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Having “Space” in your training plan- Why Density is often the neglected variable – Science of Running

Interview with Tony Holler – Science of Running
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People love comparisons. It’s built into our nature to compare groups and note the differences. So it’s no surprise when I present at conferences, that one of the topics is often on looking at the differences between runners. Whether that’s from the high school to college to pro groups, or from different types of runners.

Traditionally, the question has focused on the interaction of volume (“How many miles does he run?”) and intensity (“How many speed workouts does he do?”). However, there’s an often neglected piece to the puzzle, that athletes and coaches might take for granted, that can be manipulated. The concept of space.

What’s space? How “dense” the training is, whether that’s within a workout or within the training cycle is how I like to define space. In other words how tightly packed is the training versus how much space do you have between workouts or training cycles.

As coaches, we tend to fall into this trap of cycling workouts and sticking to tried and true patterns. I’ll never forget my conversations with a very good coach when I was younger in which he stated “tempo or longer reps on Monday, shorter reps or hills on Thursday, long run Saturday. That’s the cycle. We change the workouts as the season goes, but it’s Monday-Thursday-Saturday.”

The point isn’t to disparage this concept, but to point out that many of us, myself included, often get caught up with this cycle of training. The workouts themselves shift and change, but the “space” between them is held constant.

To me, this is concept prevails because of our human tendency to polarize and like patterns. As coach Renato Canova likes to point out, there are a myriad of intensities between hard and easy, yet we tend to simply classify and stick with these two dichotomies. We like nice neat, usable categories to make sense of the world, so we end up falling into this pattern of Hard/Easy with the variation being the number of easy days after hard workouts.

With this tendency to polarize set, we get stuck in thinking that the “space” between work should be similar regardless of athletes type or level. Instead of simply considering variation in volume and intensity we need to consider the space in between workouts.

It goes beyond simply thinking “Okay, we just did this 5 mile tempo run, it’ll take 2 days to recover from.” Instead, there are additive and subtractive workouts you can do in between that period which can aid or impair recovery/adaptation.

For example, with certain types of athletes, I love a session of short sprint work the day preceding a hard workout. Why? It gives them a nice neural stimulus that increases their reactivity and pop before the next workout. With others, this neural stimulus might be a full blown workout and make them feel flat from their NS being depleted.

What I’ve found in my own coaching is that the spacing varies a lot.  Let’s take a look at several athletes schedules to see the variability.

People love comparisons. It’s built into our nature to compare groups and note the differences. So it’s no surprise when I present at conferences, that one of the topics is often on looking at the differences between runners. Whether that’s from the high school to college to pro groups, or from different types of runners.

Traditionally, the question has focused on the interaction of volume (“How many miles does he run?”) and intensity (“How many speed workouts does he do?”). However, there’s an often neglected piece to the puzzle, that athletes and coaches might take for granted, that can be manipulated. The concept of space.

What’s space? How “dense” the training is, whether that’s within a workout or within the training cycle is how I like to define space. In other words how tightly packed is the training versus how much space do you have between workouts or training cycles.

As coaches, we tend to fall into this trap of cycling workouts and sticking to tried and true patterns. I’ll never forget my conversations with a very good coach when I was younger in which he stated “tempo or longer reps on Monday, shorter reps or hills on Thursday, long run Saturday. That’s the cycle. We change the workouts as the season goes, but it’s Monday-Thursday-Saturday.”

The point isn’t to disparage this concept, but to point out that many of us, myself included, often get caught up into this cycle of training. The workouts themselves shift and change, but the “space” between them is held constant.

To me, this is concept prevails because of our human tendency to polarize and like patterns. As coach Renato Canova likes to point out, there are a myriad of intensities between hard and easy, yet we tend to simply classify and stick with these two dichotomies. We like nice neat, usable categories to make sense of the world, so we end up falling into this pattern of Hard/Easy with the variation being the number of easy days after hard workouts.

With this tendency to polarize set, we get stuck in thinking that the “space” between work should be similar regardless of athletes type or level. Instead of simply considering variation in volume and intensity we need to consider the space in between workouts.

