Part 1: Consistency
Disclaimer: Content herein does not constitute specific advice to the reader’s circumstance. It is only an opinion based on my perspective that others may learn from.
Anyone of any age who engages in running should be in tune with their body and seek medical advice before embarking on any intensive activity (including changes to said activity) that may unduly extend them. This is critical should the aspiring athlete have underlying medical conditions and/or ongoing health issues requiring medication.
In my first article, I described five main principles for training of the mature elite competitive runner as Consistency, Quality, Strength, Supplementary Exercises, and Active Rest. I also referred to the concept of a Soft Quality Program (SQP) as a training strategy for the mature runner.
The purpose of this article is to explain what a SQP entails and what I mean by Consistency. My intention is to explain each of the remaining principles in future articles, sequentially. As all five principles are interrelated in some way, you may find some overlap in my discussion about each principle. The information I am providing is what has worked for me over a number of years and has been personal to my circumstance. You can determine what may be useful to your own program.
Something I need to say at the outset is my mature running experience is steeped in my fifties and now sixties, having not raced competitively in my forties. So I speak with less authority about what it is like to compete in your fifth decade, but I can certainly hazard a guess.
- Soft Quality Program (SQP)
By way of reference below is a revised version of an article that I wrote a number of years ago about the concept of a Soft Quality running Program. I targeted the program towards a person in their fifties, competing at 5km to half marathon. It can be likened to the Australian “complex” training system promulgated by Pat Clohessy and others, but tailored to the mature competitor. “Complex” systems are described well by Keith Livingstone in Healthy Intelligent Training, a book that contains some great common sense about the practical application of Lydiard principles in the modern era. (1)
I consider the SQP a solid base program that a mature distance runner can adapt when “in transition”. It has the flexibility to be ratcheted up in intensity for the just forties and scaled down for those over sixty. The article speaks for itself and informs my underlying approach to some of the principles I have described.
It can be fun to work out your own program, incorporating the elements of a SQP If managed the right way, a SQP can become your staple training program, building year upon year, as a means of incremental injury free improvement. For instance at 63 and returning from injury I am using a SQP as my core training program over the next two years, building towards 65. Or it can be used as a platform for higher quality speed-work and anaerobic running.
Alternatively, you can build a SQP in and out of your long-term program as circumstances change. Depending upon your experience and stage of development, it can be a circuit breaker for poor performance or a stepping-stone for higher-level performance. This sort of program could assist mature distance runners transitioning back to pre-injury performance levels, beginning runners wanting to adapt to faster running, or experienced runners wanting a break from the hard grind. Psychologically it can be simultaneously liberating (no watch) and exhilarating (natural surroundings).
The main adjustments to SQP I have made in my sixties are a greater emphasis on fartlek, a lesser number of repetitions in speed sessions for reps less than 600 metres (4-6 as opposed to 8-10), only one fast session per week (alternate between fartlek and “track” work), and much easier effort in continuous runs to ensure adequate recovery between quality sessions. Into my sixties some of my faster work has become what I call rhythm sessions – longer reps of 800 metres and above at 5k race pace with short rest intervals. There is less focus on peaking and pure speed with a greater emphasis on the maintenance of injury-free running. Having said that, I am currently reviewing how best to incorporate anaerobic work back into my program.
I also race most Tuesday evenings at Newcastle Veterans (track distances of 2.4, 3, 4 and 5k) so this is an additional hard effort and a “given” within my program.
If you listen to the greats the one common factor in all of their programs is the high level of consistency in their training, a commitment to running every day on some basis. As Earl Fee has stated it takes 7 or 8 years of consistent regular running to hit a career peak (2). For the mature runner, this can be measured by age-graded performance outcomes.
However, I have learnt that as we age into our fifties there is less scope to peak by use of block training approaches with long periods of aerobic base training. As we age if we don’t use it we definitely lose it, and this is especially so in terms of speed and strength work. So to optimise the overall training effect, my preference is to use a program that balances speed, strength and aerobic capacity all year round.
The SQP allows for this balanced approach, with appropriate accommodation of recovery, and the facility to vary the intensity of training through the different decades of a person’s life. It is about incremental improvement over time. It requires patience. This is a safe way to build performance with less risk of injury.
