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Cramming runs

February 20, 2010

As I’ve mentioned before, there’s a natural tendency for runners to measure their training programmes by weekly mileage. It makes sense, really, because mileage is probably the only consistent and comparable metric that runners gather. But a range of different runs – long and slow, medium race-pace, short and fast, fartlek, and any other varieties – go into this number, with different levels of effort. The weekly mileage number is perhaps more convenient than revealing.

When you build a marathon training schedule, you inevitably build the mileage gradually. In order to prepare your body for a 26.2-mile race you need to improve your aerobic ability, strength and endurance – and often the only way of doing this is by combining medium and long runs over subsequent days. The progress to the peak mileage of your training schedule is gradual, often climbing by as little as 2 miles a week.

Taken on its own, 2 miles doesn’t make a great difference. In fact, it’s doubtful that any one run makes a substantial contribution to how prepared you are for race day. It’s the cumulative effect of this incremental growth in distance, the combination of different runs and recovery times, that really makes you race ready.

And so, knowing that no one run was more important than any other, I was seduced by the lure of the weekly mileage. I’d missed my long run for the week because of a short break in Florence. I made up for this by expanding a couple of the mid-week runs, but then missed Wednesday’s run to look after my partner as she was struck down with a cold.

Still, I figured, I could always make it up by expanding a couple of runs a little further. In the end it boiled down to 13km on the treadmill on Thursday evening, 14km run on Friday lunchtime and a 10km run back on the treadmill on Friday evening. I had planned to do 14km on the Friday evening, but my legs were tired. It occurred to me that there was a good reason for this – in the space of 24 hours I had strung together three tempo runs.

A tempo run is around race pace. It’s designed to get your body used to the speed and exertion of your target pace and is generally considered a hard training session. While you might recover fairly quickly from one of these runs (i.e. your heart rate slows, breathing becomes controlled, etc.), your muscles need time to rebuild their glycogen stores – and repair the inevitable fibre tears that result from the stresses of exercise.

So what’s the point of this post? To remind myself that a schedule is a guideline and not a shackle. A missed run is not a catastrophe and an alternative run is not a cop out. I’ve been sticking to my schedule, broadly speaking, and it has paid dividends in preparing me for Paris. And while distance has its virtues, no single run is vital to my marathon goals.

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