Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Progression, Specificity of Training, and the Value of Having a Coach

The other day, my friend Luke wrote a commentary on his progression as a climber versus his progression as a runner. I told him I was going to comment on his post, but I felt that there was some value to posting it on here.

First, a little background. I met Luke sophomore year of college, when two of my teammates and I decided to check out the rock climbing wall. Luke was one of the better climbers: super strong, and extremely dedicated to not only his own improvement, but also the progression of the people with whom he climbed. After graduation, Luke began running, jumping in pretty hardcore and managing to qualify for Boston in his first marathon, though climbing remains his primary endeavor. Anyway, if you haven't read his blog post yet, Luke compares and contrasts his running training with his climbing training. For the most part, he's pretty spot on. However, I did want to make a few comments pertaining to the later progression of running.

When I first started climbing, anything I did would lead to some type of improvement. It didn't matter if I was doing actual training or just messing around, because it all equated to more strength and better technique. As long as I didn't overdo it and destroy the tendons in my forearms, I was good. Luke talks about this in his second paragraph, so I won't go into any more detail. The same is true for running. As I learn more and more about the physiology of running, it becomes clearer and clearer that my high school coach's greatest talent was his incredible ability to motivate his athletes. He didn't give us training paces, he didn't really vary our workouts much (99% of them were Daniels style interval workouts), and he mainly raced us into shape. Yet everyone on that team improved, and the boys' team was undefeated in the conference for 13 seasons and had a state championship to its name. How is that possible? Well, as I stated earlier, my coach was fantastic at motivating his athletes to work, and in the beginning, any kind of work will yield results. Will some types of training yield better results than others? Sure, but early on, some gains can be made with any type of training. As Luke stated in his post, beginning runners can find a training program from the internet or a book, and as long as they're willing to work, they will see some measure of improvement.

While this early improvement comes fast and furious, eventually your performance will plateau. For me, this happened senior year of high school. I got about as fast as I was going to get doing that particular type of training. This is when having a coach who can write plans specific to your strengths and weaknesses, as well as specific to your goals, can come in handy. Here's an example for you. Imagine we have two runners, Runner A and Runner B, who are training for the 5000m. Runner A is a 1500m specialist. She's packed with Type II muscle fibers and brings speed to the table. Runner B is a half-marathoner. She's made up of primarily Type I muscle fibers and is more distance-oriented.  Technically, both of these runners could download a generic 5K plan off the internet and follow it. However, assuming they've both been training seriously for the 5000m for a few years, it's doubtful that the internet plan is going to offer them an ideal training plan, and a generic plan isn't going to cater to these runners' specific strengths and weaknesses. On the other hand, a coach can write a plan specific to each runner that plays to each runner's strength. For example, Runner A may begin the season with short, fast repeats and gradually increase distance (while decreasing speed so the longer distance can be handled), while Runner B may begin the season with longer, slower repeats and gradually increase speed (while decreasing distance so the faster speed can be handled). Daniels goes into more depth about this in his book Daniels' Running Formula, a must-read for anyone who may, at some point, choose to coach themselves (and a good read even for those who have a coach). Another thing to consider is each girl's ability to tolerate certain types of training. Some people run best off 140 mile weeks. Others can handle 90 in singles, but throw in doubles and they break down. And then there are others who get hurt whenever they go above 70, and do their best training at 50. Then you have your runners who can do three quality sessions per week, versus your runners who do better off of two. Some athletes can handle 20 mile quality days, while others need to keep their quality days below 12 (though maybe that athlete who does the 12 mile quality days has no problem hitting 20 the day after). And then there are athletes who absolutely need a day off every week. More training, whether in volume or intensity, does not always equal better. Better training is simply what equates to better performance for you. (This is not, however, an excuse to slack off...the vast majority of runners do not run as many miles as required for their bodies to perform ideally) A coach is able to recognize these traits in runners, and will write a training plan specific to each individual athlete.

Alright, this has nothing to do with Luke's blog post anymore, other than the fact that training for running isn't all that much different than training for climbing. No matter what your sport of choice, don't just train for the sake of training. To quote Luke, "Once you start to plateau (in climbing or running), take a moment and try to figure out what's stopping you." Additionally, I'd encourage you to keep a log, which will help you to determine your ideal training circumstances. Specific and personalized training will help you to make the best use of your training time and efforts, especially when you've found your performance plateauing doing less specific training.


  1. Good points. I think one of the main things I took away from my stints training for running was knowing what I wanted. When I trained for a marathon I had a very specific goal in both time and distance.

    I feel many climbers lack such a quantifiable goal. Knowing what you need to work towards can be a huge benefit so you can be focused with your training and start eliminating weaknesses.

    Knowing what training is most effective for each person is a very complex topic and one I am only just beginning to understand. Back to the books!

  2. Hey Becki,

    I was just preaching the logbook thing in one of my recent posts.

    I was wondering if you would take a look at one of my posts that deals with interval training. I compare work I did from 1997-1999 to 2007-2009. Any comments? I'd be interested in hearing what you think about it.



  3. Luke, I think a lot of runners lack a quantifiable goal too. It's safer not to have a specific, time-limited goal, since without a goal, you can't actually fail. But without a goal, you can't succeed either. I feel like your climbing has helped you well in that respect, in that you already knew how to pin down a goal and go for it. Or it could be your personality, that as a focused, goal-driven person, you will tend towards specific goals in whatever you attempt. And knowing what training is most effective for each person is what separates a good coach from a mediocre coach. And I agree, it's super complex!

    Ken, I did see that post. It's really hard to just look at interval work without the rest of the picture though. How fast were you running those workouts, and what were your race times during each segment? Were the paces appropriate for your fitness level at that time? What kind of recovery were you giving yourself between repeats? Between workouts? You list a weekly mileage, but was it fairly consistent or is that an average? Were you doing any cross-training? What did the months preceding these training cycles look like? What did the rest of your life look like, outside of running? I want to leave you with one piece of food for thought though, and that's a comment on your first sentence of that post. Are long runs the best way to improve endurance, or is consistent mileage the best way to improve endurance? It's a pretty hotly contested topic right now. George Malley (Malmo on LetsRun) and the Hansons both deemphasize the long run. So does the long run fall into the different people train different ways? Or is it a myth that dates back to Pfitz's book, which Malmo commented on by saying "Pfitzinger never trained like he proposes in his books...what he writes is for those people who are not going to properly train for a marathon, so his schedules are more or less a patch. Since they aren't going to put in the event specific mileage, he has them put in thses [sic] disproportionate long runs becasue [sic] 'they have to do something."


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