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How does specificity influence training?
In order to race your best at any distance, the last 4-6 weeks of training need to be primarily focused on race-specific workouts. Usually, this means running at or near race pace with short bouts of rest.
Unfortunately, some runners can take this concept too far. You can’t just go out and run 3 x 1 mile at goal 5K pace with 30 seconds rest each week of your training plan and expect to see a big improvement. This workout would be very difficult in the early part of a training cycle and you would quickly stagnate.
Before taking on race-specific training, you need to build a high level of general fitness, or complementary energy systems, for race-specific training to be effective. Second, you need to constantly change the stimulus if you want to progress; meaning your body will quickly adapt to race-specific training and reach a temporary peak after a few weeks.
Therefore, race-specific training should start anywhere from 4-8 weeks out from your goal race. The precise starting date will depend on your experience level, training load, and how quickly you generally respond to workouts (some runners respond and adapt to training quickly, i.e. they “get in shape quickly” while others need longer buildups).
Before you begin race-specific training, you should build a high level of general running fitness by balancing the principle training components of aerobic fitness, lactate threshold, VO2max, and neuromuscular development. Like building a house, the stronger and larger you can build your foundation, the higher and more remarkable you can construct the peak.
The Caveat Of Race-Specific Training
It’s important to remember that when you’re in a race-specific phase of training, your performances at distances outside your goal race range will very likely suffer, and that’s OK. Most runners forget this important lesson when they schedule tuneup races like 5Ks and 10Ks when training for the marathon or when trying to cap off a summer of 5K racing with a half marathon.
There is a balance in training that gets ignored in the 4 to 6 week race-specific phase of training. You’re sacrificing overall running fitness for better results at one specific race distance. If you’re targeting the 5K, you’ll be gaining specific speed endurance while losing a little bit in the areas of aerobic fitness and lactate threshold. Conversely, when training for the marathon, you’ll rarely be running faster than half marathon pace during the specific phase and you’ll be constantly tired, which means you’ll lose the speed and VO2max required to run a good 5K.
Targeting your training to one specific goal is crucial if you want to run your best on race day, but it’s also important to remember how the training will impact your overall running as well.