The manual of the Elite runner: a review of the state-of-the-art training characteristics

In this post, we are going to review and analyze the training habits and training principles of some Elite World-class long-distance runners. Our goal is to understand what makes those athletes reach such high-performance levels by combining scientific literature and practice-based proven results. Most of the content comes from the paper: The Training Characteristics of World-Class Distance Runners: An Integration of Scientific Literature and Results-Proven Practice, where key points are expressed in a clear and concise way.

Eliud Kipchoge is about to finish a marathon in under 2 hours in the 2019 Ineos challenge.
Keyworddefinition
Long-distance running (LDR)Long-distance running is a continuous run covering 3 km (1.9 mi) and above.
Microcyclemicrocycle is the shortest training cycle, typically lasting a week with the goal of facilitating a focused block of training.
MesocycleThe mesocycle represents a specific block of training that is designed to accomplish a particular goal. 
MacrocycleThe macrocycle is the longest of the three cycles and includes all four stages of a periodized training program.
VO2maxThe highest rate at which the body can take up and utilize oxygen during severe exercise.
Running economyVO2 at a given submaximal running velocity
Fractional utilizationThe ability to sustain a high percentage of VO2 when running
Anaerobic capacityThe maximal amount of ATP re-synthesized via anaerobic metabolism during a specific mode of short-duration maximal anaerobic exercise. It plays an important role in the decisive end phase of tactical track races.
Low-intensity training (LIT)Exercises characterized by low load, such as short easy runs, causing very little interference with the ongoing recovery process
High-intensity training (HIT)Focuses on performing quality weight training repetitions to the point of momentary muscular failure.
Fatigue resistanceIt is associated with specific adaptations that delay muscular deterioration and fatigue and enable maintaining race pace over the final 7–10 km of an elite marathon.

Some statistics about Elite runner’s training

  • Weekly running distance in the mid-preparation period is in the range of 160–220 km for marathoners and 130–190 km for track runners. Marathon runners run more kilometers in each session.
  • Elite athletes usually perform 11-14 training sessions per week.
  • At least 80% of the total running volume is performed at low intensity throughout the training year.
  • Tapering process starts 7-10 days prior to the main competition.
  • African runners live and train at high altitude (2000–2500 m above sea level) most of the year, but lowland athletes apply relatively long (2-4 weeks) altitude camps during the preparation period.
  • Most world-class long-distance runners engage in systematic training for 8–10 years prior to reaching a high international standard.
  • Track runners participate in 9±3 annual competitions while marathon runners participate in 6 ± 2 competitions.
  • Most world-leading marathon runners train 500–700 hours/year, while most corresponding track runners are in the range 450–600 hours/year.
  • Many long-distance runners accumulate much of their running kilometers on dirt roads/forest paths instead of paved roads to reduce mechanical loading and maximize training volume.
  • Most of the running distance (≥80%) is performed at low intensity throughout the training year.
  • Weekly long runs are one of the most important sessions for marathon runners in this period, typically performed as 30–40 km runs slightly below marathon pace.
  • Since 1968,90% of all Olimpic/World Championship gold medals from the 800 m through the marathon have been won by athletes who have lived or systematically trained at high altitudes.

Some key advice about high-performance training

  • Training is organized in mesocycles and the goal is to reach the peak of form around the competitions.
  • The training intensity distribution varies across mesocycles and the volume of race-pace running increases as the competition approaches.
  • Accumulation of high frequency and volume of low-intensity training (LIT) is considered an important stimulus for inducing peripheral adaptations, likely promoting a better running economy.
  • Several long-distance runners supplement their sport-specific training with cross-training, including swimming, biking, cross-country skiing, and workouts on elliptical machines. Arguments supporting the inclusion of cross-training include injury prevention and avoidance of training monotony.
  • Cross-training should be performed to a larger extent among highly trained long-distance runners to provide the same central and peripheral training stimulus with lower muscular mechanical load.
  • Power and plyometric training 2–3 times per week can improve running economy in long-distance runners. Strength training is typically implemented as a combination of resistance training, circuit training, core strength/stability, and plyometrics in the form of vertical and/or horizontal multi-jumps.
  • Since most injuries are attributed to rapid and excessive increases in training load, elite performers increase the total running volume gradually during the initial 8–12 weeks of the macrocycle. The initial training week is performed with ~40–60% of peak weekly running volume, increasing by ~5–15 km each week until the maximal volume is reached.
  • Progressive sprinting is considered a supplement to separate training sessions and is typically performed during the last part of the warm-up or after easy long runs. Sprint training is mainly performed to minimize the negative impact of aerobic conditioning on maximal sprint speed.

Training periods inside a macrocycle

PeriodDescription
General preparationIts focus is high volume to build an aerobic foundation.
Specific preparationThe focus gradually shifts toward higher volume of specific race-pace intensity.
CompetitionPeak performance is stabilized as much as possible so that an athlete can produce optimal performances in key competitions.
TransitionBeginning immediately after the conclusion of the competition season. This period typically consists of 1–4 weeks with rest or recreational training/low-intensive running.

Do 2–3 weekly interval sessions, a weekly long run, and fill the rest with as much LIT as you can handle


Bill Bowerman, co-founder of Nike and US coach

Intensity table

Long-distance running intensity table. It includes 3 or 7 zones useful to compare training intensity with reference pace.

  • Most of the training is executed in zone 1, and the duration of the easy runs is very stable throughout the training.
  • Because zone 2 is closer to marathon pace, a higher proportion of zone 2 is applied by marathon specialists.
  • A higher proportion of LIT is performed in zone 1 for track runners as the competition season approaches.
  • Training in zone 3 represents 5–15% of the total running volume in elite long-distance runners.
  • Tempo runs (continuous running in zone 2–3 in) account for ~20% of the total annual running volume.
  • Interval training in zone 4–5 also represents 5–15% of the total running volume, but this proportion is inversely related to zone 3-training.
  • During the pre-competition and competition period, most world-class 5000-m runners perform 1–2 weekly interval training sessions in zone 6 or in combination with zone 5. Most marathoners avoid training with such high amounts of lactic/glycolytic energy release.
  • Distance runners perform sprint training (zone 7) regularly during the annual cycle, although this accounts for less than 1% of the total running volume.

Tapering

Tapering in elite sports refers to the marked reduction of total training load prior to important competition(s). This is a short-term balancing act, as tapering strategies are intended to decrease the cumulative effects of fatigue while maintaining fitness.

  • Outstanding performances can be achieved, without tapering for a specific competition, by merely reducing the training substantially in the last 4–5 days prior to each competition.
  • Effective tapering in endurance sports includes a 2- to 3-week period with 40–60% reduction in training volume adopting a progressive nonlinear format, while training intensity and frequency are maintained.
  • The last intensive session is typically performed 3–5 days ahead of the main championship event.

References

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