Every Other Day or Back-to-Back Runs? How Often To Run.

I’m realizing that lots of us experiment with the running-every-day-bug for at least some period of time. The only wild card seems to be how long the experiment will last.

Mine lasted just shy of two months. I didn’t get hurt. It wasn’t miserable in the least. But I have no desire to run the experiment again any time soon.

The same goes for running high weekly mileage. Everyone from the elites to everyday running gals like me must have pushed the envelope a bit on how much is too much. It’s a discussion for another day, but the process warrants an observation.

If you’re in control of your own running agenda, as most of us recreational runners seem to be, the push for higher mileage is tantalizingly more attainable if you run more and more often. The high mileage quest in and of itself begets a strategy of running every day – for what we initially assume could last forever. Our bodies, our sanity, or our spouse will usually inform us that it’s time to stop.

Jonathan Savage is a fairly well-known ultrarunner from Charlotte, N.C., and writes the blog fellrnr.com. I enjoy his blog because, like me, he tends to research the bejesus out of whatever ails or interests him at the time – including his own personal experiments. Aside from these interesting revelatory-type posts, he has also kept a monthly training macrolog since 2010, which exposes the success, or failure of these experiments in real-time.

Savage is a self-proclaimed 4 day/week runner, something he admits is rather unusual for a competitive ultrarunner. In 2011 he decided to try running once/day, every day for 6 months. He revisited the experiment again in 2014, except that he reduced the distance of each run while increasing the frequency to 2-3 times each day, every day.

Although I’ve never heard of training three times a day, two-a-days are not unusual for competitive runners. One of the many benefits of training twice on some days is the ability to complete multiple long runs during the week while presumably protecting the body – not to mention not everyone has the time to run several hours before or after work. Dividing the run into two sessions is more manageable on several fronts.

Now that I’m in this year’s base building phase, and feeling the inevitable focus on building weekly mileage, I naturally find myself thinking of adding as many running days into the week as possible as well – which means I’ve spent oodles of time researching the pros and cons of back-to-back running. As with everything running, the answer seems to be multiple choice.

My last untold secret from last year’s marathon training is that I only ran 3 days/week for the last 8 weeks before the race. It was refreshing. I felt rested and energized for every run, mentally fresh. I’ve argued for years against running every other day, but it worked out just fine.

My experience with running 4-7 days/week, however, is that there is also a benefit, both physically and mentally, that comes from running consecutive days. Some of Hal Higdon’s marathon training programs include back-to-back runs on the weekend where a shorter Saturday run is followed by the longest run of the week on Sunday. His thinking is that the combined weekend mileage (30-miles total at the peak) helps prepare you for the final miles of the marathon.

Whether it’s training your mind to run on tired legs or some physiological benefit that comes from reducing recovery time, I’m not sure. In some ways it seems similar to doing repeats with speed work. As fitness improves, you can extend the distance of the repeat and/or reduce the time between repeats to increase the level of difficulty.

We’ve all been told, it’s not how much training you do but how well you recover from it. Therein lies the multiple choices I think.

When Jonathan Savage runs 4 days/week, each run’s distance is designed to adequately fatigue himself, a distance difficult enough to require 48 hours recovery. The long runs stress the body; the rest days turn that stress into strength. Alternatively, running more than 4 days/week, thereby spreading the total weekly mileage between more days, includes more days of what we call “junk miles” – runs that barely work up a sweat and could be considered a waste of time by some.

The preference is personal I think. Do you tolerate longer single runs, or shorter runs more often?

For me, it seems to work well to run more days of lower daily mileage during the early base building phase, and then decrease the running days while gradually increasing each day’s total mileage for the marathon build-up phase.

Daniels’ Running Formula includes base building before each marathon training program, including 7 days/week of running roughly the same distance each day for 6 weeks with a minimum of 30 minutes per day.

This year I’m using a base-building schedule that starts out with 5 days of running each week where each day’s mileage remains mostly in the single digits. Later in the year I’ll reduce the days I run, add cycling for cross-training, and slowly increase the distance of each run. This is similar to the schedule I followed last year that ultimately helped me prepare for the longest distance I’ve ever run on the least amount of training.

