My Running (Training) Philosophy

It's been two years. I'd offer an explanation for why I haven't posted in so long, but there is no need to do that since, after all, no one's reading this, anyway.

First, some recent context: I spent last year training very hard and dedicating myself to discovering the ins and outs of "Zone 2 training." This, of course, is very vogue now - and especially so last year - but all it really amounts to is undertaking a large volume of slow training, in pursuit of a higher VO2 max and better "metabolic fitness." I'll say more on that in a moment. What I want to say here is that I found Zone 2 training to be a very useful intervention for me, personally. I needed it, and lots of it. 

Unlike the dogmatists, however, I do not see Zone 2 training as a panacea or a way to unlock secret potential you haven't yet tapped. I see it more or less the same way Dr. Inigo San Millan sees it: as an important intervention for those who require an endurance correction. I needed that, and I got it.

What happened next for me was that I angered the Zone 2 gods (i.e. triathlon gurus on Twitter) by suggesting that too much Zone 2 training is a bad thing, by making note of the fact that many, many fast 5K and 10K runners are successful at much lower training volumes (e.g. Parker Valby winning the NCAA cross-country championship on 30 miles per week), and by emphasizing that quality miles matter far more than an enormous quantity of Zone 2 miles.

No, the gods didn't like that much, and banished me to the outer darkness. So here I am, back on my blog, where I can write whatever I want to, and no one reads it anyway. And today, I'd like to write about how I see training for running, in a sort of philosophical way.

Long-time readers will remember that that's kind of where this blog started, so I've come full circle. Let's begin now.

The Three Axes of Running Development

As I see it, a runner develops along three distinct "axes" as he trains:
  1. Muscular development
  2. Bio-energetic development, i.e. cardiovascular and metabolic fitness
  3. Biomechanical development, i.e. running form
Let me introduce these three concepts in a way that you might have recognized as you yourself have run over the years.

As you train, you may have found that, during some kinds of workouts, you can't go any faster because your muscles are burning and they won't move your body any faster than it's currently moving. Strengthening these muscles and conditioning them through running will address this problem, and over time, you should find that muscular development is no longer the obstacle it once was.

During other workouts, you may have noticed that you can't go any faster because you're gasping for breath, your heart is pounding, or you've spent all your energy already and now you're totally cooked. In this case, you need more "bio-energetic development." In other words, you need a healthier cardiovascular system and/or more Zone 2 training to improve your metabolic efficiency. Once having done this, you'll find that you can almost run forever without getting tired, provided your muscles can do the work (see above).

At other times, you may find that your muscles and your cardiovascular fitness seem fine, but you can't seem to keep up with other runners who are just inexplicably faster than you. They're not just faster in Zone 2 or Zone 4 or in a sprint. They're faster at all levels of effort. No matter how hard you train, you can't seem to access that extra gear that other people seem to have. Why not? Likely because your running form is preventing you from really striding out like you need to. Addressing your running form issues will put you on a level you never thought you would be.

Now that you know what my "running axes" are, let's talk briefly about how to improve along each individual axis.

Improving Your Muscular Development

I'll keep this short.

Improving your "muscular development," or in other words, conditioning your running muscles, typically happens one of two ways: Lifting weights and running fast.

The faster you run, the more the effort shifts away from your calves and quads and into your hamstrings and glutes. You can see this easily by comparing running injuries between distance runners and sprinters. Sprinters more frequently pull their hamstrings, often right there during the race; distance-runners more often pull their calves, hips, Achilles tendons, etc. But even if you're distance-running, the faster you run, the more engaged your glutes and hamstrings will be.

Thus, many runners who are seeking to get faster need to ensure that their glutes and hamstrings are stronger. That is, these muscles must be stronger than they have become merely by Zone 2 jogging around for 100 miles per week. More jogging won't get you this kind of strength. What you need is a direct intervention via training.

Resistance training is infamously under-utilized among runners, but it's probably the best place to start. Just doing some squats, lunges, bridges, and leg curls once or twice a week, progressively increasing the weight until you feel different about your muscles will go a long way toward improving your muscular development. A tremendous benefit of lifting weights is that it doesn't count as "running miles," so you're not over-training in terms of running by adding a strength workout to your training regimen.

While you're at it, don't forget to train the rest of your running muscles, too: quads and calves, especially. You don't want to create muscle or form imbalances by focusing too much on one part of your leg and not training the other part at all.

That said, lifting weights will only work if you put your newly strengthened muscles to good use on the road. That's when we come to running fast, i.e. sprint intervals. Sprint intervals, "anaerobic training," "Zone 5 training," etc., all these terms amount to the same thing. What you want to do is spend a good, solid amount of time running as fast as you possibly can. Think about running 10-20 repetitions of 100-400 meters each. And it will be all the better for your muscles if you do these intervals uphill

Sprinting and weight-lifting will also make positive changes to your running form, your metabolic efficiency, and in some cases also your VO2 max. But remember that the primary goal of muscular development is to build your running muscles so that they're strong enough to be faster.

