Training Different Kinds of Runners

SalesmanEvery week, I get flooded with emails promising to make me a better person.  Nothing new there.  Among the promises to cure baldness, erectile dysfunction, and the other ravages of old age, there are also emails that promise to improve my running.  It is the last ones that pique my interest.  And, in the past, I’ve swallowed the bait.  I’ve downloaded their training plans.  I got excited as I embarked on my new plan, all the while dreaming of crushing a new PR in the 10-K.  And I usually didn’t improve at all– or I got injured.

How could this have happened?  After all, the promoter told me that plenty of other athletes did just fine using the plan.  In fact, I just received an email this morning that had testimonials from dozens of athletes– all describing how this new plan “cut 20 minutes off my 10-K time” or “let me break 2 hours in the half-marathon for the first time in my life.”

Of course, random testimonials are hardly an objective measure of success.  For every athlete who did well, there could easily be ten others who failed miserably, got injured, or just quit because they became frustrated.  I have a good idea of what this particular coach promises (based on his blog posts) and I can tell you that I wouldn’t improve a lick following his plan.

It’s easy enough for coaches to blame these failures on the athlete.  They set unrealistic goals.  They didn’t try hard enough.  They didn’t stick with the program.  They didn’t have enough grit.  I’m sure the coach who wrote the training plan thinks exactly along these lines when he hears negative criticism of his plan.  The Inner Critic that lives inside each of us also just loves this kind of reasoning– and we love to identify it in others when people fail.  But after being a competitive athlete for almost four decades, I’m here to proclaim that this is bullshit.  Utterly vile bullshit.  It’s rarely the athlete’s fault.  Instead, it’s the fault of the coach.  He set unrealistic goals.  She didn’t try hard enough (to understand how different athletes react to training).  He created a one-size-fits-all training program.  She didn’t have the grit (to struggle through and figure out what this particular athlete needed).

And it isn’t just coaches on the internet that I’m talking about.  It could be your team’s triathlon coach.  Or it could be the coach you hired to come up with your training plan.  It can even be the individual coach who charges you $300 a month.  This is also one of the reasons why I am quite reluctant to coaching in earnest.  Learning an athlete’s idiosyncrasies takes a lot of time and effort.  My last coach spent over a year adapting his style of training to my particular physiology and, only after he adjusted the recipe to make things right for me, did the plan start working and my race performance dramatically improve.

Last summer was a great example for me.  I was asked to take over coaching duties for track workouts for our triathlon team.  Every athlete on our team trains for different events– some are training for running races, some are getting ready for a sprint triathlon, and others are seasoned Ironman athletes.  They also have races at all different times of year.  It was easy enough to come up with a generic build that increased to long interval sets at slightly above lactate threshold– but I knew that this wasn’t for everyone.

These differences between types of athletes becomes particular evident when it comes to running.  As much as we like to think of running as a gentle aerobic sport, it is really a high-impact, highly-repetitive sport where it is very easy to get injured.  In cycling, if you ride consistently and put in a ton of hours in the saddle, you’ll likely get better.  By contrast, in running, if you train in just slightly the wrong way, you will either get injured or slower.  While doing less-than-ideal training on the bike will probably still make you a stronger cyclist, the same isn’t true for running.  Instead, with running, our training has to be spot-on for the individual.  Training has to be highly individualized for the type of athlete.  The margin for error is much smaller.

Types of Runners

I’ve hinted before that I firmly believe that there are two types of runners.  There are “speedsters” and there are “endurance junkies.”  In reality, the world isn’t broken into such a clear dichotomy– the world isn’t black or white but shades of gray.  But to understand where you are on the spectrum, it helps to first know the extreme cases.  So with that background, here are the two extremes– the speedster and the endurance junkie.

