Finding new, imaginative and most importantly, effective ways of training is a relatively common pass time for most runners. Whether you have reached a bit of a plateau in performance and are looking for ways to break through, or you are simply searching for new ways of mixing up your training, Googling “Mo Farah’s training program” is something I am pretty certain at least half the people reading this article have done at some point. And sure enough, there are websites out there that claim to shed light on the programs and routines of the world’s best endurance runners. You may even stumble across detailed training logs of Olympic medallists, complete with their split times for certain workouts and what they ate beforehand. But, aside from providing us with a deep appreciation of just how hard the athletes at the top of their game really work, can amateur runners take anything away from reading the programs of elites?
To answer this question, I want to first talk about the concept of base training, but perhaps in a slightly more abstract sense than you may have come across before. Most runners have heard of base training, or ‘the base phase’ and, whether or not they realised they were doing it, have probably done some form of base training when getting ready for a big race.
If you are unsure what base training is then you can learn more about it in one of our previous blog posts here.
But as a quick recap, an easy way to visualise what base training is, is to think about building a house. If you want to build a strong, sturdy house, you first need a strong foundation. The stronger and deeper this foundation is, the taller you can build your house. So moving away from structural engineering and coming back to running, what does this foundation consist of? Generally we build our foundation in endurance running by creating a very strong aerobic system. This means, among other things, doing plenty of easy mileage along with threshold and endurance work. During base training we also want to focus on making our bodies more robust and efficient, which is where strength training and, to an extent, speed training comes into play. Circuit training, core exercises, weight training, short hill sprints and strides after some of your runs, all help to strengthen your body, enabling you to handle more running without becoming injured. The high mileage also adds to this. Plenty of running at an easy pace strengthens the joints, muscles and tendons which again, allows us to do more and harder training later in the season.
Not only does having a strong base help us to stave off injury when we come to do the hard, race pace workouts later in the year, it also makes those workouts more effective. Proper base training leads to beneficial adaptations at a cellular level, including higher mitochondrial density, increased capillarisation, a stronger heart muscle, and more, all of which contribute to an overall better aerobic system. This means that when the time comes we can do longer, harder workouts at, or close to, our race pace that are more challenging for our mind and body. We are able to push harder during these workouts, handle them better and recover from them faster.
But base training isn’t something we do once and then we’re good to go. It’s something we work on over time, year in, year out and the effects are cumulative. The more we work on our foundation, the deeper, wider and stronger it becomes, ultimately allowing us to handle harder, higher quality workouts.
So, knowing that creating a strong foundation is essential for high quality training and racing, let me revert back to our housing analogy again. Most amateur runners, whether you run causally with some friends or train more seriously with a club or a coach, have over time, built a solid foundation; enough to build a house on. Perhaps some runners have been running upward of 40 – 50 miles per week for many years, including some pretty tough endurance sessions; their base is strong enough to build a block of flats on. But let’s take a look at elites, while also bearing in mind that the programs we find online are those of world class, Olympic runners. These guys are building skyscrapers! In the case of Eliud Kipchoge, Seb Coe, Tirunesh Dibaba, for example, we are talking The Empire State Building, Burj Khalifa and the Eiffel Tower, not a house or a block of flats. And if you want to build yourself a skyscraper then what do you need? You guessed it, you need a super strong foundation, one that is far wider and deeper than that of an average house on the street.
Bringing us back to the point of this article then, is copying the training of world class athletes a good idea? Well, ask yourself, what happens if you try to build a skyscraper on a weak, or even non-existent, foundation? I’m no expert on structures, but inevitably, you will only get so far before the building comes crumbling down. I am sure at this point I need not draw comparisons between a crumbling building and an injured or over trained runner for you, I will leave that to your own imagination.
My take away message from this article is not “don’t look at elite athletes’ training programs”, but rather “remember to consider the amount of work they put in before getting to that stage”. So take ideas and inspiration from their training logs and snippets of their programs, but copying them, in any capacity, will likely end in disaster.
If you really want to copy what the elites are doing, then you should not look at their training at the peak of their careers, but rather what they were doing in the years/decades before hand. In part two of this article I will talk about what we can learn from the elites and the lessons we can take away from looking at their programs.
Thanks for reading
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About the Author
Callum Jones is an engineering master’s graduate of the University of Bristol and middle distance runner who has spent long periods of time training in Kenya. He began working for the Kenya Experience in October 2017.
“I’ve been an aspiring distance runner for the last 10 years and worked hard to improve my times year after year. Training in Iten was an incredible experience for me, it really took my running and love for the sport to a new level and opened my eyes to a whole new mentality towards training. Working for Kenya Experience is fantastic as I can offer my knowledge of the sport and insight into the Kenyan running culture with our guests.”