Distance Running: Cross country training

Cross-country runners: Owen Anderson answers training queries

Q:    I coach cross-country runners. As we move through the season, which often lasts about 12 weeks, I always wonder whether we can 'cover all the bases' adequately in such a short period. Basically, we have about three weeks per phase (general strength, specific strength, hills, and explosive strength). Is that enough time for each phase of training? Would I be better off spending the first four weeks on general strength and then the last eight-or-so strictly focusing on lactate-threshold improvement, perhaps using the programme outlined in your book, Lactate Lift-Off?
Tom Plocker

A:    Realistically, there's probably not enough time to optimally develop each aspect of strength, but there is time to make some solid improvements in each key characteristic. I would strongly recommend spending three weeks with general strengthening, three with special work, three with hills, and then three weeks with explosive training. Your runners will like this strategy, because it creates a very varied and interesting programme. Bear in mind, though, that they will respond in different ways: some will really benefit from the special strengthening, for example, while others will adapt more strongly in response to the general work (a good reason why you should not to leave out any aspect of the training completely). Ideally, you would have your runners come to you at the beginning of the season with a great foundation of general strength and a decent 'base' of training volume (mileage). You could then devote four weeks to special strengthening, three to hills, and five to explosive work, thus bolstering speed.

Runner with leg length discrepancy
Q:    I have been running for the last year-or-so with a half-inch shoe-build on my right foot. My major problem was a long history of pulled hamstrings, mostly on the right leg. My leg-length discrepancy was verified by a chiropractor who took a series of x-rays of my right and left legs with a yard stick in the pictures. They showed that both my right tibia and fibia were a quarter-inch shorter than those on the left. Although the shoe-build seemed to help at first, I soon ran into two problems: my right hamstring still got sore, and when I tried to get a shoe-build placed on a new pair of running shoes, I found out that - because of the way most shoes are made now - the sole couldn't be removed to put on a shoe-build. I wound up with a pair of shoes that weighed 15oz, and felt like I was running with cement blocks on my feet!

I found out I could get custom shoes made for about £135 pounds, but since my hamstrings still bothered me I wasn't ready to jump into such expensive shoes just yet. I tried putting a quarter-inch lift inside my right shoe and that felt fairly good when I ran. Unfortunately, though, my hamstrings still get sore. I've been going to power yoga and doing hamstring exercises, and that has kept me from pulling the hams, but they still don't feel right. When I run, I feel as though I am jamming my right leg into my pelvis.

Meanwhile, my left leg hasn't wanted to do its share of the work for about three years, and the problem seems to be getting worse. I think the trouble is that my pelvis is rotated so that the right side is ahead of the left, and it feels like I have to consciously swing my left leg forward to make it do its work. My running economy feels terrible. I know there are at least two factors at work - my short right leg and the fact that I like to run on crowned roads facing traffic (although I do try to run on the other side of the road when it is safe and on flat surfaces as much as possible). When I run facing traffic it feels like my right foot is overpronating and my left foot is supinating. So wearing a shoe build on my right foot would logically seem to make the problem worse.

What I'm trying to work out is how to get and keep my pelvis aligned (I can't do your core exercises because they hurt my shoulder) and what - if any - shoe build I should really be wearing. I think I've exhausted the advice available locally.
Dan Roberts

A:    Given that your right leg is shorter than the left, it makes sense that your right hamstrings have suffered. Since your right foot had further to fall with each step than your left, it was associated with a slightly longer stride length and a greater downward acceleration at impact with the ground, triggering the stress on the right hamstrings.

I do believe that a lift might help you in the long run: it will make you feel as if you are jamming your right leg into your pelvis for awhile, because your right leg is used to falling further than it does with the lift in place. The lift makes your foot hit the ground before your leg is really ready to cushion the blow, but over time your nervous system will adjust to this and regulate the stiffness and resiliency of your right leg more appropriately. The pelvic rotation you describe could be a compensation - your body's way of taking some of the stress off your right hamstrings. Like most compensations, though, the process leads to other complications - like the problems you are facing with your left leg. I'm not surprised that you choose to run on crowned roads facing traffic, since that means your right foot does not have to fall as far as if you were running on the flat. (Editor's note: Dan is not British and his traffic drives on the right.) Pronation of the right ankle will indeed be exaggerated when you face traffic on a crowned road. Note, too, that the crowned road itself provides a sort of 'shoe-build' for your right foot by elevating the surface under the right side of your body. So, by wearing a shoe-build and running on a crowned road facing traffic, you are over-compensating for your short right leg, and you will feel like you are jamming your foot into the ground. In addition, the natural tendency to pronate with your right ankle on the crowned road will be exaggerated by the shoe-build, which raises your foot further from the road surface and thus makes your ankle more unstable. This is not a good situation!

