The subject of training for specific distance in running is not as simple or “obvious” as it might seem. Whereas doing sprints while getting ready for 100m seems logical and reasonable, just because you’re preparing to run a marathon, doesn’t mean you should run one during training. I’m often told that it is counterintuitive but we’ll have to agree to disagree, besides it is never specified whose intuition is being used here as a standard. My own experience of over 40 years as an athlete first and then as a coach, my intuition, my understanding of this topic as a scientist and teacher, all make me follow the logic dictated by the processes involved, processes that I see, processes that inevitably lead to certain conclusions and approaches.

Training overall is a delicate process and requires much thought and preparation, and work. Training for a specific distance adds a layer of difficulty. It is crazy to expect such effort from anyone who is not training on a professional level. However, a bit of effort will go a long way, so in my articles I attempt to present such information in the simplest form possible to help you protect yourself from injuries and wandering off in the wrong direction. While some experimentation is healthy and can be fun, some of the uneducated guesses can carry heavy financial and health costs.

What is the Goal of Racing?

What is your final goal when you enter a race? Any race, no matter the distance? Simply put, the final goal of anyone running any race is to attempt to run that specific distance with a good resulting time, or at least faster than before. Even those that enter to merely ‘finish’, as they say, are still pressured by certain time constraints. The rules are (and they are clearly understood) that if you don’t finish within a specific time frame than you won’t get the finisher medal and instead will get the dreaded ‘DNF’. So as you see, even at the recreational level of racing, it is still a race and a question of speed.

However, simply running more miles will not make anybody a better or faster runner. Specific training will. That applies to sprinters as much as to marathoners and everyone else.

What is the Goal of Training?

Simply put, the goal is to be able to run a specific distance on a specific date. Preferably faster than last time. Maybe faster than a bunch of other people that will also be racing.

What is a Common Approach to Training?

Diluted by folklore, training process has become a foggy scenario where recreational runners obtain some numbers from someone who called those numbers a “training plan” and proceed to follow half heartedly that plan while missing some days, skipping some stuff, etc. The emphasis in such training is often put on running and running and running. I’m sorry to disappoint you but this is not a ‘10,000 hour’ thing, and even the 10,000 hours are not a real thing, so what is this idea of running and running and running? This is an oversimplified picture but it summarizes the confusion.

A common approach to training clearly shows the common opinion of what training is – a repetitive experience of doing. Doing something. A rather popular belief or an assumption that during training a runner should run the very distance he or she is training for has no scientific foundation. It is suggested that it helps prepare the athlete for the given distance by letting him/her “experience the load”.

The reality, however, is that every one of us can run any given distance, whether it’s 100m or a marathon. The only true question is – who can do it faster and incur less damage in the process?

The “experience” mentioned earlier is purely a psychological tactic to feel more secure and confident. There is no scientific basis there, no significant physiological advantage and there are better ways to get that feeling of confidence like, for example, improving technique. However, this psychological tactic has a strong potential to cause a lot of physical damage. If you’re attempting to train for a marathon by simply running and running, what you’re really doing is robbing yourself of progress, plus getting a little more and more of “wear and tear” with every pointless long slow run. Every such run has a potential of a serious injury besides not only being unproductive, but what’s more – being counterproductive.

What is a Better Approach to Training?

There are certain things about our body and mind, our personal energy level and perception that are not common knowledge among athletes and coaches, and especially recreational ones. Add to that hierarchical relations between combinations of short, middle and long distances used in training, and relations between speed and endurance and at this point you should be able to see how complex real training is. If those important aspects are not taken into consideration when training is being planned then it shouldn’t be called training and no particular or successful results should be expected.

One of the founding fathers of athletics in Soviet Union, Nicholai Ozolin, wrote in 1949: “Speed is the foundation of endurance.” While this is not widely accepted or even understood yet, the statement made all these years ago is pretty much the jackpot. The athlete/coach that understands it, gets the keys to the gates, i.e. to faster running on long distances.

In order for your training to be effective, whatever the distance, everything you do has to be aimed at the main event – a particular distance on a particular day. While it is simple to have a goal – the date of the race – it is far from simple or easy to figure out what needs to be done in order to get to that date and reach the goal.

Regardless of the distance you’re training for, the bulk of your training process should be focused on developing and maintaining proper form and your body should have the necessary level of strength developed. That alone will serve as a ‘life-saving’ foundation for your performance level. Additionally, you should dedicate your attention to developing speed.

Using the above mentioned as a foundation you can achieve solid progress or at the very least – stability. The better your technique, the longer you can keep on running. When selecting a race to participate in, remember, that whether it is a 5K or marathon – you can do it.

Proper training regimen and planning will prepare you for the race and save you from overtraining and injuries. A really good training program, along with a knowledgeable coach, will help reveal your full potential. In the absence of a coach, my new app or web based training plans might be what you’re looking for. Try them. It is build on the principles I described in this article. The best part is that you don’t need to wonder or guess – simply type in your data and follow the prompts.

There were 2 major contenders, Nike and adidas, that officially announced their efforts to achieve the sub 2 hour record. One down, 1 to go. Nike just made good on their promise to attempt to break that 2 hr mark. Results are in and there is a question. There was no information on drug testing. Can we take their word for it? Considering the result – maybe.

Let’s mention two things before we go further:

  1. Nike’s attempt to break the 2 hr marathon was about marketing new Nike shoes.
  2. This article is about marketing a scientific interest in achieving the sub 2hr marathon
  3. adidas’ effort is also a marketing one

And of course there is a ‘new and improved’ shoe involved and it will be available later this year. While I’m being a bit sarcastic, it must be said that we do need better and improved shoes and it’s good to have so many options and companies willing to invest so much resources into the research and development, into the production and marketing – it is no easy feat. That said, it is healthy to keep in mind what shoes can and cannot give us.