Speedster Endurance Junkie
Overview A speedster loves shorter races like 5-K’s because they love running fast.  They also have a big drop-off in pace between their 5-K pace and their 10-K pace.  They’re usually the quickest guys at track workouts– particularly shorter workouts. An endurance junkie will happily do any race but definitely prefers half-marathon distance and above.  They also don’t have nearly the same drop-off in pace between their 5-K pace and their 10-K pace.  They aren’t always the fastest guys at track workouts– but they do well in races because there is so little drop-off between their workout pace and their race pace.
Generally Prefers Shorter, Harder Workouts.  Speedsters would take a tempo run over a long run any day of the week. Longer Workouts.  Endurance junkies will invariably take a long runs or a long races over a 5-K.
Generally Hates Too Much Volume.  Put a speedster on a traditional Lydiard program and they’ll get injured and frustrated. Too Much Speed.  An endurance junkie gets stronger and faster with lots of volume– then adds a touch of speedwork “seasoning” before race season.
Responds Slowly To Improving Speed.  Diminishing returns as speedsters add speed throughout the year. Improving Endurance.  Diminishing returns here too because endurance is the focus for so much of the season.
Responds Quickly To Improving Endurance.  A few quality endurance workouts has a profound effect. Improving Speed.  Just like with speedsters, a few quality workouts outside the traditional mix has a profound effect.
How to Train Speed Early and Shorter, Slower Recovery.  A speedster needs to start with a base of about 20-25 miles a week of running and then add speed workouts consistently in their training.  They do better with building “from the bottom up”– running fast in shorter intervals and trying to keep as much of that speed in longer intervals and shorter recoveries.  For instance, mile repeats at 10K pace one week building to 2-mile intervals at just a hair slower than 10K pace is the kind of build that a speedster would like for a 10-mile race to half-marathon. Endurance Early with Speed Later.  An endurance junkie needs a little more running– up to about 50-60 miles a week (for a multisport athlete) and more (for running only).  They do better with working “from the top down”– running slightly longer intervals and then making progression between workouts by increasing the speed of the intervals.  For instance, an endurance junkie would like 2-mile intervals in an “over-under” format at one-hour race pace (roughly lactate threshold) and gently increasing pace between the weeks.  Then, just before race season starts, a few weeks of hard mile repeats at 10-K pace for “seasoning.”

Of course, every athlete differs not just in terms of where they fall on this spectrum but also in terms of level of experience, ability to training load generally (due to age or particular circumstances), so building an ideal training plan is quite complex.  One thing is clear, however; if you’re at one of the spectrum and you try to train like an athlete at the opposite end of the spectrum, your performance may suffer and you will get injured.

A square red peg hammered into a round hole surrounded by small pieces of the peg. Hammer in the background. On a white background

Unfortunately, most traditional training programs (e.g. Lydiard) tend to focus on the endurance junkie end of the spectrum.  To my mind, this makes perfect sense.  Arthur Lydiard, and lots of other college coaches, were trying to make better distance runners.  When younger runners excel at long-distance, they tend to fall on the endurance junkie side of the equation.  A training program that caters to this type of runner is going to further highlight this difference between runner types as the speedsters either get injured or start moving to shorter distance events.  But, until fairly recently, relatively few training programs considered this difference in athletic types.  Hammering a square peg in a round hole hardly ever works out well for anyone.

Is it Fast-Twitch Versus Slow-Twitch?

While I was writing this blog post, I happened to get into a discussion with a local cycling coach about training different kinds of athletes.  Unlike long-distance running, road cycling has a definitely place for a good strong sprint as this ability frequently means the difference between your team winning or losing at a bike race.  A sprinter can conserve his limited endurance in a bike race by sitting in the pack until the final sprint.  Unfortunately, the same strategy doesn’t work in running because of the much slower speeds that we race at.  Because drafting is illegal in most triathlons and is almost useless in the run, triathletes can’t afford to heavily train their sprinting abilities; regardless of our initial body types, we need to focus our training on longer training sessions near FTP.  The cycling coach said noticed the same division I’m talking about between different types of cyclists.  There were some workouts that neatly divided his athletes– some hated them and others loved them.  But change the workout format and the two groups switched– the ones who hated the first workout loved the second one and vice versa.  He notice that the difference between the two workout formats was that one focused more on endurance while the other focused more on pure power.  He attributed the difference in preferences between the two groups largely to muscle type.

It may well be that speedsters have a much higher proportion of fast-twitch muscle than their endurance junkie brethren.  This doesn’t mean that they are doomed to never running anything longer than a 5-K.  First, remember that fast-twitch muscle fibers come in two varieties– type IIa and type IIb.  The former is an “intermediate” muscle fiber type and can behave a lot like a slow-twitch muscle fiber when it has too.  Second, the muscle type that you are born with isn’t necessarily set in stone– do a huge amount of training at one of the spectrum or the other and your muscle fibers tend to shift one way or the other.  If you stick with endurance sports over decades or even a lifetime, your body will naturally drift towards the endurance end of the spectrum.  Train Usain Bolt for running a marathon and, eventually, even he will likely become a pretty good marathoner.  And a muscle biopsy from Usain after a decade of marathon training would probably show that he has a pretty healthy dose of slow-twitch muscle.  But, I’m almost positive that no matter how much his muscles changed over time, he will always be a speedster and not an endurance junkie.

