Several years ago, I was working with a runner who had recently finished a very successful cross country season and who had ambitious goals for spring track. This girl was very dedicated and conscientious about her training. She had requested a detailed schedule for the winter months, and was following it diligently, even when the winter weather made that a challenge. But at some point, probably the middle of January, I found myself perplexed about what she and I perceived as a lack of progress.
I had, you see, laid out a schedule that included lots of moderate runs. To be sure, there were other training elements in the schedule — strides, short hills, strength and core — but the centerpiece of the plan was a gently rising volume of aerobic running. With our first outdoor meet months away, it was a perfectly orthodox approach to take with a high school girl who had only three seasons of competitive running behind her. It was also, apparently, an approach that was inadequate.
I had failed to take into account the individuality of my athlete. In fact, this girl had a very unusual ability to run very comfortably at a pace that wasn’t much slower than her 5K race pace. (Her 5K PR was just over 20 minutes.) As she followed the schedule I had created for her, she was running with other girls and they were doing most of the normal training runs at about 7:45-8:00 per mile. Every once in a while, she’d run with some of the boys, and then she’d just as comfortably complete the runs at about 7:00 per mile.
I might not have intervened with this state of affairs, except that after a few weeks of winter training, the girl herself told me she felt like she was in a rut and had actually lost a lot of fitness since the end of the cross country season.
How should I advise her? Should I urge patience, arguing that slogging away at 8:00 pace would pay dividends months down the road? Or should I make a change, and encourage faster runs in spite of their anti-social implications? We ended up sitting down and discussing all this, and decided that we would make several changes, including a much more extensive use of “tempo pace” in her weekly runs. But even before we ironed out the details, we agreed that we needed to do something to create “training momentum” in these off-season months. It was the first time I ever used that phrase, but it has become ever more useful to me over the years.
Everyone has felt it: that unmistakable sense that you’re getting stronger as run follows run. It’s the greatest feeling in the world for an athlete to experience the momentum of training; and when you are feeling it, you can hardly wait for the next day’s training.
Unfortunately, all of us have also suffered when training momentum is absent. Then the weeks and months drag by and we’re stuck in a training rut, and progress seems unattainable. In those circumstances, it’s tough to muster any enthusiasm for workouts and races, as there’s a kind of dread at having to confront the stark truth that you’re not improving.
Establishing training momentum isn’t any kind of grand intellectual challenge, but it is tricky for several reasons. First, with training there is no one-size-fits-all plan that works for everyone. Not everyone responds the same to typical aerobic pace, tempo runs, speedwork… The same workouts and schedule that creates momentum in the training of one athlete will cause another athlete to stagnate or break down. The girl I was coaching several winters ago responded really well to fast aerobic training, not so well to the usual pattern of “easy” aerobic runs and intermittent bouts of speedwork.
Second, it’s easy to err on the side of too little or too much of a good thing. I know of no way to calculate in advance the amount of training that will create momentum without introducing excessive risk of injury. With high school athletes, I’ve always tried to err on the side of caution, by introducing new levels of training only when progress seems to be slowing or stalling at the current level. But I’m never entirely sure about whether I’m holding them back by being too conservative. In general, I feel that training more is a privilege that an athlete earns by handling lesser training loads without injury or staleness, and it’s only when I perceive a lack of progress that I’m motivated to ratchet up the training.
Finally, it’s hard for me not to reference my own experience as a runner, and my own attempts to establish training momentum over the years. That can be a useful guide, but once again, it can lead to over-generalization. What worked for me won’t necessarily work for the athletes I coach. I think that having been a runner for so long, I have to be especially careful to be a good observer of other runners, and really try to understand their unique capabilities and limits. Not only that, I have to listen to how my athletes describe how their training is feeling to them. If they don’t feel it’s making a difference, it might not be the right training, no matter how much it coincides with conventional notions of appropriate volume and pace.
To resume the story from several winters ago…
After revising her “generic” training plan, the girl I was coaching began regaining her confidence and sense of progress. In March of that year, a week or so before our first official meet, she improved her 5K PR by over a minute, running 19:07. Ultimately, she reached all of the goals in the 3k and 1500m that had seemed so ambitious when we wrote them down on an index card at the beginning of December.
Training momentum, indeed!