It goes beyond simply thinking “Okay, we just did this 5 mile tempo run, it’ll take 2 days to recover from.” Instead, there are additive and subtractive workouts you can do in between that period which can aid or impair recovery/adaptation.

For example, with certain types of athletes, I love a session of short sprint work the day preceding a hard workout. Why? It gives them a nice neural stimulus that increases their reactivity and pop before the next workout. With others, this neural stimulus might be a full blown workout and make them feel flat from their NS being depleted.

What I’ve found in my own coaching is that the spacing varies a lot.  Let’s take a look at several athletes schedules to see the variability.

Example 2: Female 74min Half marathoner

Easy runs

2mi w/up

3x2mi
with 3min rest between

pace

11:10-538 and 5:32
10:56- 525and 529
10:53- 526 and 526 high

Distance run

Distance runs

Easy run
with 8x100m afterwards- want it at 5k-3k effort with 100m jog between

Easy recovery run

Long run- 20mi

Mileage-100+

Example 3: Female 2:00 800m runner- Base period

26th

2mi w/up

6×200 w/
200m jog (34-31s)

3min rest

6x150m w/
50m walk

2mi c/d

6mi easy

Two runs
of 4mi with 2x60m, 2x80m, 2x100m accels after one of them

2mi w/up4x5min
tempo with 2min easy(controlled
tempo)2mi c/d

7mi easy

10mi long run

4-5mi easy

Example 4: 3:56 miler- Base Period

19

9mi and
5mi w/ 10x100m strides with quick turnaround rest

3mi w/up20minute
tempo, 3min rest, 5x1min on/off at relaxed 10k effort, 3mi c/d
13mi9mi and 5mi
with 4x60m accels after
3mi w/upHill reps-
10x40sec w/ jog down rest- 5k-3k effort,3mi c/d
9mi easy14mi w/
last 10min pickup at the end

The key in seeing these snippets is to look at the space in between them for our purposes. You can see that the first two examples have way less “stuff” and way more “space” between  workouts. Example 1 has 2 full blown workout, and a moderate sprint workout on it’s own. Each is separated by a day or more of easy running.  Example 2- Has only one full blown workout in the week and then a longer run. So you’re looking at two “key” sessions, one intense, one more volume, but lots of recovery/distance run days in between.

Examples 3 and 4 are more middle distance athletes. Example 3 you see way more “stuff” in the week with a few moderate to hard workouts, with sprint work mixed in with little down time after that and the next workout. There’s a little more space after the longer hard workout or long run.

Finally, example 4 has a lot of “stuff” in there with the volume similar to the half marathoners. In other words, it’s jam packed with things. Almost every day has something or is “longer” than a normal easy day.

Each difference has a reason in the training. While I’m sure you can figure out who these people are, it shouldn’t surprise you to learn that the last example is an athlete whose been putting in a lot of training for a while, so his ability to bounce back, recover and handle a dense space is increased.

If you look at some of the Kenyan schedules from Renato Canova, they are similarly “dense” with not  as much “space” between workouts. They have the “base” to do this while many non-Africans don’t.

While, it’s impossible to go through all of the attributes that go into deciding how much space is needed between workouts a few principles to consider are:

  • Athlete Development Age/Base
    • Bigger the foundation, the more “stuff” they can handle
  • Event type
    • Middle distance athletes generally have more “stuff” packed in, but overall volume is lower so total stress load is comparable.
  • Recoverability
    • How does an athlete bounce back from various types of workouts.
    • Create a “recoverability” profile that shows how they feel after certain workouts
  • Training adaptation age
    • Do you need to go there yet? Don’t progress to adding extra things until they need to for adaptation.
  • Injury/Overtraining Risk
  • Priming
    • You can use certain workouts to prime for others.

So what?

While there isn’t anything novel about considering density or space between workouts, I think it’s an important concept to consider and wrap your head around. We tend to focus on volume and intensity, when in reality it’s the density of the work that often is the culprit between successful adaptation and not.

It’s about breaking away from the set workout spacing and styles. 50 years ago Bowman and Lydiard figured popularized the idea of alternating hard/easy work. We need to continue to progress beyond that.





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