I would recommend running very early in the morning before the traffic gets going - in the centre of the road. Another alternative would be to train at a park or golf course with fairly neatly-mown grass. In the long run, using a shoe-build or insert for your short leg and running only on flat surfaces should make a difference.

Expectations of high-altitude training
Q:    Do you have any information on high-altitude training - and specifically on how long an athlete must train before it has any positive effect? Once the athlete returns to sea level, how long does the altitude-induced enhancement in fitness remain in place?
Brian Johnson

A:    Responses vary, but it generally takes about three weeks at altitude before significant positive changes begin to appear. Once an individual returns to sea level, the altitude-associated physiological changes (higher haematocrit, elevated haemoglobin, spiked EPO, better intramuscular buffering etc) should disappear in a couple of weeks. Paradoxically, as these physiological attributes regress, the athlete may be able to perform better and better. This is because the temporarily altered physiological state, together with the higher oxygen pressure that comes with the return to sea level, allows the athlete to carry out some tremendously high-quality workouts during the first few weeks at sea level. This more intense training should allow the athlete to improve significantly.

Thus improvements in fitness associated with altitude residency do not have to be transitory since the athlete can move up to a higher plateau of fitness after being at altitude and then stay there. Bear in mind, though, that a better strategy is to 'live high and train low': to live at high altitude throughout the year but travel to a modest elevation for daily training. There are many places around the world where this strategy can be accomplished and it has the advantage of preserving high-quality training (which is often lost at altitude) while keeping the athlete 'naturally blood-doped'.

Cyclist hits trouble in testing interval workout
Q:    During a recent interval workout on my bicycle, when I was attempting to complete 4x2 miles at a very high-quality pace, I felt terrible during and after the first two-mile segment and decided to 'bag' the workout. In the future, if I have this problem again, what approach should I take? I could have followed two alternative strategies after the first two-mile interval when I realised I was in trouble: preserve the distance target of the workout by doing the remaining three two-mile segments at a slower pace; or preserve the pace target of the workout by covering the remaining six miles in smaller (like half-mile) chunks, though still at the desired velocity. I don't like not completing a workout and would love some guidance!
John Haller

A:    It is better to break the workout up into smaller chunks and preserve the pace, if you can (without destroying your leg muscles in the process, of course!) Remember that you are trying to train your nervous system, not just your heart and muscles, and preserving the goal pace of a session teaches your nervous system to control and coordinate the chosen velocity properly as well as upgrading your efficiency at that speed. These are important factors! One might argue that average oxygen consumption and heart rate for a workout decline when work-interval length is reduced. This can certainly happen - unless the short intervals can be carried out at the recommended pace while the longer intervals are slower - but it tends to be a fairly minor effect, especially if the shorter work intervals can be accompanied by shorter recoveries. There are some days when you can't train in a quality way, and that's OK - it happens to everyone. However, if you can reasonably cover the recommended workout distance at the appropriate pace, it's a good idea to do it. If you have to 'chop up' your intervals to get it done, so be it.

Should I go by the heart monitor book?
Q:    I just read John L Parker's book about heart monitor training. He suggests alternating easy days of training with hard days. He also recommends subtracting your resting heart rate from maximum heart rate while calculating the 'ceiling' and 'floor', and adding resting heart rate back at the end of the equation. I have a fairly high max heart rate of 202, with a resting rate of 59. His method makes me run at 180 beats per minute at the high (85%) end, whereas it would only be 170 if I simply multiplied my max heart rate by .85. What do you think?
Mickey Smith

A:    Truthfully, you'll get fitter from the higher HR - ie a 20-minute swim, bike, or run at 180 will do more for you than 20 mins at 170. Of course, if you can only sustain the higher heart rate for 10 minutes, then all bets are off.

The key problem with heart-rate training is that heart rate is so fickle; it depends on mood, hydration status, diet, sleep, temperature, wind, humidity, and something called drift (the tendency of heart rate to rise even though running pace is constant). The drift phenomenon means that you will automatically slow down during workouts (if your goal is to sustain a specific heart rate), even though you could reasonably be working at a higher intensity. Also, there are no 'magic' heart rates, and the prescriptions 'experts' give (for example to run at 85% of max HR in order to work at lactate threshold) are rarely correct since lactate threshold actually varies from 60 to 95% of max heart rate. I believe it is better to train by pace and use the HR monitor primarily as a curiosity. Some runners also like to use it as a 'governor' on easy days; by deciding not to allow heart rate rise beyond a certain level, they manage to avoid training too strenuously.

