I am a sluggishly slow cross-country runner in community college and I would like to see sizable but realistic improvements in my running next fall. I have a full eight months free to train but I don’t really know where to start or how to periodize my training. My first question for you is this: if I have only run 40-50-km weeks in the past, is it possible for me to attain 90-100-km weeks this summer? I know I will be prone to injury (I am currently healing an ankle sprain right now) if I don’t take precautions.
Sluggishly slow, eh? I know the feeling. Fortunately, you are young enough and currently training lightly enough that you can expect to improve quite a bit through experience and increased training. Whether you will ever become briskly fast, I cannot say. But I am confident that you can join the ranks of the moderately middling, at the very least.
As I’ve said in previous “Ask The Experts” columns, runners all too often look to increased running mileage as the only way to stimulate improvement. But an increased commitment to high-intensity running is also an effective way to raise the level of one’s running and is not to be overlooked.
That said, 40-50 km (25-31 miles) per week is not a lot of running, especially for a competitive college athlete, so it is clearly necessary in this case to do the obvious thing and run more. With more than eight months ahead of you until your next race, however, you might want to break Project Run Faster into two phases of roughly equal duration, and save the more aggressive running volume increase for phase two.
In phase one I suggest you train for two or three road races—some combination of 5K’s and 10K’s. Build your running volume up to 65 km per week or so—a modest and manageable increase from its present level. This modest and manageable training volume increase will leave some capacity to handle an increased commitment to high-intensity training, which I also recommend. Run one session of hill repetitions, fartlek or intervals and one tempo, threshold, or progression run each week. Keep these workouts quite manageable at first and gradually increase their challenge level as you get closer to racing. Wait until the last four to five weeks of this four-month phase to race.
This combination of increased mileage, increased high-intensity training, and racing will raise your running performance to a new level. At the end of the phase you will be quite fit and ready to take a more aggressive approach to increasing your running volume. Take a week off and then start a long base phase of training. Keep the pace of all of your runs slow for a while so that the unaccustomed mileage you’re taking on is no more stressful than necessary.
Use step cycles to further minimize the injury risk associated with this mileage ramp-up. Increase your volume by 5 km per week or so for two to three consecutive weeks and then drop your mileage for one week to recover and consolidate your fitness gains. Here’s an example of how the process might look:
Week 1: 50 km
Week 5: 55 km
Week 3: 60 km
Week 4: 45 km
Week 5: 65 km
Week 6: 70 km
Week 7: 75 km
Week 8: 50 km
Week 9: 80 km
Week 10: 85 km
Week 11: 90 km
I know that 100 km per week is a nice round number, but do not treat it as a firm target. It’s not an unrealistic goal, in your situation, but if your body is not especially sturdy then it might prove to be too much too soon. Thus, I advise you to gradually ramp up your running volume toward that goal, but listen to your body and cut off the process if and when you notice signs that you are nearing your current limit. Even if you only manage to reach 80 km per week, that’s a pretty big increase from your current training level and one that will bring you noticeable gains. And keep in mind that this limit is probably only temporary. It takes years for most runners to build the durability to handle their lifetime maximum training volume.
If possible, plan your base phase so that your mileage plateaus a few weeks before your first cross-country race and reintroduce faster running at that time. Again, ease into it and then gradually increase the challenge level of your faster runs to get ready to shock your coach and teammates.
Check out Matt’s latest book, RUN: The Mind-Body Method of Running by Feel.