[Editor’s Note: We are just as psyched as Scott is to have a runner and researcher of his caliber writing about the how’s and why’s of running. This is Scott’s first column. Check back weekly for valuable training tips and insights from the top of our sport.]
I would first like to let everyone know how psyched I am to be doing these weekly posts about topics related to running. I am so excited about these posts because frankly, I am a nerd. I love research and stats and cutting edge findings. In these posts I get to share with you guys, the knowledge I’ve gleaned from my own experiences and from pouring over studies and articles about running and training. Even better than that though, at least for me, is the opportunity to refine my own knowledge by forcing myself to get my thoughts onto paper in an organized and understandable way. So, thanks for reading and I’m excited to go on this journey of exploration with you guys as we learn more about how to run farther, run faster, and get in better shape.
So, with that lets dive right in to a topic that I think is a great jumping off point to any discussion about improving one’s fitness in running, or any other sport. Today we are going to talk about six principles that govern sports science and how understanding these principles can inform our training to help us increase our current levels of fitness. Each of these principles deserve a blog post of their own, and at some point will be getting their own blog post, but to start it’s easier to understand when these topics are presented together.
How training works
INDIVIDUALITY: Just like snowflakes and maple leaves, we are all different. This may seem obvious, but when it comes to training, especially when someone has done it for a while, it’s easy to forget. It’s easy to fall into the trap of saying “well, that works for that person, why doesn’t it work for me?” Or, my personal favorite, “Wow, I just read about what (insert very successful and talented athlete here) does, I am just going to copy that!” Guess what? That’s not how it works!
Each of us is different genetically, each of us has a different history of past training that impacts our responses to future training, and each of us has a different set of environmental demands such as work schedules, family obligations, or any number of variables that can impact how we respond to training. That being said, the following principles still apply to everyone, however the ideal implementation of each principle will vary from person to person. There are many paths to the top of the same mountain, and we are climbing Mount Fitness, so allow me to be your fitness sherpa as we climb towards the top!
OVERLOAD: The principle of overload is pretty simple, it basically argues that in order to improve your fitness you have to do more than what the body is used to, you have to stress it out a little bit (don’t worry, running is a good stress). If you are just starting out, this is easy because your body is not used to running at all, so even five or ten minutes of light jogging is enough to be considered a stress to the system. However, if you are an avid runner then running five to ten minutes easy does nothing to stress your body in a way that will yield meaningful change. If you are looking to drop your PR’s or just get into better shape, you have to push yourself a little bit farther, or a little bit harder, than you are used to going. In other words, you have to increase the stress if you want to get fitter.
The most common way to do this is through increasing your weekly mileage. By merely running more, you are pushing your body past its comfort zone, or to use the technical term, overloading the system. While running more is the most common way to increase your workload and improve your fitness, it is not the only way to increase the amount of (I repeat, healthy) stress you are putting on your body.
Some other ways to do this include running faster on your runs, running on more challenging routes, running in the hottest part of the day or in extra clothes to simulate increased temperatures, running twice a day but keeping your total mileage the same, or running on an empty stomach, and these are just the beginning. Any time you are increasing the difficulty of your run in someway you are increasing the stress and you are more likely to be overloading the system.
PROGRESSION: So, you’ve read this far and you’re with me on the pushing your comfort zone and looking for adaptations, but you aren’t sure how much you can add to overload the system in a safe way. Well, here’s the thing, because of that pesky individuality thing. I don’t have an answer for everyone. The typical rule of thumb regarding how much mileage you can safely add per week is about 10%. However, I do not think that this is a hard rule. I think that this is merely a suggestion.
In my opinion, if you are just starting running, you may need to increase your mileage by more than this per week after you’ve adapted to the initial stress of running. For example, if you are only running 10 miles per week, adding 10% puts you at 11 which really isn’t that different from 10 miles a week. On the other end of the spectrum, if you are running 70 miles a week then adding 10% is kind of a lot so you may want to be more cautious.
