If-Then Myths of Running

I often hear questions, comments or even advice about training that reflect what I call the “If-Then Myths of Running”. They follow the basic formula of “…IF I do this THEN I must be able to do that…” Here is a list of some of the more popular ones and the facts.

If I train the same as {insert name of choice} then I should be just as good.

One of the most basic misconceptions that exists. It is why so many runners think that if they just do exactly what the Olympians do that they also will inevitably improve to that level. The fact is that the elite runners are elite for any number of reasons and yes, training is one of them. However, genetically they also have the ability to sustain that level and intensity of training. They have also gradually over many years increased to those levels. Unlike the average runner who “decides” to just increase their mileage from 40 to 100 miles per week these elite do so over years. Compare this to Coach Joe Vigil who coached Deena Kastor out of college and took her from 80 to 120 mile weeks over a 3 year span.

If I can run {insert a time or pace} in the 100F degrees then I’ll really be flying and beat everyone when it’s 60F degrees!

True, you may indeed be able to do well in the heat and indeed you are running slower than in cooler weather. But heat training does not help you run faster in cooler weather. Given all else being equal, you most likely will outrun someone in 100F degrees who has trained in 60F degrees but the reverse is not true. Running in the heat requires acclimatization which you are doing and the 60-degree runner isn’t. Advantage you. In moderate temperatures however no adaptation is needed therefore your advantage disappears. Furthermore here is a training fact: It is likely the 60-degree runner is getting to do better quality and quantity training on a regular basis than you are if you are exposed to 100F degrees daily. The net training effect is that you will lose your neuromuscular training to run faster. Advantage 60-degree runner.

If I run hills and do hard hill repeats then I will be faster than everyone else who doesn’t.

Hills do make you stronger. Hard hill repeats make you stronger yet! But, strong is not fast. You will be at an advantage against anyone who doesn’t do hill training on a hilly course. Hill training however – though power generating – also yields slower leg turnover. Given a flat course, your reduced leg turnover – and therefore speed – will suffer. Advantage goes to the person who didn’t do hill training but did high quality training for a flat course. The key to hill training is that it is ONE phase of your training and by itself will not make you fast. The next step is to take that strength and transition to high quality training to boost your overall speed to the next level.

If my running form is better then I will beat {insert name}.

This is a controversial one. Certainly if your form dramatically detracts from your race speed or causes injuries then you should attend to your form. However, there is absolutely no such thing as a picture perfect form. It might exist in a text book. There may be a couple people in the world who mimic it. But, even at the elite levels, their running forms are all over the board. The most important thing is to have the best running form for YOU. No one is put together the same. Really. We may have the same parts but biomechanically we are different. Bones and muscles are not all perfectly attached and aligned. We are not created equal (sorry to burst bubbles on that one). So, forget what someone else looks like – get YOUR biomechanics to be the most efficient possible by training right. Stop trying to be someone else.

If I run more miles then I’ll be faster.

This is another yes-no myth. In the beginning, of course miles count. You have to get in shape and from couch potato to running requires that you build up some miles. In which case, any miles will make you faster than the couch potato. For the novice runner, more miles will yield some positive results. But, even for the novice, they will improve EVEN FASTER by adding quality training – not just more miles – regardless of how many weekly miles they run. For experienced runners, in most cases, most of the time, adding quality training will get you faster – not more miles. Though VO2max can be improved by increasing mileage up through 70 miles per week the problem is that VO2max is a poor indicator of performance. So, though this physiological measurement is improved by increased miles, it does not correlate as well as other measures. vVO2max and lactate threshold and sprint speeds have been shown to be more predictive in performance than VO2max in various studies. And these are best improved through quality not quantity of training miles. So, to move from 40 miles of slow running to 70 miles of slow running will not make you faster. Slow begets slow.


About Dean Hebert

I’m a mental game coach, author and speaker. I work with individual athletes, parents, coaches, and teams on sports performance enhancement. Beyond my academic post-graduate work in sports psychology - the psychology behind athlete performance – I am a certified Mental Games Coaching Professional (MGCP) and certified hypnotherapist. I’ve authored several books and hundreds of articles. “Coach, I didn’t run because…” (2008) is a seriously light-hearted look at making excuses not to workout and how to overcome them. “Focus for Fitness” (2009) and “Screw the Goals Give me the Donut” (2010) are two of my eBooks on mental game approaches for the everyday athlete. I wrote these because I believe that everyone can benefit from the powerful mental techniques that the world’s best athletes use. I have been cited in Runners World, Best Health magazine (CN), SWEAT Magazine, and the Washington Examiner amongst many other publications. I have been a featured mental games coach in Runner’s World and for the internationally acclaimed trail running resource - trailrunningclub.com. I also regularly appear on sports and fitness talk shows such as LTKFitness, Runnersroundtable and for more than three years I have co-hosted a weekly video series with Coach Joe English for Running-Advice.com. I specialize in mental toughness training. My clients include tennis, synchronized swimming, golf, race-kart, soccer, motocross, volleyball, MMA, cycling (road, off-road, time-trialist), running, duathlon and triathlon, basketball, football and baseball athletes. I have coached world-class athletes and athletes internationally. I have a passion for working with youth athletes and helping them apply mental game skills and techniques to all areas of life. Most importantly, my aim is to have people enjoy sports and life to their fullest through peak performances.
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5 Responses to If-Then Myths of Running