Nike’s attempt was admirable and applaudable and it was fun to watch. It takes guts and often considerable resources to make a bold statement and proceed with the project. But this specific project should have been about athletes, their talent and skill, and not the shoes. There was too much emphasis put on how these amazing shoes will provide everything but the wings, most of the articles out were focused on the shoes. But are shoes still amazing if they are placed on the feet of a runner that couldn’t deliver not because he is not good but because he was chosen for the wrong race? Lelisa Desisa and Zersenay Tadese suffered the consequences of that poor choice. According to Dr. Romanov they were not equal competition to Kipchoge. But then again, could that have been the plan?

It Didn’t Happen Because…

To all the hopeful marathon fanatics out there – it is possible and we might see it sooner rather than later! Here’s the reality that we are working with – there are currently around 180-200 athletes in the world (based on officially published data and footage) that are physically capable of achieving this breakthrough. A smaller group from that couple of hundred runners could actually do it. So there it is – it can happen!

But it didn’t happen this time, and essentially it can all be narrowed down to this:

  • There was no attention given to improving technique, no psychological training and zero focus on perception – things that are at the heart of athletic excellence
  • There was lopsided emphasis on physiology – something that’s predetermined by genes and cannot be changed. Elite runners are elite because they are already on another level, they were born this way (Lady Gaga is smiling somewhere now).
  • There was focus on economy and efficiency – things that are the outcomes, the results of the combination of the above mentioned, but how do you improve the result without improving factors that produce that result?
  • There was too much pinned on the benefits of the shoes, the track, the artificially created conditions.

The Chosen Runners

First thing is first – according to Dr. Romanov’s calculations based on publicly available data and footage, only one of the selected three had a fighting chance – Eliud Kipchoge. If you look at their statistics, the numbers show that Desisa and Tadese shouldn’t have been expected to break 2 hrs. Kipchoge displayed a better focus all the way to the finish line.

There is a number of athletes that could’ve been and should’ve been selected in their place, but I guess it’s understandable that since this is a Nike project, the pool of athletes was limited to those sponsored by Nike. And here’s your problem #1 with this project. Yes it’s understandable but, again, it points to business and marketing, when it should be about a scientific pursuit of excellence in athletics that is not strangled by brands and their investments. It would have been a more progressive approach to invite other brands and their sponsored athletes to participate and work out the scope of involvement.

Now if Wilson Kipsang and Kenenisa Bekele were competing – that could have yielded some interesting results! Bekele being Dr. Romanov’s favorite here.

The Running Shoes

This project was about these new shoes and it can now serve as a good example of the limits of any shoe. After all that considerable investment and all this intellectual investment into the intricate design of these shoes – the shoes made no significant difference. Actually they made no difference at all. I was hoping that we’ll see a “belief” factor at play but no. The athletes either didn’t believe at all that the shoes would make them faster or did believe and yet it made no difference. Either way – fail. But they will be available, correction – their less appealing general public version – will be available this summer for $250 and I’m sure sales will do just fine regardless.

The Running Conditions

Some excited celebrities went as far as to compare this project to placing a man on the moon. Ah…. no. Nothing like it. If only because these guys going in the outer space do not have an armada of ships in front of them to protect them from occasional debris, nor do they have pacing ships, etc.

There is nothing exciting about this artificial setup. It is nothing like the real deal. Even the shoes were “designed specifically to suit the exact surface and conditions of the Formula One race track in Monza, Italy” where the athletes made their sub-two attempt. Wow, stop the presses, are you kidding me? I’m sorry, what was the point of this attempt again? Right – selling shoes.

The Work Ahead

And there is plenty. But no it doesn’t involve specially created shoes, windless artificial environments, breathing masks, etc. Before there can be real benefit derived from these, there must be a solid foundation that involves better training, better coaching, better understanding of what complete training process involves and how to create better training regimen in order to groom a champion and not just rely on his or hers talent. Too many athletes break down at a very young age without ever realizing their potential. Too many peak and fade away well ahead of their time.

Hopefully, adidas will step up their game having now witnessed what Nike’s attempt produced but considering they’ve already been at it for a while it is doubtful any changes that could yield significant results can be made in time for their public attempt.

In order for any runner to break through to another level, they must understand that it can only happen if they improve their perception and technique. There are limits on many things but these two areas have no limits.

That ‘zone’ that everyone knows about, that elite athletes write about in their memoirs, where they effortlessly set world records but it just happened, they couldn’t do it voluntarily afterwards. That zone, that special state is achieved by improving perception. Of course, being on elite level their perception is already way above an average runner, but compared to physiological aspects, perception has layer upon layer of levels and can be continuously improved.  Similarly, technique can continuously be fine tuned. Technique is that gateway that either prevents an athlete from expressing his or hers full potential and hinders natural abilities, or provides the best outlet for the best expression possible and we all benefit – we get to bask in the glory of magnificent athletic achievement.

This process of developing perception and improving technique is incredibly fascinating and is a never-ending source of personal discoveries and continuous progress and growth. But many just hammer away those miles.

Food For Thought

Sometimes I wonder, what if while we are passionately discussing this and arguing over what’s possible, there is a person somewhere out there that quietly runs a 1:55 marathon once a week because it’s a fun thing to do. But we don’t know about it because that person didn’t enter a race and nobody is there to clock that breathtaking event. If nobody witnesses the event – does it change history?

According to Dr. Romanov if we take our terrestrial gravity, other forces, body and mind into account, it is possible to run a 1hr 27 min marathon. But chances are it will take us a long while to get there, like another 200+ years… Unless we are willing to switch the focus off the shoes and onto the things that really make a difference!