By Michael Beisty

Mature distance runners could be excused for thinking you only have to concentrate on high quality speed work to offset the impacts of aging on distance running performance. Certainly, a lot of the contemporary literature supports regular fast running as a means to reduce the impact of aging on performance.

For the mature competitive runner it can be tempting to do minimal mileage and overdo the quality.  High quality running – with a particular focus on anaerobic work – may deliver some exceptional results in the short to medium term but to achieve sustainability in performance levels you do need an adequate aerobic base.  Regular speed-work can be a grind and psychologically tough.  So what is a healthy balance for the mature distance runner that can ensure consistent performance, minimizing the risk of breakdown or burnout?

I have found a soft quality program (SQP) that focuses on endurance an ideal way of building aerobic capacity whilst at the same time enabling a degree of performance progression. Put simply, my concept of a SQP is to include faster than steady pace running (primarily no faster than 5km race pace) on a regular but less structured basis – targeted to mature distance runners competing at 5km to half marathon.  A SQP relies on feel and effort as opposed to time and distance, and is more easily adaptable to natural surroundings.  You search for grasslands and ovals, dirt trails & parklands that allow fast and controlled running but you steer away from the track. You only train once per day and maintain reasonable but not excessive weekly mileage eg 40-50kpw for the beginner and 80-90kpw for the experienced and 100-120kpw for the elite.

I describe a SQP as something that is mildly stretching, supports progression in performance but doesn’t exhaust the athlete, physically or mentally.  The regularity of this sort of lower quality (but above steady state) running is more challenging than it may seem.  Yet it is also an ideal way to ensure some intensity in your training without it feeling onerous.

The Essential Elements of a SQP

  • Use of fortnightly to 4 weekly training cycles;
  • A taper week – every 4th or 5th week halve your mileage to consolidate the previous block of training – have a rest day this week if you feel the need;
  • Train in natural surroundings and on grass or dirt as much as possible;
  • Conduct shorter repetitions (200-600m) at 5 km race pace/effort with a higher number of reps and short rest intervals eg 8-10×400, 200 jog;
  • Always err towards a smaller number of reps for anything above 600, at slightly faster than 5km race pace/effort eg 3 x 800, 3 x 1km, 2 x 1600, 2x 2km;
  • Rely on effort and run as much as possible without timing your reps;
  • Use “real” fartlek – this can be your toughest session. Challenge yourself to include hard surge efforts at different speeds or over undulating courses, say the middle 6km of a 12km run;
  • Judicious use of tempo runs at 5-10km;
  • Over time, let your steady runs build to faster paces if the urge arises but don’t be afraid to have gentle runs to ensure adequate recovery;
  • Run the second half of your Sunday long run significantly faster than the first and kick down the last 2km – only check your split at half way;
  • To enable reasonable pace, long runs are limited to 16km, increasing to 20km twice per week only (Wed/Sun) if training for half marathons;
  • Have 3 days steady running between particularly hard efforts/sessions;
  • Race at least every fortnight at your local club or masters event, or park run; and
  • Use race performance to gauge progression.

When using a SQP you can expect the speed of your training to increase for the same effort expended as you progressively work through the blocks of training.  You can also expect that your mileage may increase incrementally in tandem with your speed capability – though significant increases in mileage are not essential.  You may also find significant improvements in race outcomes if you choose to have a hard race at the end of your taper week.

The Base

I must remind the reader that to achieve optimal results from a SQP it is absolutely necessary to build the base.  I build up to and hold 80kpw for 2 months and use the first block of the SQP as an adaptation cycle, gradually moving into the program.  So for example, a mature runner returning from a significant lay-off may take 5 months to build up to 80kpw from zero, then hold 2 months at 80-90kpw (with some limited soft quality work), and take 1 month to adapt to the program proper.

For me, in my fifties and sixties, when returning from lay-offs I have found that physical adaptation kicks in at 80kpw.  My running becomes free flowing and I can actually feel the strength seeping back into my body.  Its discernible.  Only when I reach this level of fitness through steady running do I start to introduce faster work.  You will know when the time is right.

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