So Consistency is essentially about the regularity of running which of itself builds volume and aerobic capacity, and hones economy. My preference is to run every day rather than embark on a heavy schedule of cross training. My philosophy may be simplistic but running is good for running and I don’t believe that anything else can really replace it. Of course, I understand and respect there are valid reasons for some to cross train, but commitment to the regularity of daily running should not be compromised unnecessarily.
Whilst I laud consistency I do not agree with the streak mentality per se, where maintaining the streak at all costs can drown common sense. For example, whilst I admire the career and guts of Ron Hill, I think he took it too far. Hopping on one leg on canes and cast, or running with a broken sternum, is hard to justify for the purpose of any training effect! Ron defined a legitimate training run as being of at least one mile, which is quite a low benchmark. Though I note that Streak Runners International has come to define a streak as running “at least one mile within each calendar day. Running may occur on either the roads, a track, over hill and dale, or on a treadmill.” (3)
Throughout my own career(s) I have always used 5km as the minimum for a fair dinkum training run. Though I’ve had instances, when returning from injury, of being unable to run further than 200 metres on a grass oval. It’s a psychological thing. Once I can hit 5km continuous running post injury I know I’m on the way back.
- Consistency is also about the application of the training program in totality. If you want to compete to a high level, there is no point running every day without doing the requisite speed work and strength training. A level of dedication is required to run fast regularly and do those strength sessions. Supplementary exercises can be conducted as part of injury prevention in what I describe as maintenance mode. This is not meant to be onerous and will be fully explained in a later article.
In terms of speed work I do not believe in high volume. I suggest that many runners overdo the number of reps. When doing speed work year round I prefer to do slightly higher quality sessions by changing the mix of pace and length of the rest intervals rather than increasing the number of reps. This is especially so if you are balancing these sessions against regular use of tempo runs and fartlek. A large number of reps can be soul destroying and cause staleness and in my view is not required to maintain adequate progression, however you choose to measure it.
For strength training I suggest that twice per week with free weights is enough, 3 times if you can manage it, but not essential. Some form of regular hill training is beneficial and can be incorporated into a program as a dedicated session or by judicious choice of courses for steady state runs. Strength training is absolutely essential for the mature athlete to mitigate the loss of muscle and bone. It is even more essential in later years as the level of deterioration increases.
For masters’ women I appreciate that a range of issues such as monthly hormonal changes and menopause, iron deficiencies, osteoporosis and osteopenia can affect the regularity of running. Admittedly, the latter two issues are not uncommon amongst men over 50. A woman’s ability to recover from tougher sessions is also less than a man of the same age, largely because men have more testosterone that assists muscle repair and growth. The physiological differences of master’s men and women that affects performance is something I will also explore in a later article. (5)
Finally, injury is the arch-enemy of Consistency. In the words of John Jerome “physical change takes place at the level of the cell. That’s why nothing in training is more important than patience.”(6) My first career is a lesson in lack of patience, overcompensating for injury downtime by building back up too quickly, training and racing when over-tired and ultimately affecting the quality of my performances. My training was a series of peaks and troughs ranging from long periods of absolute rest due to injury, to bursts of excessive mileage and short intensive periods of high quality sessions often without the requisite base training. And so the cycle went. I was inconsistent!
My second career as a masters’ runner is different. I have the patience but not the time. Time lost to injury is more critical to future performance as the aging process overlays goals for improvement. But you have to remain philosophical and positive in outlook, and persist in coming back. Your underlying focus is to minimise the rate of degradation in performance.
So whatever you do, stay consistent and don’t get injured. If you can’t run, nothing happens.
(1) Livingstone, K, Healthy Intelligent Training, 2009, pp67-69
(2) Fee, E, The Complete Guide to Running: How to become a Champion, from 9 to 90, 2005, p124
(3) Streak Runners International Inc, runeveryday.com
(4) Hill, R, The Long Hard Road Part One: Nearly to the Top, 1981, p210
(5) Utzschneider, C, Mastering Running, 2014, pp21-26
(6) Jerome, J, The Elements of Effort, Reflections on the Art and Science of Running, 1997, p20