There was a time, long before GPS and heart rate monitors, before science began to influence how we schedule our training, how we prepare ourselves for racing, that training was much, much simpler.
Science has been valuable to help us define, quantify and qualify what we do, but as you may have heard, there’s nothing new under the sun and to a very large extent, training has not changed much in the last thirty years.
Ultimately, training is volume and intensity—duration of intensity. It is how we apply those variables to the individual—in numerous combinations—that makes us fitter, faster, stronger. Yes, there have been some new applications here and there – especially at the highest levels – but for those of us Earth-bound athletes the fundamentals will provide us with the biggest return and the greatest benefit. We often miss the basics because we’re so focused on looking for the newest, the coolest, that magic bullet that will give us the light bulb moment in realizing our fitness. But there never is a magic bullet, though, is there? (If there were, I would tell you that it is consistency which is the least magic, the least sexy, the least cool thing to consider.)
There are, arguably, just two workouts that you can do. Now, obviously, there are probably infinite variations on each theme, but really you have only two to consider: The fast, continuous, run and the intermittent run. The whats? you might say. Yeah, the fast continuous run and the intermittent run. The fast continuous run is just that, a run in which, at whatever effort for whatever amount of time, we move with no breaks in effort. You may know them as tempo runs, progression runs, threshold runs. Same things, essentially.
The intermittent run is one in which we segment the efforts with intervals of reduced effort or recovery periods. (Technically, when we’re talking about intervals, they are the periods in between the repetitions of effort and not the repetitions themselves.) Intermittent runs can be fartlek—structured, unstructured or classic—or repetitions like, say, five times one kilometer, or ten times one hundred meters. Something like that. You break it up.
One might be asking where the long run fits in to this, and to a degree it is interconnected to the two basic workouts. The long run is cycled in according to the training block and to the individual. Without knowing the event, goal or individual, I’d put the two workouts ahead of the long in terms of importance. If I had a brand new runner, I wouldn’t write in a long run until I felt that the individual was ready for them. Here’s where I get blasphemous: I think the long run is overrated. They’re not unnecessary, just overrated.
Once you have the fundamentals down, you can elicit different responses by changing the volumes and intensities (and the volumes of intensity) or the terrain—up or down hill. If we want to have a better understanding of training, it can be helpful to look at some of the simpler training programs from those who ran before science began to influence the discussion. Look at the old programs used by Robert de Castella or Steve Jones. Or Joan Benoit or Frank Shorter. The vocabulary might be different, but the simplicity can reveal the essence of the program in a way that can help us to find a deeper understanding of our training.