The Balancing Act- Developing Speed and Endurance – Science of Running

The Balancing Act- Developing Speed and Endurance – Science of Running

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Training is all about balance. It may be a cliché statement, but when it comes to training for almost any event, ensuring that speed and endurance, stress and rest, or any number of factors has the appropriate interplay is essential. When it comes to training runners, or even team sport athletes, I like to keep things simple. I see training as balancing two almost opposing, yet complementary, skills: Speed and Endurance.

Is this a bit too simplistic? Sure, there are many shades of speed and endurance, but when it comes to breaking down training into a usable concept, this simple paradigm has a lot of merit. It allows you to visualize how the training will impact the physiology and in turn, race times. With a simple glance of a workout, I can understand how hard the workout will pull towards one side of that equation.  A strong long run pulls us hard towards the endurance side, a few 200-400m repeats at near max, a strong tug towards speed. As we venture into the mixed/middle zones the tug might be minor towards one side of the other.

But the benefit of conceptualizing training in such a simple way is that it ensures that we KNOW where we are trying to go, and how far away from that we might be. How do we know where to go? It’s determined by where we ultimately want that balance to end up. Where on the spectrum of speed to endurance our event demands lie. Running an 800m? Shifted towards speed. A marathon? More on the endurance spectrum.

But event demands aren’t the only item that determines the balance. Each individual brings different characteristics to the table. A fast twitch orientated athlete is more likely to be hyper-responsive to any speed/anaerobic work. On the other hand, they might be sensitive to large volume blocks. On the opposite side, an aerobic monster might need more of an endurance stimulus to budge the needle.

The event demand and the invidividual characteristics slightly alter where our central fulcrum (or balance point) lies.

What determines the balance?

•    Individuals Physiology, Biomechanics and Psychology
•    Event Demands
•    Time of the year/Periodization
•    Training surrounding it

Once we know where we are trying to end up and where the individual characteristics of our athletes lie, then we can look towards making our way towards that goal. As mentioned earlier, the workouts we do will push or pull us along that speed/endurance continuum.  And our goal as a coach is to build each side to the right capacity while keeping the balance between them.

Sometimes you are intentionally out of balance. Perhaps increasing the endurance side at a slight expense to the speed during a base or foundation phase. Or letting our aerobic abilities slightly deteriorate during the end of the season while our anaerobic abilities sharpen up. At the beginning of the season, young athletes often complain of not feeling fast or being off their PR, but in many cases, this is by design. As coaches, we have intentionally gone into the season unbalanced toward the endurance side. We know that as we add intervals and races, the speed or anaerobic component will come around. But often, our athletes freak out screaming “I have no speed!” This isn’t a problem, as long as it is planned and the speed is within reach of how training can shift it.

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The point is, we should acknowledge and plan to the best of our abilities, these periods.  And let our athletes know.

Occasionally, we’ll mess up our balance, and then have to change plans to shift the emphasis slightly to one side or the other. Races provide excellent feedback for where these abilities lie. See them struggle to maintain a pace? Or perhaps they complain about their breathing and lungs? Or maybe it’s about their turnover and speed? All of that is data.

Another way to look at this is through physiology:

Nailed the balance:

What you see here is a World Class 5k runner’s lactate curves. We did a lactate threshold test at 3 points (Base, Pre-season, Competitive Season). Along with the traditional LT test, we performed a max 400m test taking lactate afterward (every 2 minutes until it peaked) to get a maximum anaerobic capacity.

What you see is a large improvement in aerobic abilities (by a shifting of the lactate curve) from test 1 to test 2. You also see a slight improvement in anaerobic with an improvement in the 400m time. What this means is our base worked where we increased aerobic abilities while doing enough speed to improve or maintain that ability. From test 2 to test 3, the lactate curve is about the same, BUT if you look at the anaerobic abilities they improved significantly. So what we have is a maintenance or improvement of our aerobic abilities (Even though there wasn’t a shift in the LT curve, their aerobic abilities probably improved because the anaerobic abilities improved a lot, so the curve didn’t change, but remember the curve is dependent on a balance) and a big improvement of anaerobic abilities. Again, the balance shifts a little during this period.

And, not surprisingly, her 5k times improved significantly along the way.

Messed up the Balance

Contrary to the athlete above, this is an example of when the balance gets skewed. Same tests, but what you see is an improvement from test 1 to test 2 in terms of aerobic abilities and anaerobic. But then for the third test, my anaerobic abilities actually went backward, as well as a big drop off in my aerobic ones. Why? I messed up the balance, performing too much hard “anaerobic” work on the track which deteriorated my aerobic abilities and then caused me to go into a state of overtraining where my speed dropped too.

So what?

It’s a simple statement. Balance training. But as you can see the details behind it can get complex. Maybe, we do too much endurance work and not enough speed maintenance during our base phase, so we have to overemphasize the speed during the next period.

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