Over the next few months, I plan on making big changes to this website. One of these changes is regular highlights of the accomplishments of the athletes I coach. These women and men put hard work into their training and have achieved some impressive goals and personal bests in their running.
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Sometimes, when you are looking to improve your running, the answer isn’t necessarily more mileage or extra hard workouts. The answer is often taking the approach of polarized training – taking your easy runs truly easy and pushing appropriately hard on challenging workouts specific to your goal race distance.
Today, I want to highlight Laura, an athlete whom I have coached for the past year and a half. Since we started working together, Laura has set PRs in the 10K, half marathon, and marathon.
Like many 20-something runners, Laura had completed a couple marathons and was starting to set her sights on larger time goals when she contacted me. Laura started working with me in early 2017, hoping to break four hours in the marathon. She joined the training group option, which provides a hybrid of an individualized plan with a supportive online community.
No matter what level of coaching an athlete signs onto, I always begin with an initial consultation over the phone. From our conversation, I gathered a few key takeaways: Laura is highly self-motivated, a hard worker, and fit. Like many runners in her situation, she applied her work ethic to every run and was running a majority of her mileage in the gray zone of moderate intensity. Her easy runs were too fast and she wasn’t pushing as hard as she could in her hard workouts.
Laura’s marathon plan did involve training harder, but a lot of my work as a coach deliberately making training easier for several runs per week. Highly-motivated and naturally skilled runners already know how to put in the hard work and log the miles; what they benefit the most from is the structure on when to exactly to work hard and when to run easy, along with the nudge from a coach to maintain that structure when translating the plan from a calendar into actual runs.
The 2017 Vermont City Marathon was her first goal race for coaching, giving us plenty of time to train. The biggest change I made to her plan was polarization: I had Laura slow down her easy runs and add in two harder workouts per week. Some weeks, we did a fartlek and tempo run; other weeks, we included a harder long run and a mid-week workout. The closer we got to the race, the more marathon pace work Laura completed. Her hard work on the workouts and discipline to run easy paid off and we knew she was ready for a marathon PR.
In our initial consult, Laura also mentioned that she struggled with pacing. Especially in the early weeks of marathon training, I utilized fartleks and progression runs to help her develop her internal sense of pacing and practice finishing a run at a hard effort. Several workouts were done based on perceived effort, with a pace range, rather than focusing on hitting an exact pace for an exact distance.
Vermont City is a notoriously challenging course, so we developed a race strategy for the hills and broke the race into manageable chunks to aid with the mental aspect of racing. Laura never hit the wall – in fact, her fastest mile was the final mile. She paced herself consistently on the hills and finished in 3:55:52 – a 6-minute PR that surpassed her goal of breaking four hours.
Since then, Laura has continued to work with me as her coach. She set a half marathon PR of 1:48 at Philly last September and ran a 10K PR of 47 minutes last fall. While we applied the same principle of easy days and hard days, we varied her workouts to be more specific to the half marathon and 10K distances.
Laura’s training has been periodized to her goals. Over the past year and a half, I’ve structured her plan to focus on specific race training for various distances, recovery weeks, and base-building. We have even built in “fun fitness weeks” to keep running fun and avoid mental burnout, which are one or two-week chunks without any structure beyond a mileage suggestion.
Laura is now training for the Via Marathon. Since training plans must adapt to fitness, we are increasing her mileage and the intensity of her workouts for this marathon. Her consistency coupled with a periodized plan has led to an overall higher base of fitness and faster paces and I am really excited to see how she does this training cycle. As her coach, I’m incredibly proud of her hard work and continual progress!
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What effective changes have you made to transform your training?