When Australian researchers conducted a study on high-altitude training, the results surprised them: Half of the elite runners ran hard workouts at 6,000 feet and improved their race times by an impressive seven percent; the other half did the same workouts at sea level and improved by almost the same amount. Turns out, the benefits have as much to do with harder training as with thin air. Short bouts of ramped-up volume and intensity, or "killer weeks," push your body into a state of "functional overreaching" that stimulate big jumps in fitness—if you can survive them.
Be Prepared to Push
I attended my first training camp as a young university runner in Britain. Intimidated by the idea of ramping up my mileage by as much as 50 percent, I skipped or cut short some of the sessions. But once I saw that my older teammates survived the boost, and—after taking a recovery week—gained greater fitness and confidence, I committed to the idea. I learned that with a solid base, I could push my mileage up for a week by 30 to 50 percent, as long as I took it easy immediately after.
Identify Your Focus
Target one aspect of your training to reap the most gains. If you're in a base-building phase, use the killer week to boost mileage by up to 50 percent. Slow the pace of your runs if necessary, and increase both length and frequency. If you're not already running twice a day, add two or three doubles to your week.
During a race-preparation phase, use a killer week to focus on intensity. If you usually do two quality workouts in seven days, try three or even four (make one a medium-intensity fartlek or a progression run).
Space it out
Researchers have found that "block periodization," increasing training volume or intensity by a modest amount every four weeks, produces a bigger boost in VO2 max and faster race times than doing the same thing every week. Killer weeks, however, jack up volume or intensity by as much as 50 percent and require a week of recovery. Schedule them eight weeks apart.
Strategize Rest and Work
For elite runners, training camps mean no responsibilities other than running and resting, and plenty of massage, medical and moral support. Mortals can't duplicate all of this, but you can arrange some key elements. Build in extra sleep and time off your feet, schedule a midweek massage, and recruit training partners to share some of the load.
When the suffering is over, plan a recovery week where your mileage is 20 to 30 percent below normal (and try some of these top foods for recovery).
Then settle back into your normal training routine—don't kid yourself that just because you handled 100 miles for one week, you can handle it on a regular basis. Until your next big push, stick with steady, incremental gains—and trust me, after running a killer week, those five-percent jumps will feel easy.race.