Performance Progress

Basically, there are two camps when it comes to advising runners on how to get faster – increase mileage or do more speed work. In my opinion, all training philosophies are variations of those two camps.

It’s no secret with me that I prefer shorter, more intense runs over the slower, longer ones; hence, I train for speed rather than for volume. I know some runners have strong ideas about the “best way to train,” but my general philosophy is that the best training is the training that you actually do.

I’ve been running to varying degrees of seriousness for the last five years with different ratios of speed-to-volume. Keep in mind that when I say I’m running more “volume,” I mean volume for me. It’s still pretty low in volume in comparison to other runners. My weekly mileage over the years varied from under 10 miles per week (I did this for several years and no, I wasn’t injured) to just under 40 miles per week for marathon training.

For a few months now, I spent a lot of time navel gazing at my past training history in thinking about what I want to accomplish this year. I notice some interesting things that I’ll talk about. When I say notice, I mean these are things I think are happening in the data (i.e., training log); I could do data analysis and come up with concrete, but I’m too lazy for that (sorry, not sorry). One of the interesting things that I observed is that volume doesn’t seem to do much for me. When  I started marathon training in 2015 for Wineglass, Ben predicted that I would get faster in 5K and half marathon as a result. While I did PR in the 5K, it happened AFTER I was done with marathoning and I was in the recovery stage. During marathon training, I got slower in those distances relative to what I had done before.

One of the interesting things that I observed is that volume doesn’t seem to do much for me. When  I started marathon training in 2015 for Wineglass, Ben predicted that I would get faster in 5K and half marathon as a result. While I did PR in the 5K, it happened AFTER I was done with marathoning and I was in the recovery stage. During marathon training, I got slower in those distances relative to what I had done before.

Of course, this is not to say that volume did nothing for me. If you restrict the data to the longer distances (13+ miles), I did get faster in the longer distances. I simply failed to see an effect for the shorter distances.

I get faster when I do speed work. Period. I need to run fast in order to be fast. This year I spent two months doing my own version of 5K training to break 23 mins. I averaged fewer than 20 miles per week, but most of those miles were short hard runs. Within 10 weeks, I PRed easily. Last year when I was running greater volume, I was nowhere close to doing this.

I can’t definitely conclude that speed work is the only way for me to get faster. Perhaps volume would also work on me, but it’s a step-wise function and not a linear, meaning, I need to run even MORE miles in order to see its effect.

Or it’s possible that I’m now at a stage of fitness where I need to do race specific training. During the early phase, there’s a lot of low-hanging fruit, especially if you were sedentary, so just becoming a little fitter leads to gains everywhere.

Another observation was that when I did very low mileage where almost every run was a speedwork was that I got faster quickly, but race performance was rather uneven. Meaning, I either did great or I did terribly. When I increased mileage, I got faster more slowly, but my race performances were more consistent.

I wish there were more 5-mile races. I really like that distance for some reason.

Anything you’ve observed about your own training? Any atypical race distance that you like? 

23 thoughts on “Performance Progress

  1. I started recently PRing in several distances after I finished marathon training. I was definitely slower during training. After the marathon though, I got faster. Maybe my legs were thanking me for not training for a marathon anymore. It could have also been due to a run streak I did. On some days, I was so busy that I had to run faster to get the mileage in. Prior to that, I didn’t really do speed work. I guess I’ll see what happens this year when I start training for a marathon again.

    • There’s also heat if you’re doing marathon training in the summer.

      I had that one fluke 5K PR right after marathon training, otherwise I didn’t PR in anything else for a long time. I know other people who did PR in shorter distances during marathon training (and they weren’t running noobs), so it’s not impossible. Just think it depends on the person.

  2. My ancient half PR of 1:44 was run when I NEVER did speedwork. I ran about 30 miles/week and did at least one long run of 14 or 15 miles, but all runs were around a 9-minute pace, while I averaged 7:59 for the half (yeah, 7:59, not 8, haha!). I managed to hit low/mid 7 paces in shorter distances around this time too, so I was never motivated to do speedwork back then since it seemed like I didn’t need to. Now I definitely do need to, and it’s frustrating. Not because I dislike speedwork, but because I don’t always get the race results I want now that I put in the work! I’m guessing I just probably didn’t appreciate the natural youthful speed of my mid-20s.