My rule of thumb is, listen to your body and be careful. You have to increase the workload at least a little bit if you want to see improvements, but when you are building your mileage make sure to pay attention to any pain you may be feeling, look out for sleep disturbances, which are a sign of overtraining, and also don’t be afraid to take a day or two off (or at least easy, if taking a day off isn’t your thing). It takes time to figure out exactly how much you can do safely, and it takes time to be able to distinguish the differences between soreness and a little nagging injury.
One particularly practical way to track your body’s adaptations is to keep a training log in order to track your progress. In this log I would track your daily mileage or time and also rate how you feel on your runs on a scale of 1–10 with 4–6 being average, 10 being amazing, 1 being miserable. If you notice that you have been writing a lot of 5s, 6s and 7s lately, it may be time to push yourself a little more. Finally, listen to your body; you obviously know more about how you feel than some guy writing from behind a computer screen.
ADAPTATION: You’ve started running more to increase your level of fitness or you’ve changed something else about your training to overload your system. Initially, when you do this, it’s not going to feel great. You are going to be tired and it’s going to be hard because you are working harder than you are used to. However, with patience, you’re going to start to notice changes that occur to your body, maybe 40 minutes feels like 30 minutes used to. Or maybe you’re running the same mileage but you’re doing it faster and now that faster pace feels normal.
Well, the technical term for these changes is called adaptation, and ultimately, that’s what we’re all going for. We all want to adapt to the training that we do because that means that it’s working. Adaptation can take many forms, it can mean losing weight or changing your body composition. It can mean that 7 minute pace feels like what 7:30 pace used to feel like, or it can mean that you can run farther than before.
Adaptation is almost certainly where that individuality piece we talked about earlier is the most pronounced. Everyone responds differently to training, and there is a ton of super-interesting research that shows this. (If you are interested in reading some of this research, a good place to start would be The Sports Gene, by David Epstein). While everyone responds differently to training, the good news is, everyone responds to training, and, below the elite level, everyone responds favorably, as long as they are taking advantage of the overload principle. So for the casual runner this means that if you want to get better at running, all you have to do is increase the stress and your body will adapt.
USE/DISUSE: You know that saying, use it or lose it? Well, unfortunately it applies here, too. Just as you adapt to the training you are doing, you also adapt to the training you are not doing. For example, I don’t do yoga. (It’s not that I don’t see the merits, it’s that I have a tendency to get really competitive and don’t really want to get embarrassed in a public place.) And since I don’t do yoga, I am not particularly good at the skills needed to be good at yoga, i.e., strength and flexibility.
Likewise, if for some reason you are forced to take some time off from running, it’s important to know that your body will adapt to the stimuli it is exposed to (or not). And if you then try to start back up at your previous level after a prolonged break, running is going to be much harder than it used to be. While this may sound depressing, don’t dismay too much. Research suggests that fitness stays around longer than we thought. So if you have to take some time off, while you may not be able to hop right back in at your previous level, it will be easier to improve your fitness than had you not done that past training at all.
SPECIFICITY: This concept is very similar to all of the above principles and actually wraps up the whole conversation really well. The principle of specificity dictates that as you train you adapt in a way that is determined by how you are training. So, as you run more and more, you are going to become more and more suited for running. The stresses you put your body through dictate a specific response and those responses combine to create you as a runner or just as a person who is trying to stay in shape.
Here’s an example: If you can imagine a set of identical twins and imagine that one is given a bike and the other is given a pair of running shoes and the one with the bike bikes every day and the other one runs every day, despite their genetic similarity one is going to be good at biking and the other is going to be more adapted to running. In a less extreme example, if we have one runner who is training for a PR in a 5K and another who is trying to finish their first marathon, the training needed to achieve these different goals is going to be different. The marathoner is trying to build aerobic strength so that he or she will be able to run for a very long time, so he or she should likely run lots of miles. However, the runner looking to PR in a 5k is going to be more interested in making his or her legs run faster. As such, this runner may sacrifice some of the total miles but do some of their runs at a quicker pace.
One way to distill the concept of specificity is this rule, which ties everything in this post together: The best way to get better at running is to run.