Running Strong Year Round
Every February, the Wisconsin Track Coaches Association hosts a Coaches' Clinic that is designed to help regional high school coaches prepare for the upcoming track and field season. They usually have a wide range of guest speakers; some who are sharing basic information for coaches who are assigned a discipline they have very little, if any, prior knowledge about. They also bring in a couple of big names in the world of track and field to share their wisdom. This year was especially exciting for me because the go-to speakers were Mick Byrne, Gavin Kennedy, and Jill Miller (coaches for the University of Wisconsin Badgers cross country and track and field teams).
It was very interesting to hear the training philosophy of these coaches, comparing how they were similar and different from other notable gurus in the sport.
The biggest takeaway I had from the presentations was in the realm of threshold training and volume. Mick was very open with some of the specific training plans of his top athletes. One thing that stood true throughout was the importance of developing a very strong aerobic base, but his approach differed from what most people see as building an aerobic base. I think lots of people, especially in the world of ultra events, relate aerobic fitness to merely getting out and running at a relatively easy clip, often with a group of people. Mick advised that a component of aerobic fitness that needs to be practiced year round is not just those "base miles" but also the upper end of the aerobic threshold. He has his runners maintain what many would call a tempo effort or threshold run both during the season and throughout the off season.
Mick gave an example of the effectiveness of this approach by pointing to the 2014 Wisconsin State Track and Field Meet that anyone who followed would rememeber. A senior named Tyson Miehe from Darlington, WI, which is a small Division III school, was slated to compete in the 1600 and 3200 meter run. The 3200 meter event was possibly one of the most notable events of the Championships: Tyson and the eventual state champion, Darin Lau, broke off the pack early on pace to finish well under the current D-III state record. (The previous record was 9:18.17, Darin finished in 9:07.62 and Tyson finished in 9:08.87.) Mick asked Tyson afterwards what he had done differently that he could credit with this big jump compared to his previous races and cross country season the previous fall. Tyson explained to Mick that he had practiced his philosophy of building a strong runner through working all ranges of the aerobic system throughout the off season, and didn't settle to just "jog" for a large block of time.
Mick went on to explain that by following this approach the need to practice a significant drop in volume as championship season approaches is unnecessary, because the relative strength built allows the runner to be fresh by simply plugging in extended recovery between harder efforts. He pointed to the training logs of some of his top athletes who, sure enough, maintained a relatively consistant rate of average monthly mileage througout the year--whether it was championship season or off season training.
Ultra takeaway? I think this type of training could be valuable if not over-analyzed. Something to consider is the distance of goal races. Mick's philosophy to build a strong runner is crutial for all distances. However, the recovery from an event like a 10k cross country race and a 100 mile mountain race differ enormously. From my experience, the volume of training can remain fairly consistant year round assuming you aren't afraid to go slow during recovery phases, respecting the endocrine system and the toll a hard ultra can take on it. Paying close attention to your body in the month following a season of ultra racing is critical, but putting your feet up all together may not be necessary for long-term success and sustainability. Also, reintroducing the component that threshold work brings sooner rather than later can pay off when it comes time to specifiy for a race.