Somewhere along the way the More is Better philosophy took hold with running and for years no one stopped to see if it was more of the right thing. There are still advocates today that more miles are better. It’s not that the mileage advocates aren’t getting results – they are. The issue is training more efficiently (less miles or less time), getting better or even the same results and doing it with reduced odds of getting injured. What we need is indeed more of something but it isn’t necessarily miles.
There have been numerous world-class and Olympic runners who have achieved their lofty status without the mileage-mania. They trained smarter not longer than others. But what seems to catch the media’s eye is slanted towards these great mileage accomplishments.
John Treacy (’84 marathon Silver Medalist from Ireland) when asked what his favorite marathon training was he answered, “…track workouts. There is no substitute for track workouts, none whatsoever. If you don’t know how to run fast, you’ll never run fast, irrespective of what distance you run.” I interviewed Rod Dixon (New Zealand Olympian – 3:53.6 miler and 2:08:59 marathoner ) a couple years ago. I asked him which is more important in your training – speed or distance? He responded “Speed. You do need miles but you absolutely have to have speed.”
Historically, how many world class marathoners went to that distance without first becoming “fast” at track or shorter road distances? Not many. Most often these world class marathoners were excellent track runners! However, they identified early on that though they were “fast” at a shorter distance they were not “fast enough”, so they moved up in distance. Contrary to what so many age group runners think – they did not start running long runs and then try to get faster at those distances. They developed their speed to the best they could then applied their genetic and psychological strengths and went longer.
To put into perspective what “fast enough” is, think about this. World-class marathoner personal bests in the mile typically range from the mid-3:50s to 4:10; times which will not get you much on the international scene. The average per mile pace for the world record marathon (2:04:55) is about 4:46 per mile. Even 200 miles per week won’t get you to run even one mile that fast. How many of you can do even one mile at that pace? Only running fast can get you there.
One final point on speed: How many races are run-aways? Not many. And if they are, it is due to someone having dominant speed! Watch some track, road, cross-country and marathon races on TV. Victory most often goes to the one who can run fastest at the end. That is not endurance – it is speed. (Yes, in a marathon you need endurance but it is speed that makes the difference.)
So, what exactly do age group runners need to do in order to improve? The answer for the majority of runners is more speed and speed-strength related workouts. The Law of Specificity of training is pretty clear. To be a swimmer, you need to swim; to be a cyclist, you need to bike; to run, you need to run. To do any of these fast, you must do them fast… not slow.