Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Need for Speed : How to Run you Fastest Marathon Ever
   by Bob Wells, CPT, PES

Each year, more than half a million Americans complete a marathon, making it one of the most difficult yet most popular races in existence. In November 50,000 people will run the NYC marathon and etch their names in the annals of history. It is quite an accomplishment to simply finish the grueling 26.2 miles.

However, unless you are Kenyan or Ethiopian, your chances of finishing a marathon in the top 10 are virtually nonexistent.

Ayele Abshero / Courtesy IAAF
Most people attribute the East Africans' success, such as 2012's top marathoner Ayele Abshero (2:04:23), to a superior gene pool. However, Dr. Joe Vigil says that their extraordinary success is owed to more than just their DNA. Vigil comments that "It is common for Ethiopian and Kenyan children to have to run 10 miles each day to get to school."

This early introduction to distance running at speed is believed to allow for the full speed and aerobic development that lays the groundwork for running excellence later in life. It is similar to the language development window in young children. Perhaps if children in the United States weren't so sedentary, the trend of the dearth of excellent American marathoners and the plethora of overweight children would be reversed.

Still, it takes more than hard work to determine success. My high school coach Roger Featherston would say, "It's not about just working harder, you have to work smarter." Examine any Kenyan or Ethiopian training program and you will notice a stark difference when compared to the average American one.

East Africans incorporate more speed work into their program, often running at the lactate threshold. NASM defines the lactate threshold, also known as the anaerobic threshold, as the level of exercise intensity at which lactic acid starts to accumulate in the bloodstream. This happens when it is produced faster than it can be metabolized, or removed.

The primary benefits of training at the lactate threshold are twofold. One is due to the principle of SAID, the specific adaptation to imposed demand. By training at high speeds during practice sessions, you will better be able to run them during races. The East Africans understand this and make it a crucial part of their training.

The other benefit is that the more that you train at the lactate threshold, the more efficient that you become at that level. In addition to being able to more efficiently metabolize lactate, your body can use the lactate as an alternative source of fuel. The extra gas in the tank will allow you to hit the wall later or not at all.


 An example of a lactate threshold, or new interval training, workout comes from Peter Thompson. In his New Interval Training, he offers workout options that can help develop greater race speed. One workout calls for you to run 12 x 400 meters at 5000K pace with a 100 meter roll on recovery. For example, someone who runs a 5K in 21:00, each 400-meter ‘sprint’ should be in 90seconds.

The roll on 100 meter run would be in 20-25 seconds for a more seasoned runner and slightly less for a beginner. The roll on allows for the accumulated lactate to dissipate while still training at a high level.

However, Mindy Solkin of the Running Center in New York advises caution when introducing the speed element, especially to beginning runners. “Speed, introduced improperly in a training program, can lead to greater rates of injury. This can compromise one’s ability to participate in the upcoming race, as well as races in the future.”

It is true that speed must be introduced properly and progressively, according to individual abilities, and goals. Such caution will lead to fewer overuse injuries and less biomechanical inefficiency.

For more ways on how to implement speed work into your program and become a faster runner email me. Whether you are running a 5K or a marathon, speed work can help you reach your potential.

Make your next race your fastest one!


Bob Wells is a USA Track and Field certified running coach and can be reached at bob@bobwellsfitness.com.

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