  1. Aric Keith says:

    I think it’s probably worth defining what “slow” is in the context of this discussion, Coach Dean. When you point out that more slow miles won’t make you faster, obviously that’s true if “slow” means something like marathon pace + :90, right? But it does seem that runners who run closer to the top of their “aerobic” zone do, in fact, get faster when they add more miles. So if you’re running a fairly well-structured 40 mile/week plan, and gradually increase that to a well-structured 70 mile/week plan you will certainly improve. Would you agree?

    • Dean Hebert says:

      Slow is defined as your easy miles which of course is relative to the person. If you are a marathoner and you add GOAL PACED marathon miles, that would be a good thing. The problem is that most runners do not do this. Most runners add an extra easy run in the week, or a few more miles to their easy runs or a few more miles to their long runs… thinking this will make them faster… and that is a myth. The reason Kenyans are fast marathoners is because they run 30-35% of their miles at 10k pace or faster. First – what runner do you know has 30% of their miles at that pace? Even 20% at that pace? Right… almost none. Second, if they do have that ratio of quality miles at 40 mpw how many when they move to 70 ALSO keep the same ratio of quality miles? Right… almost none. So, the bottom-line is that the VAST majority of runners this is all a myth. These runners would benefit FAR FAR more by staying at 40 miles per week and moving from their 15-20% quality miles up to 30-35% quality miles. Period. Once there, then looking at more miles to get to the next level would be reasonable… and even then, only if they maintain their ratio of quality miles.

      • Mark says:

        Coach Dean, I’d need to work this out in my head a little bit. Let’s say 9 minute/mile is my goal pace for a marathon I am training for. Let’s also say that I am running 70 miles per week.

        20 percent of 70 miles is 14 miles. 35 percent of 70 miles is 24.5 miles.

        So, if I want to run 24.5 miles per week at 10K pace or faster, and given that a 10K is 6.2 miles, doesn’t that mean that I have to run the equivalent of (24.5 divided by 6.2) almost 4 10Ks each week.

        This is not just the distance I am worried about. But the pace too. When a runner actually runs a 10K at the 10K pace, that’s a lot of fatigue. Do you really put a runner through a 10K pace 4 times per week, week after week after week?

        Even at the lower mileage, 40 miles total per week. 14 miles would be at 10K or faster pace. 14 miles is still more than 2 10K distances at 10K pace. Does a runner really benefit from doing this much fast running each and every week, in addition to the marathon goal paced miles?

      • Dean Hebert says:

        First, YES the elite Kenyan runners are indeed running that kind of quality miles. That is the #1 difference in their training – NOT 120 mile weeks! I have a good friend PhD physiologist who lived with them and studied them. They do far fewer miles than you read about but their quality is insanely high. But on average that is where they get to (ratio of quality). So of course, that percentage is not for the novice runner. As to your scenario: No one should jump from 40 miles a week to 70 with or without quality. That would take up to a year to do properly and minimize injury. The first step is to get your quality up from10-15% (the usual percentage for age group runners) up to 15-20% and eventually to 20-25%. The quality runs are mixed in a well designed program with mile, 5k and 10k paced workouts… not just 10k paced. Also when done as intervals or Fartleks, etc. it tends to not beat your body up quite the same as a 10k race. Your marathon goal paced miles should not be any big deal unless of course you are accustomed to running lots of longer slower miles. I would NOT have a runner go out and typically do some 8 mile easy (slower than MGP) run just to add miles to their schedule. I have had 2:30-2:40 marathoners doing 45-50 miles per week (max) and a couple on just 3-4 days a week of training. It is what you do with your miles, not just the miles that counts.

  2. Aric Keith says:

    That makes perfect sense. I often see people explain how nothing beats lots of slow base miles, to which I always want to reply, “Imagine how much faster you’d be if you ran EVEN SLOWER!” Because, of course, the statement makes no sense. Running more miles gives you the opportunity to run more fast miles in proportion.

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