At certain times during your training you may ask yourself what more you can do to improve your running performance. This usually happens after a big race, and more often than not after a performance that may not have lived up to expectations.
There are many things that are not under your control when training for an event or during a race. You may have a bout of illness that puts you back a few weeks, or possibly work or family commitments have resulted in less time training than you would have hoped for. During a race you could have someone accidentally trip you, causing an injury, or perhaps the nutrition you had been training with you and expected to be provided during the race wasn't available, causing stomach issues. Don't waste time worrying about things that aren't in your control, the time spent worrying could be used finding a solution - sometimes that solution is just getting yourself back into the right frame of mind so you can get back on track.
Unfortunately most runners only use a small fraction of the variables that are in our control. When many ask the question "What more can I do?" the answer is inevitably "Run more" If they had a control panel that allowed them to make adjustments to their training, it would look like this...
While increasing volume can certainly lead to an improvement in running performance, and is the key variable for many runners, if it is not done in a gradual and safe way it will lead to the all-too-familiar injury cycle that prevents long term consistent running.
There have been several studies that show a relationship between higher running volume and increased injury risk, and while this may seem like an obvious relationship (especially in those who have experienced recurrent injuries when trying to increase volume), if you dig a little deeper you will find that it's not quite that simple. A 1987 study at the University of Bern in Switzerland interviewed over 4000 participants, asking them to give a detailed history of their previous twelve months' training. Volume was found to be associated with injury risk, however the risk seemed to peak at between 40 and 60km per week; runners above this volume did not gain additional injury risk. Another interesting finding was that increasing volume at any level reduced the number of injuries when expressed in injuries per 1000km run.
So how do you get through the early stages that involve a higher injury risk? The best way to manage increasing your volume safely is to look at the other running variables that are under your control. Instead of a control panel such as the one shown above, with only volume being adjusted, the minimum number of variables needed to increase volume safely and improve your running performance is four.
It is important that you modify both the intensity of each run as well as the frequency of runs throughout the week. Basically you have to be able to train within your limits. Keep the training load below your body's ability to handle that load by managing total volume, intensity, frequency and rest (but high enough to cause a positive training response). Unfortunately for those that just modify running volume, training load often greatly outweighs load capacity, leading to injuries.
As well as controlling these four variables week to week, they also must be taken into consideration when planning single running sessions. They are the key variables when planning intervals - total running volume for the session, intensity of each interval, number of intervals (frequency) and time to rest/recover between intervals or sets (as well as what to do during the rest period such as total rest or just reduced effort). Getting these variables right can lead to a great session and achieving the desired goals, getting them wrong can lead to possible overload of certain body parts' ability to handle the load and lead to injuries.
You can add many more variables to your running control panel. Some of these are not independent of the other variables, such as sleep and nutrition, which are the two best ways to enhance recovery. The rest/recovery period allows you to return to your normal physiological and psychological state as quickly as possible. This is the time when the body is repairing and rebuilding itself to allow you to handle increased training loads in the future. If you do not recover properly after stressing the body you will just end up training harder but not improving, or possibly going backwards in your running performance. Do not think of rest and recovery as signs of weakness or a waste of valuable training time. Think of them as a vital part of your training that requires as much thought as any other variable. Proper recovery is what enables you to increase your training load safely, thereby allowing you to train more consistently and improve your running performance.
There are many other things that are under you control when thinking about what you can do to improve your running performance. I will discuss some of these in detail in future posts. They include:
- Strength Training
- Mental Training
In time, as you add more variables to your control panel, you will find that there is a lot more than just increasing your running volume that can improve your running performance. Instead of sitting at a control panel with just one variable you will be working with something similar to the picture below.