I think that muscle fiber definitely has something to do with the difference between these groups of athletes but it doesn’t explain everything.  Part of it is psychological– some people really thrive on long efforts.  If I do them more than once a week, I rapidly think I’m going to go insane.  And long rides over 4 hours just leave me feeling depressed.  Maybe some of it has to do with body structure and bone type– some of us could be built for going long and slow while others were meant for living on the faster end of the scale?  Who knows?  The point instead is to find for yourself the type of athlete that you are– and then choosing a training plan or coach that works to your strengths.

Trust Yourself and Put Your Strengths to Work

The purpose of this post isn’t to create a training plan for two different kinds of runners.  That would be wildly ambitious.  Instead, the purpose of this post is to put a spotlight on the differences so you’re aware of it.  When your coach or your training plan asks you to do something that is completely outside your wheelhouse both mentally and physically– and asks you to do it week after week– it may be that your coach or your plan is expecting a different kind of athlete.  And when your team mates swallow up the workouts gleefully and start performing better than you, don’t immediately conclude that you’re the weaker runner– you just need a different coach or training plan.

For instance, you may naturally be a speedster if you wilt or get injured when you start a training plan that calls for:

  • really large volume of training
  • extended tempo efforts from the start
  • minimal emphasis on real speedwork until the 2-3 months before your race
  • long “over-under” intervals with no breaks

Similarly, an endurance junkie will tend to get injured or will burn out fast when they start in on a training plan that requires:

  • lots of HIIT intervals from the beginning
  • weekly speedwork sessions at 5-K pace or fast
  • consistent emphasis on speeds above race pace for a period well beyond 2 months before your race
  • relatively low overall training volume

I really enjoyed reading Marcus Buckingham’s book, Go Put Your Strengths to Work.  The basic tenet is that we should all focus– and encourage other to focus– on their strengths and weaknesses.  Do great in math class and stink at French?  Then focus on math as you may be a math genius.  Do you feel energized and get great feedback working on marketing presentations than financial forecasts?  Then you should be a marketer and not a financial analyst.  The same goes for the speedster versus endurance junkie division.  Don’t assume that you absolutely need to train like one type of athlete just because that’s what your coach or your training plan want you to be.  Instead, find a plan or coach that works for your type of athlete.  Put simply: put your strengths to work.

Thanks for reading and be sure to like the Athletic Time Machine Facebook page and follow us on Twitter @AthTimeMachine.  If you found this post useful, please reblog it on WordPress, share it on Facebook, or retweet it on Twitter to share it with your friends.

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2 thoughts on “Training Different Kinds of Runners

  1. Good article. You might want to check out Steve Magness’ Science of Running. Lots of information in regards to individualization of training for fast twitch and slow twitch dominant athletes. A lot of parallels to your article, but also some differences regarding suggested volume and intensity in training.

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    • Great comment, Dan! I think I’ve mentioned before that Steve Magness is, in my opinion, the best modern running coach in the world. The Science of Running is a Godsend. It’s one of those books that belongs on every runner’s bookshelf, reread every now and then, and bought frequently as gifts to friends. I preordered a copy when Steve announced it and keep a copy on both my Kindle and my bookshelf just so I can instantly look up Steve’s great advice.

      You’re right that he talks about individualizing training between speedsters and endurance junkies, but his discussion focuses on muscle fiber type (it may be true for the athletes Steve trains who tend to be younger) and gives recommendations that tops out at 10K (in multisport, we all know plenty of speedsters who do Ironman). I think it’s a bit too simple for us older athletes running longer events. I also disagree with Steve that longer intervals are not meant for speedsters– they just have to be approached differently and more carefully. But I do love what Steve says about shorter burst interval training– speedsters can really do this until the cows come home and it does a great job at improving muscle tension (which is key to not running flat).

      But again this isn’t about giving specific training advice. Maybe I’ll build up the courage (and time!) to write a post about how to do an endurance speedwork build specific to speedsters for multisport racing. I think there are plenty of them out there for endurance junkies thanks to Lydiard. Instead, my goal was addressed to the underserved speedsters out there who get frustrated with training plans that just seem impossible. Don’t get injured, slower, and burnt out– get a new coach or a new plan!

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