Coaching Costa Rica: Sharpening The Tools

Cesar Lizano preparing for the Olympic Marathon in his native country of Costa Rica.

Competitor’s Mario Fraioli shares some insight into the training of Costa Rican Olympic marathoner Cesar Lizano.

In order to be a great marathoner, one must possess a full set of physical and mental tools: stamina, speed, physical strength and durability, as well as focus, tenacity and perhaps most importantly, confidence.

Some of these elements can be trained; others are ingrained into a runner’s persona after years, ironically enough, of training the others.

Costa Rican Olympic marathoner Cesar Lizano, along with most every other top athlete competing at a high level, has all of these tools in his toolbox. But like a seasoned carpenter who works tirelessly at his trade year-round, every once in a while a runner needs to sharpen his tools, particularly the ones he hasn’t used a lot.

MORE — Coaching Costa Rica: A Passion For Running

Since Cesar and I began working together in February, I’ve gotten to learn about his strengths and weaknesses as a runner. Before I even assigned him a workout, Cesar’s focus, tenacity and confidence stood out to me from the get go. After running 2:17:50 at last fall’s Chicago Marathon to eclipse the Olympic “B” standard of 2:18 — the only Costa Rican male to post such a mark — the Olympic Marathon became the only race that mattered to him. Already a tireless worker, Cesar made it clear to me that he was willing to work harder than he’s ever worked to have the race of his life on August 12 when he lines up alongside some of the best marathoners in the world.

You can’t coach those things.

Physically, Cesar is built solidly on a slight frame that has proven it can handle a high volume of training. His structural integrity and physical strength are two of his greatest tools, as Cesar has made it through the last few years of training devoid of major injury. This is key, because the most important thing any athlete aiming to improve can do is to stay healthy. If you can’t stay healthy you can’t train to your potential. If you can’t train to your potential, you can’t race to it, either. Simple as that.

After taking a look at Cesar’s personal bests from 5,000 meters through the marathon and diving deeper into his previous few years of training, it became very clear to me that he’s been blessed with the gift of endurance. When we started working together, Cesar’s best 5K pace of 5 minutes per mile wasn’t far off his best marathon pace of 5:15 per mile. For many marathoners, even those at the world-class level, there’s often a 30 to 45 second difference per mile between one’s 5K race pace and one’s marathon rhythm.

This close proximity in paces also exposed Cesar’s biggest weakness, however, that being of limited speed at shorter distances. While endurance over the long haul is one of the biggest keys to a marathoner’s success, being efficient at shorter distances allows a runner to better optimize that endurance over the course of 26.2 miles. The focus of Cesar’s last 12 weeks of training has been to improve his 5K and 10K speed before beginning the marathon-specific cycle this past weekend, 12 weeks out from the Olympic Marathon.

Over the course of a given training cycle my athletes are working on all the different training elements — aerobic endurance, lactate threshold, pure speed, power, muscular strength, neuromuscular maintenance, etc. — with the emphasis on each changing depending on the event we’re training for and where we are in the training cycle. In the past 12 weeks, Cesar’s weekly training volume has crept up to where he’s been running close to 12 hours per week, with long runs in the range of 2 hours and 30 minutes. He’s been training primarily like a 10K runner, with a majority of his key workouts in the range of 4:40 per mile (which is slightly faster than what I believe he could run a stand alone 10K in right now), and also doing many strides and short hill repeats to work on improving his efficiency and power while maintaining muscular strength. All of this work was essentially preparation to get him ready for the 12-week marathon-specific phase of training we just began. It’s a philosophy I share with a coaching colleague of mine, Brad Hudson of Boulder, Colorado, who breaks all training down into two types: “Specific training for the goal event, and training to get the athlete to the point where he or she can do the specific training.”

This first phase of what has essentially been “preparatory” training for Cesar has been paying dividends, as he ran a personal best of 1:06:42 for half marathon in April, and followed that up with a seventh-place finish at the Broad Street Run 10-Mile race in Philadelphia two weeks later, where he ran 50:43, splitting 15:23 for 5K and 30:55 for 10K (both personal bests) along the way. While we haven’t done a ton of sustained work at half marathon or marathon race pace (there will be plenty of that over the next 11-1/2 weeks) the recent racing results show that the focus on faster workouts has been effective in making Cesar more efficient at longer distances.

Over the next 12 weeks, that focus will shift, as Cesar will maintain a high volume of running while doing a majority of his key sessions in the range 4:55 to 5:10 per mile — or as I like to think of it, getting his most important tools ready for the biggest job of his life on August 12 in London.

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