I had a wonderful question this past week from one of the runners I coach. He is getting great results with a new program that has added a lot more quality running than he ever had run. He asked if his past few years of running lots of longer runs and miles in general laid down a base that enabled him to improve so much.
The answer is yes and no.
Anyone who goes from couch potato to running will immediately improve on all measures of fitness (VO2max, lactate threshold, etc.). It wouldn’t matter if it were slow miles, long runs, intermediate runs, tempo runs, or interval training. So, in that way, yes all the miles he had previously run laid a nice foundation and general conditioning to launch off and show nice gains quickly!
Over the past 10 plus years some wonderful research has been done around the world (France, Finland, New Zealand to mention a few) that show another side to conditioning. The old method and philosophy of training at Long Slow Distance (LSD) for a “base period” has suffered major blows. Those researchers are showing that right from the start introducing interval-like work not only affects all the same fitness markers as “miles and miles of running” but it also does it in less dedicated workout time. That makes it more efficient training. Think about it – same or better results with less time in the activity. And, interval type training does something that slow miles do not do: it makes you faster. Through neuromuscular training you specifically train your muscles to “fire” fast instead of slow. We now know that slow running begets slow runners and surprise, surprise fast running begets fast runners.
So, this is where all those base miles do not provide that unique “base” formerly thought. That very same “base” could have been attained through interval training and combinations of all the training methods.
OK now here is the caveat. (Where would we be without your caveat of the day?) Any training – long and slow or short and fast – has to be entered into gradually. You would not want to start running 60 mile weeks straight off the couch. Likewise you don’t want to hit the track and sprint all out for four sets of 4×400 meters. You are asking for injury in either case. [Though statistically, higher mileage has a higher correlation to injuries.]
The important thing is to gradually introduce whatever type of training you want to do. Even with extensive backgrounds (i.e. base) in running to jump into hill training 3 times a week will get you injured fast! If you gradually and progressively introduce quality, your tendons, muscles, joints and ligaments will adapt and you will progress.
By the way, gradual is a relative term. It is not the same for everyone. You manage introducing new aspects of training by working with all three major elements of training: intensity, duration and frequency.
The message is that you do not need to wait to do faster running. Do it now. Benefit now.