    • I ran a little in my 20s. I’m left wondering how fast I could have been if I had known about proper training. Since I don’t train “properly” right now, I should probably just focus on seeing what I can do by being more disciplined.

      • I ran in high school, but I wasn’t very fast back then, which was why I just ran on my own in college without bothering to look into XC and track at NYU. I think I’d be faster now if I had been coached then (plus, no one goes to NYU for sports, so now I realize I might have been one of the “fasties.”)

  3. I really enjoyed reading this and agree with your philosophy 🙂 I’m now a stroller runner so it will be interesting to see how I perform in my upcoming races- 5ks and half. I haven’t been very consistent in the past year because well, baby took over, but I’m really enjoying building volume during the week with the stroller runs. Squeezing speed work in will be tough but I may do more miles than when I was running solo. We’ll see!

    • Strolling running is very good training because it’s strength work and running at the same time. I’ve heard stories of moms racing faster even though they ran slower with strollers because stroller running builds up muscles.

  4. With my new coach, I’ve done a lot of threshold paced running with some faster interval work mixed in, and I have made big improvements in races from 5k to the half in just a couple months. But I tend to be a volume runner. I just like running long. But like you, I didn’t see big improvements in my shorter distance race times while marathon training. At all. And my then-coach did have me doing short intervals, but we did very little tempo work.

  5. This doesn’t surprise me. As we run longer, I think speed work is the best (if not only) way to get faster. Longer runs serve their purpose, but mostly to make us better at running longer. Of course, we are all different. I love the 15k distance. Never done a 5 miler but I think I would really like it.

  6. That’s fascinating and useful data! At this point, I need both – mileage and speedwork. I’ve had good results on a Hansons plan, which is sort of the inverse of RLRF, but find that I also need additional / faster-paced speed intervals… I’m not genetically challenged for nothing, haha!

  7. I definitely benefit from higher mileage with longer speed work for marathon training, and shorter, faster miles for shorter distances. I guess I fit into the little round peg made my training plans, except I seem to have a hard time with marathon training and injuries.
    I like 5-milers too. But I’m also a fan of 5k and 20k.

    • I’ve never done a 20K.

      I’ve been pretty luck on the injury front, just some mild plantar fasciitis when I started out running. I know what it feels like, so the moment I get it again, I immediately start rehabbing and it goes away quickly.

  8. For me, running faster is the only way I get faster. Increasing my mileage just increases my chances of getting injured. I know there’s a fine line for everyone as far as how far they can push their body. We all just have to find that balance.

  9. I set PRs at every distance when I was doing more speed and lower volume. When I tried to increase my volume, I just got hurt.

    Also i wish there were more ten-mile races. I don’t think I’ve ever even done one, but ten miles seems like a nice, round number that would be easy to manage in my head when I’m racing. There really should be more of them.

    • I was amazed by how you set PRs at shorter distances while you were on the RLRF program. While I’m happy with how well it worked for me, I didn’t get any faster at the half, but I was more consistent about the short of times I got while running half marathons (less variability).

      I’m fond of 10-mile races. The Cherry Blossom one in DC is really great.

  10. I’ve heard that there’s a continuum where 5K and shorter is reliant on speed/fast twitch, then as you go up to 10K and beyond, you incorporate more and more endurance/slow twitch muscles. So it makes sense if you’re working on volume/endurance to lose some speed. Everyone told me that I’d run a much faster half marathon after I ran my first full marathon, but that wasn’t true. I didn’t run faster halves until I actually ran goal (and faster) paces during training. However, I did set a marathon PR shortly after running my first trail 50K – without doing any “marathon pace” miles (or any speedwork). So, who knows? It’s a complete mystery to me.

    • Yeah, I didn’t run a fast half after my fulls either. I do think there’s individual variability; McMillan says that some people are prone to respond to speed and other more to endurance. Also it’s rather difficult to compare one training cycle to another because there has to be some effects of the prior cycle influencing the most current one.

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