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Get fast and stay fast year-round

This is an excerpt from Happy Runner, The by David Roche & Megan Roche.

Albert Einstein's study habits are prob­ably not instructive for a person without an intellect the size of a galaxy. Similarly, the training of Olympic champions is not necessarily the best way for most runners to train. A universal truth of self-­improvement is that you should not interpolate from outliers.

This outlier phenomenon is especially evident for ­running training. A prime example is how professional runners approach off-­season. ­Every winter, mountain runner Kílian Jornet hangs up his shoes. He is so good that when the shoes come off his feet, doves sing and angels play harps. Before the doves get hoarse or angels get carpal tunnel, he puts on ski-­mountaineering boots and ­won't touch a trail again ­until spring.

When he returns to the trails, he is as unstoppable as ever. Sometimes, ­people ­will say, “It must be the ski-mo,” just like ­people used to say of Michael Jordan, “it must be the shoes.” Then, normal runners ­will imitate Kílian's off-­season plan, only to find themselves playing catch-up to their previous ­running fitness all season long. Their ­running economy suffers, and ­because economy is every­thing, their speed suffers too even as they develop aerobically. Aerobic development without top-­end speed development ­will usually make a runner slower overall.

So when in doubt, always remember the training skeptic's questions: Are the pros successful ­because of what they do, or in spite of what they do? And if it's ­because of what they do, can that approach work for every­one?

It gets back to ge­ne­tics and background. Kílian works his butt off, and has since he was a kid, but is also a freak of nature, an outlier among outliers. In road ­running, Olympic medalist Bernard Lagat famously took six weeks without any ­running at all each year. Of course, he was practically breaking 4-­minute miles in diapers. Someone with that talent and work ethic could prob­ably do competitive Scrabble six months a year and be a world champion the rest of the time. Bernard works his butt off, but he also came out of the womb with a fantastically fast butt to work.

The average person is genet­ically average. That sounds obvious, but interpolating training methods from ge­ne­tic outliers ignores that real­ity. In the pro­cess, it's easy to lose some of the incremental gains that come from consistent development of ­running economy over time. ­Don't skip a step—­you have to methodically go from average to above average to ­great to exceptional. Then maybe start applying the training methods of outliers to make the leap from exceptional to world champion.

It's a scene that plays out all the time. Runners take months off during winter, only to regress, pulled back by ge­ne­tic inertia. Kílian and Bernard have ge­ne­tics that need to go fast, whereas most of us have ge­ne­tics that would prefer to Netflix and chill. For most runners, a consistent focus on speed development over time is the best way to unlock ge­ne­tic potential that even your double helixes ­aren't sure you have.

That ­doesn't mean you should train your butt off all year. You may even need a complete off-­season of weeks or months, physically and mentally. It just means to make sure you ­don't regress needlessly.

In SWAP parlance, it means you should periodize big-­T Training, not little-­t training. Periodization is a concept brought to the forefront by the ­father of modern ­running training, Arthur Lydiard. All consistently successful training systems rest in part on the philosophy he helped develop. When you periodize training, you build one block on top of another, generally starting with easy ­running, working up to faster ­running, layering hard intervals on top of aerobic base.

We call that big-­T Training, essentially focused “Training blocks.” It's Training as a proper noun, complex and often hotly debated on Internet message boards.

In contrast, little-­t training is the pro­cess of consistently ­running. It has complex under­pinnings, but it's not complex in execution. Run lots, not too much, mostly easy. Take breaks when needed, but ­don't take breaks needlessly.

To develop ­running economy over time, most runners should be ­doing consistent training almost all year. It's the background drum beat on top of which the sweet guitar solo gets played.

Consistent training is all about developing the aerobic system with easy miles and low-­level stress. On top of that, short, fast strides get the ­running economy positive-­feedback loop looping. So, let's break it down with some sweet, CliffsNotes-­style action:

  • Do lots of easy ­running, and your aerobic system and ­running economy develop over time. ­Those adaptations are sticky—­they ­don't go down much with age, and they allow you to run more and run faster.
  • Build your speed with short, fast strides and intervals (while avoiding ­going too hard too often), and your ­running economy rises like a full moon tide. In the pro­cess, it takes the aerobic ship with it, allowing more aerobic development.
  • Run more over time, and your aerobic system improves even more. As your economy improves, you get faster without even trying. Do that for a few years, and you can chase breakthroughs rather than marginal gains. That is what we mean by consistent training.
  • Background mileage fluctuates with more complex training blocks. But to keep your ­running economy train chugging, you should never get too far away from the speed you worked so hard to develop. That can be as ­simple as a ­couple sets each week of 4 × 20 to 30 seconds fast during runs most of the year. Just ­don't derail your ­running economy train without a good reason.

Corrine Malcolm is a prime example. When she joined SWAP, she was a top biathlete, skiing and shooting her way onto the U.S. Olympic development team. Bad­ass! However, as she put it in her initial e-­mail, “I am not fast.”

Or was she? We set out to answer that question. Over the next ­couple years, Corrine ran almost all year-­round (with lots of rest built into training), mostly easy, sometimes fast. She emphasized strides and easy miles to improve ­running economy. Even when she spent the winters skiing, ­she'd usually run consistently and do strides a ­couple times a week. Eventually, her old moderate pace became her new easy pace. The miles got easier. The strides got faster. So the miles got even easier, which again made the strides even faster.

She planted a tree in 2013. Corrine was ­going to get fast and stay fast year-­round. That tree grew as if it was sprinting ­toward the jungle canopy, spurred on by her talent and work ethic. And in 2016, she won the U.S. 50-­Mile Trail Championships.

Get fast and stay fast year-­round, and you may discover a secret. All this time, you thought you had average ge­ne­tics, playing around at the margins of your fitness, looking for a second or two of speed. But in real­ity, you had the potential to be an outlier, ­running joyfully and effortlessly beyond what you ever ­imagined. ­Those low-­hanging fruit are ­really yummy.