Think the unthinkable about that long weekend run
Q:    Although I have subscribed to Peak Performance for only four issues, you have made me believe in the 'neural' approach and the specifity of training. However, I am left with a big question.

Several of my friends and I have been pursuing a goal of a 20-minute 5K for a few years. Almost all of us include a long, slow (11- to 13-mile) run in our routine about once a week, and no one has ever questioned this workout. After reading your newsletter, I can't imagine you would recommend running up to two minutes per mile slower than race pace for 11 - 13 miles, but that is exactly what we have been doing. Running long at such a slow pace is not specific, squeezes out a workout that would be specific, and - since it involves more than an hour-and-a-half of running - requires substantial recovery.

On the other hand, I have read that running for these longer durations teaches the body to use fat better, promotes greater capillary profusion in the muscles, and even recruits fast-twitch muscles for endurance running that otherwise would have gone unused. Do we 20-minute wannabes keep the non-training-specific long, slow run for its cardio-vascular and fat-burning benefits or dump it in the scrap heap, replacing it with a fartlek, super-set, VO2max, or mile-repeat session?
John Eames

A:    Your pattern of including a long weekend run in your training programme is very common! About 90% of runners I have met train in this way, and many are very upset when I tell them to replace it with something of higher quality and specificity. When you complete a long run at much slower than race pace, you are playing the 'mileage game' - hoping that the miles will somehow magically transform your running capacity. If you are running only 15 miles per week and add on an 11-mile long run to your programme, it will usually be beneficial in improving lactate threshold and VO2max. But if you are already running 40 miles per week, the benefits of adding a long effort at slow pace will be quite small. As far as the potential fat-burning benefits are concerned, bear in mind that your muscles generally have a vast appetite for fat. If you keep your muscles healthy, they will burn a lot of fat over the course of a day. That is important to remember, because total fat metabolism is usually greater over the course of a day than during a single workout. If you carry out a high-intensity workout which burns more calories (but perhaps less fat) than a slow, long run, your muscles will 'look for' energy during the day and metabolise fat at higher rates than after the slower effort. So, you need to think not just about what happens during the workout but also about what happens during the rest of the day. Essentially, you don't need to worry that by lowering the frequency of your long runs you will become deficient at fat-burning. Incidentally, there is no evidence at all that slow runs produce a higher capillary-to-muscle-fibre ratio than more intense efforts. On the contrary, high-intensity efforts 'plead' with the muscles and cardiovascular system to provide better ways to get oxygen into the muscles.

Your last argument is the familiar one propounded by Snell-Lydiard: run long enough to fatigue your slow-twitch muscle cells, and your fast-twitchers will kick in, so you get better at using them and thus faster. If this is true, all the slow plodders I see at the local track should be getting faster and faster over time, instead of slower (which is actually the case). And no one seems to ask why it is necessary to wait for one hour-or-so to use one's fast-twitch muscle cells: why not go ahead and use them at the beginning of a workout, when you are ready to train steadily and intensely? Having said all that, you shouldn't discard the long run entirely. It does have some general benefits, particularly if you are a relatively low-mileage runner, but it's best to alternate it with higher-quality work, which offers more 'physiological bang for the buck' and is more specific to the demands of racing.

A key problem is that most long runs are not progressive in nature. As you mention, you were doing 11-13 miles at slow pace every week. There's no progression in that: your body adjusts, and that's it - it doesn't improve further no matter how many times you come back to the session. Once I asked the great Kenyan marathoner Sammy Lelei if he was going to complete a 22-mile-run three or four weeks before a key marathon, and he said:'Owen - why would I do that? I already know I can run 26 miles, I don't need to prove that to myself again. My competitors are going to be fast, so I need to do some very hard running.' The lesson is that it always best to challenge yourself with a new and reasonably difficult training stimulus than repeat very familiar workout.

Of course, you could make your long runs progressive - and thus much more beneficial for your fitness. In the case of the 11-miler, you could jog along for three or four miles, kick in one mile at 5K race pace (or two miles at 10K pace), go easy for a couple of miles, add in another half-to-one mile at race pace, and then finish up the last few miles. This would make the workout much higher in quality without dramatically increasing your recovery needs. Over time, you could gradually increase the amount of quality running you complete within the long run, making certain that you can still recover well enough to carry out your week-time training sessions.

Get on the road to gold-medal form and smash your competition.
Try Peak Performance today for just $1.97.

Privacy Policy [opens in new window]
Please Login or Register to post a reply here.