can easily be achieved through other workouts, and an argument could be made that this approach facilitates greater recovery by stressing different systems.

Cost Benefit Analysis
This is the part that runners are generally pretty bad at.  What are the risks to running a training session, and are the benefits worth it?  (Hint: most of us prefer to run, and we are remarkably good at convincing ourselves the answer is yes even when all evidence points to the contrary). If you are heading into the weekend after a strong week of training with little to no pain or movement compensations, the benefits of running long will likely well outweigh the risks.  In this case the long run is almost certain to net positive, with the significant stress of the workout leading to fitness gains.  Now let’s say you’ve had a frustrating training week.  Knee pain you first noticed on Monday has been gradually building, you’ve caught yourself favoring that leg, and by Friday you can only describe your running experience as miserable. Will a long run this weekend lead to increased fitness, or breakdown?  If you start the long run you will either cut it short or power through.  If the former, you’ve just lost the benefits of the workout, and if the latter, odds are good you’ve just lost another week (or more!) of quality training because you were stubborn and now you can’t walk without limping.  In this case the far better scenario is to crosstrain, approximating the physiological stresses of the long run as closely as possible while taking a biomechanical break from running impacts so that the overstressed tissues can recover quickly.

If you are someone who rarely gets injured and who really just wants to run, then you are probably fine running most workouts with just a couple of strength training workouts per week to prevent muscle imbalances and maintain mobility.  However, that is not most people.  If you are prone to injury, or dealing with time and availability factors that making getting runs in a challenge, it may be  worth delegating your moderate efforts to cross training and focusing on making the days you run high quality days.  And in all cases, if a run is likely to push a nagging pain into a true injury, cross training is the better bet.

— Jenn Brooks, NASM CPT, CES; USATF running coach