Marathon & Above. How much distance is enough in training?

November 29, 2016

If you read my last post, you'll know I'm gradually ramping up my training for the ultra marathon I'm currently training for - yes I know I've since realised it is a stupid idea too - but it's for MacMillan, so a good cause. 


Now I'm able to start building some distance into my training regime I've been thinking about just how much distance is enough. 


The Ultra Marathon is 105km or about 65miles (although an ultra I believe is classified as anything over a marathon - I wish I signed up to the 27mile ultra then!). Therefore, you can imagine the training load can get quite heavy. I'm quite time pressed splitting my time 3 days per week in my role as a bariatric dietitian in Oxford, which is a 3.5 hour round trip each time not to mention the full working day, and on the other days trying to build Mark Green Nutrition, plus other commitments that are just part of life. There seems like there's always something to do with little time for training. 


This has got me reflecting on how I can use my time in the most efficient way when it comes to training. 


The conventional wisdom for any long durance event is you need to get the miles under your belt. Lets take a marathon training plan for example. Most plans - especially for first time runners - start out quite modestly building you up to around the 20 mile mark prior to the event, with the idea you'll be able to manage the final 6 miles on the day. 


This is good because it adheres to one of the crucial considerations when writing a training plan which is specificity. Specificity just means keep the training as specific to your event as possible. This is why footballers do a lot of short sharp work and why golfers do a lot of mobility training. Likewise, long distance runners, run a lot. 


But what if you don't have the time for specificity during marathon training? Is there some other way to improve running performance without having to be out for 3-4 hours at a time? 


During my sport and exercise science degree, I completed my dissertation on the effects of HIT training on cycling performance. Now, HIT is quite common place now but back then it was quite innovative (Nice one Mark - could have invented the whole HIT craze - stupid brain). This was quite pioneering work by Gibala and Burgomaster (yep great name) who looked at the effects of a repeated HIT programme over two weeks on cycling performance compared to continuous long distance training. The HIT programme consisted of 7 sessions where the participants completed between 4-7 absolute maximum 30 second sprints with some recovery between sprints. 


The results found that the training effect was comparable to the continuous training groups for almost all parameters measured. 


This matched my own experiences of running. When I previously got into my running a few years ago and was completing sub 20minute 5km runs, I must admit I found a cross over effect on my running performance at longer distances. For example, when first training my 5km time trial performance, my pace was 12.5km/h for the 5km and that was quite a struggle. However, I persevered and gradually increased each run by only 0.2km/h, which is a modest increase, but before I knew it I was running at 15.2km/h for the same distance. As you can imagine, when I returned to 12.5km/h I was able to now sustain this for a much longer duration. In fact, my running performance had shifted from barely being able to sustain 12.5km/h over 5km, to being able to double the distance to 10km whilst running at 13km/h. I was even able to manage 30 minutes at 14km/h. Yet, I hadn't completed one single 10km training run. 


Since then, I have always been fascinated with HIT and how much is actually enough training. On one hand, you need to accumulate the correct volume of training i.e. you couldn't just do one max bench press a week and expect to build muscle whereas on the other hand hitting a 4 hour chest workout is probably too much. Applying this to running training I know I need to increase the distance so to elicit a training response which is specific to ultra marathon running but what is the sweet spot? 5km training runs will not be enough but is there an equivalent distance of my 5km and 10km example above? 


Could I choose a distance say 10km or even a half marathon and work off that focusing purely on increasing speed and fitness so when faced with longer distances I can simply drop the pace? Imagine, if you can manage an average pace of 13km/h for a half marathon (1:36 completion time), then surely by dropping the pace to 10 or 11km/h you would be able to run further because you are fit enough to complete the distance at a faster pace. 


Think about it like this. If I only focused on running long distances at a slow pace I will in theory increase my ability to run long distances and should in theory improve my overall fitness - to an extent. However, if you take my starting training pace- lets say 10km/h - and I being to train at this pace without ever increasing the speed, only the distance, anything over this pace would fatigue me much quicker. Although I am improving my distance, my cardiovascular fitness will see minimal gain because I'm not pushing over and above. Therefore, in this instance 10km/h would be my maximum sustainable pace. The problem, of course, is over a long distance, that pace will inevitably drop and so 10km/h becomes 9 and 9 becomes 8 and so forth. The point at which this happens will be directly linked to training but is currently unknown. 


Now, lets assume rather than running at 10km for long durations (for as long as possible) in training, I increase the pace. As intensity goes up duration will begin to come down. So the runs will at first be shorter but the pace is quicker. In this example, lets say I increase my average pace to 13km/h for as long as possible. 10km/h is now going to feel like breeze. So if I now begin my run at 10km/h but my body is actually capable of running at 13km/h, fatigue in theory should not kick in until later because I am running at a lower percentage of my running capability. Therefore, I should be able to run longer, irrespective of not 'putting the miles under my legs'. 


Do we have it wrong with long distance training recommendations? Yes there will be an element of longer duration but at what point is enough. We train 20 miles for a marathon because the event is 26 miles, but what if it was 30miles. Would that increase to 22? If it was 40 miles do we increase 34? My point is, where does it end because at some stage there will come a point when any additional training will lose any benefit. 


Perhaps it's best to focus on increasing speed and fitness during the training phase with a view to dropping this pace substantially in the actual event. This may still be a similar pace to what you would have ran had you only focused on distance in training but because you are now 


working off a lower percentage of your total speed capability, time to exhaustion should be prolonged. 


Well I'll give it a go and tell you how I get on. If you don't see any more posts from me, turns out you do need to just do long runs and I'm in a ditch somewhere around mile 12! 



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