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This schedule came from one of the older running books from my bookshelf, “The Runners Book of Training Secrets.” I like this format since it focuses on building weekly mileage rather than on the long runs, which will be the focus of the marathon build-up later in the year. There’s no credit for this program so I assume it was created by the authors, Dr. Ken Sparks and Dave Kuehls, Senior Writer Runner’s World.

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It’s worth noting the results of Savage’s experiment of running every day. During the six month period in 2011, he typically ran 5-6 long runs per week in the range of 16-23 miles. For a few of the weeks he ran the same distance all seven days. In January 2012 he returned to running 4 days/week stating that although he felt surprisingly well physically, his psyche was suffering. In that post he explained, “Even now, it’s unclear to me how much lingering long-term impact I have from this belt of overtraining syndrome.“ When he divided the daily mileage into 2-3 runs each day in 2014, the experiment lasted all year.

There are general guidelines to keep in mind when considering a back-to-back schedule of any duration:

* Keep the easy days easy. Don’t add miles to the easy days, and don’t go hard – no matter how tempting.

* If your back-to-back training also includes high mileage, know that speed work does not necessarily play well with high mileage. If you dabble with speed work, abandon it at the first sign of lingering fatigue. (Some coaches advise reducing overall mileage when focusing on speed.)

* If your schedule includes hard sessions, keep the easy days easy, but also keep the hard days hard – beware of the black hole of training (mediocrity) where the easy runs are run too fast and the quality workouts (speed work) are too slow.

* Listen to your body for the early warning signs of injury or overtraining, which may include depression.

Base Building Phase I: Ascent to the Peak

“The time will come when winter will ask what you were doing all summer.” – Henry Clay

 

In 2010, when former Notre Dame women’s basketball player Natalie Novosel made a commitment to off-season training, she went from averaging just 5 points a game her sophomore year to 15 points a game and leading the Irish in scoring her junior year. Her 27-game streak of scoring in double digits (crossing from her junior to senior years) is second-longest in school history.  Natalie’s off-season training was sport specific: playing and strengthening, and lots of it.

Athletes everywhere are facing the same questions of how to structure their off-season training program, and the decisions we make will determine the success we enjoy in the months that follow.

For elite and recreational runners alike, the off-season has typically been a time to build a strong base – miles, and lots of them.

Two time Olympian and exercise physiologist, Pete Pfitzinger, wrote about base training for Running World in 2006, “Your aerobic system provides about 95 percent of the energy used in a 5K race and more than 99 percent of the energy for a marathon, so it is logical to fully develop that system before focusing your effort elsewhere.”

The physiology of base training has been long accepted in the endurance community. We have been told it is not possible to build both aerobic and anaerobic systems at the same time very well, that the more work you perform aerobically, or in the presence of oxygen, the more efficient you are.

We believe aerobic training produces muscular adaptations that improve oxygen transport to the muscles, reduces the rate of lactate formation, increases energy production and utilization, and teaches our body to use fat as a primary fuel source.

As with everything running, however, there is a counter argument from the scientific arena that discounts the benefits of the slow-paced base building phase. Their studies suggest the most gains occur when running fewer miles faster. That leaves us all to make a personal decision as to whether we will build a base of higher mileage at a slow pace or possibly ignore the base building phase altogether.

The cardiovascular adaptations gained by putting in relatively high mileage for a prolonged period of time was first advanced by Arthur Lydiard in the early 1960s, when New Zealand’s Peter Snell and Murray Halberg won Olympic titles and broke world records with at-the-time unconventional base training of 100-plus mile weeks.

Lydiard suggested a relatively sedentary person could progress from couch potato to 100 mile weeks in just 9 weeks’ time. There is much debate over the risk of this plan but it has been successfuly adopted by many a runner. The key to this fast mileage build-up is in the runner’s ability to slow right down.