Improving Your Bio-Energetic Profile

If you find yourself gasping for breath when trying to finish a big workout (especially a tempo run), it might be time to improve your bio-energetic profile. If you find that you can't complete an easy long run without your heart rate steadily drifting up into Zone 3 / Zone 4 territory, then it is definitely time to improve your bio-energetic profile. How do you do it?

The easiest and most practical way to improve your cardiovascular system is to just do more running. That's right - more Zone 2 miles. While I do not that "Zone 2 training" is a special, magic thing, I do of course understand that there is no replacement for a good "endurance base," and that's precisely what Zone 2 training is all about.

Ideally, as you craft your training cycle, you will start out with a few months dedicated to improving your endurance base. That will mean focusing mainly on Zone 2 miles for months at a time, with a few threshold runs sprinkled in for good measure. How many miles? As many as you can reasonably tolerate. As many as your schedule allows. As many as you can run without injury. You may even find it highly beneficial to stop running and just do hours of low-impact cycling or swimming to develop your cardiovascular and metabolic fitness.

All these Zone 2 miles do come at a cost, of course. When you're not running fast, you're conditioning your body to run slow. That's why we typically do our base buildup in anticipation of our next big training cycle. If you're in the middle of training cycle and you don't think your base is what it needs to be, I recommend finishing out the cycle and then going back to a buildup phase.

Now, sprint intervals will also help you improve your VO2 max. Additionally, weight training will build peripheral muscles that will be able to process lactate and thus improve your metabolic fitness. So Zone 2 is not the one and only way to improve your bio-energetic profile; it is simply the main, most efficient way to do so, and in my view, represents the most reasonable intervention to use if your goal is better endurance. But all of these training strategies should be used by all runners at some point during their training.

Improving Your Running Form

Bio-mechanical improvements to running are the most difficult to teach. To some extent, I think they have to be observed first, and then internalized, and finally the runner has to do some experimentation to find new comfortable ways to run faster. However, if you've ever read my blog, you know how important I think running form is. To me, it is the great differentiator between a recreational hobbyist and a runner who actually has a chance of winning something.

There are a number of exercises one can do to develop better running form. This now being the "TikTok Age," you've probably seen all of these exercises on short little videos set to music: A-skips, B-skips, butt-kicks, high-knees, cariocas, and various hurdle drills. All of these exercises will help you improve your range of motion, which is necessary for great running form.

...But these exercises won't teach you great running form. For that, I know of no other substitute than looking at great runners like Paul Chelimo or Connor Mantz, observing what their running form looks like, and then trying it out yourself. Go out and try to make your legs look like their legs. Try to do with your arms what you see them do. The more you look like them, the more likely it is that your running form is good. Take video footage of yourself and make notes for possible improvements. Then, start making those improvements.

I have found the best success working on my form during easy runs, where there is no pressure to perform and I can simply direct my thoughts to whatever form issue I think needs to be addressed. Over time, you will start to feel faster, and that's a beautiful feeling.

In Practice

As you train and improve, you will probably go through many (infinitely many) iterations of needing to develop one thing or another. It's not as if every one runner just has to work on one thing. I'll work to address one thing for a month and then notice that something else now feels like the biggest obstacle; so, I'll start tackling that one.

For beginners especially, it's not common to be completely out-of-breath during the first few weeks of running. Then, as your cardiovascular system starts to adjust to the new workload, you'll likely find that your muscles aren't up to the tasks you want to give them. And as you continue to alternate between building better endurance and better legs, you'll start to notice form becoming an issue.

So we just work on things as they come up - especially if you're not engaged in any kind of formal training cycle. As you chip away at one thing, another takes precedence and you chip away at it instead. Forever. This is the running journey. 

Closing Thoughts

The last point I want to make here is that, because these three running axes exist, and often interact with each other, this explains why there is no "magic workout," no "perfect training approach" for all runners everywhere. You can study the Twitter running gurus if you want to, but eventually you will come to realize that although two runners with equal marathon times may both want to improve, one of them might best be served with more tempo runs while the other might best be served with more mileage. One of them might need to lift more weights while the other might need to improve his form.

In short, not only is there no one-size-fits-all intervention to make us all better runners, but even the same intervention won't work for the same runner at different times in his "career." The key to training is understanding which intervention to apply at which time to succeed. Unfortunately, that kind of wisdom only comes from experience.

But you can gain that experience! You just have to get out there, start running, and start chipping away at your biggest weakness until your next biggest weakness reveals itself. And I wish you the best of luck in your pursuit.

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