Recently, I've started following Jason Koop as he is a rising star in the ultra coaching circles. I even used some workouts I heard him describe in a podcast before Western States last year. (I also used his tips on heat training to turn heat running into a strength!) I've long followed Eric Orton of Born to Run fame. Ironically, Outside Magazine posted an article about the two of them and their philosophy that got me intrigued about writing some more thoughts on training and to continue following both of their work (and read Koop's book). While I haven't read Koop's book yet, the one thing I can say that I love about Orton's book is his focus on the "fundamentals". I think athletes of all ages and types can get lulled into forgetting to work on the basics and runners are no different.
So, if I were to coach an athlete, what factors would I emphasize and in what order? Before reading on, please know that each of these factors should be personalized into a specific plan based on your experience and desired race. This isn't a full coaching plan, just some tips and guidelines on how to improve. Disclaimer aside, here are my thoughts....
ConsistencyNothing ruins a runner's potential like intermittent training. If you cannot commit to at least 5 days and 5 hours a week of exercise of all types (running, XT, etc....), then I think you are going to have a tough time finding much success as a competitive or age-group athlete. It doesn't much matter if you are planning to use a high intensity minimal plan or an aerobic based high volume plan, you must be able to keep steady stimulus to the body to see steady gains, pretty simple. What's more, if you take time off due to injury or "life", you must be willing to rededicate to getting back to a routine that fosters consistent exercise.
I won't lie, consistency comes with a price. I rarely go out for beers my friends any more. I gave up golf (another time consuming sport) to dedicate that time and money to running. I diligently watch what I eat and how much I sleep. Those are the costs of consistency and I realize they aren't for everyone. As a family guy, I have to spend my hobby time wisely....
Life FactorsBefore going any deeper, you must evaluate your life factors. Do you often feel short of sleep? Do you have a stressful home life (young kids, marriage problems, family problems)? Is your job stressful or do you work a ton of hours? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then you must carefully consider your volume. Doing too much volume (or too many hard workouts) with other stress factors is a bad recipe. Our bodies cannot tell the difference between the sources of stress and you'll be "burning your candle at both ends", a major risk for injury or even de-training.
Another major consideration here is your age and experience as an athlete. Are you a life long athlete turning to running as a new endeavor? Or, perhaps you are a middle aged individual hoping to lose weight running. It is essential that you match your goals and training plans to your background. There is a great expansion of this topic in Brad Hudson's book.
VolumeNow the tricky topic, volume. I think consistent volume is an excellent predictor of success until it isn't any more. There is no perfect rule here, but a guideline for most people is that diminishing returns likely live between 8 and 10 hours per week of running. Unless you can make the jump to 100+ miles per week -- in which case you likely aren't reading my blog! -- then time spent beyond 10 hours is probably better served in other places like recovery, cross-training, or even just rest. Don't underestimate the value of a nice walk with your spouse and dog.
One of the most talented runners I know consistently crushes races and easily wins age group awards on way less volume than you'd think. If he can run 18:43 at the Leadville 100, then I don't think you need to run 100 mile weeks or 30 mile long runs every weekend to accomplish your goals. Please don't mistake what I am saying, Chuck trains very hard. But, he also follows a set of principles very similar to what is contained within this post and has learned how to train smart.