For example, if you are a 16:30 5k runner, base building pace would be around 8-9 minute miles. For a 20:00 5k runner: 9:30-10:00/miles, and for a 25:00 5k runner: 11:15-12 minute miles. Slow has a specific purpose in our portfolio of speed.

John Molvar wrote his thesis on Arthur Lydiard. He read 4 of Lydiard’s books and 7 books by others who wrote about Lydiard. He includes a proposed 9-week training plan based on Lydiard’s suggestions on how to ascend to 100/mile weeks. To succeed at Lydiard’s system, purposely manipulate your average training speed to avoid the pitfalls of too much effort in too short of a training period.

Cyclists use base building to stimulate the slow twitch (type 1) muscle fibers, to grow and strengthen the heart and to teach the body to conserve its glycogen stores within the muscles and vital organs.

Australian cycling coach and Director of Cycling-Inform Ltd, David Heatley, says, “Building an aerobic base is perhaps the single most important phase of the year since it is the foundation upon which your season is built. Many riders never reach their full potential at bike racing because they neglect this critical phase of training. By training consistently in this zone and cadence over several months, it is likely that you will be able to extend your time to glycogen depletion by as much as 75%.”

The purpose of Phase I of the Base Building schedule is to ascend to peak mileage (most coaches add speed work in Phase II) and there are lots of ways to plan your ascent.

Jack Daniels includes six weeks of base building in every marathon training program – roughly creating a 24-week marathon training plan. The first 3 weeks, even in the elite plan, are slow runs of the same distance/time every day.

Greg McMillan says there should be at least 12 weeks to build a base before working on specific training phases for racing. “And, please, don’t skimp on the base building,” he says. “It’s much better to include more base (endurance training) and less stamina, speed and sprint training than the other way around. Believe me, you can still run well in races off of base training and the more base training you do, the greater your potential for success in your important race(s).”

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Every coach has their own base building philosophy and if you are particularly inclined toward one program or another, use that program but eliminate or drastically reduce the Quality Workouts.

For example, follow Hal Higdon’s Novice program and work your way through the Intermediate and Advanced programs. Start with the Pfiz 55 progressing to the Pfitz 70 and Pfitz 85, etc. (the numbers representing the total number of miles per week). Following a marathon training plan gives structure to your runs by specifying each run’s distance and weekly mileage build-up.

Scott Jurek, seven-time winner of the Western States 100-mile trail run, incorporates some speedwork throughout base training, with higher intensities beginning after four to eight weeks. (Read more at runningcompetitor.com)

If base building is your choice of off-season training, you may want to first answer these key questions:

  1. What is your goal for peak weekly mileage,
  2. How much time can you devote to reaching peak mileage, and
  3. Do you believe in a slow-paced Phase I or speedwork throughout?

 

These answers will help you determine how to select a plan from the millions available or to develop your own strategy. Whatever your choice, most coaches have the same words of advice:

  • Don’t let the slow pace frustrate you. I watched the Kenyans run in downtown Chicago in the days before the Chicago Marathon for many years. They had a slow, comfortable pace. They talked to each other – one guy in particular used his hands to exaggerate whatever point he was making all the while they were running. It was not uncommon for my husband and I to be walking our five dogs faster than these guys ran. Hal Higdon talks about how he ran at the same pace as a lady who was walking and pushing her baby in a stroller! Slow does not mean weak.
  • LSD or Speed. If you choose to delay speedwork until Phase II, as many coaches recommend, resist the urge to throw in a dash of speed here or there during Phase I Base Building. Some coaches say even one bout of speed will destroy all the gains of the long, slow buildup.
  • Practice good form. It is common for runners to develop bad habits when running slow. It happened to me last year when I realized I was turning my foot ever so slightly at the back of the stride, which eventually caused ankle soreness. Master Sifu says when we are fighting if we let our ankle roll or our elbows stick out too far, we’re loosing energy just as if we were a water hose with a hole in it. You want energy to begin in the strong core, move down through powerful legs and into the ground through the ball of your foot.
  • Take zero days when you need them. Although we should never run through an injury, Lydiard says if you are tired or sore, just run slower. Eventually, your body will adjust to the higher mileage.

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