Some training strategies, such as speedwork and tempo runs, seem written in stone—learn the basics, apply them in the right order, reap the results. Except it doesn't always work that way. You may hit a rut, reach a fitness plateau, or just plain get tired of doing the same old mile repeats. That's when it's time to improvise.
Elite runners do it all the time—adjust the tried-and-true to suit their personalities, their fitness, and their goals. Take Shalane Flanagan, who set an American record for the 5000 meters in 2007, then took home bronze a year later in the Beijing Olympics. When she modified the core components of her training plan to suit her specific needs, she got more out of each. "There are many different ways to get faster and be a good athlete," she says. "It's all about finding and tweaking training to get it to work for you."
Straying slightly from the norm can net you better fitness, faster finishes, and more fun. Here's how Flanagan and other top runners personalize classic training techniques—and how you can put their wisdom to work for you, too.
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Stride More Often
ELITE TWEAK: Flanagan, like many runners, uses 50-to 60-meter strides before speedwork or races as "pickups" to ease her body into a faster gear. "It gets my body going before the workout starts," she says. But Flanagan also does strides after virtually every run. Sometimes she does cut-downs, starting with 100-meter sprints that start slower and get progressively shorter and faster. "It teaches the body to finish strong," she says. "And I find it's a good transition to the track season."
YOUR MOVE: Add five to eight strides to the end of your easy-day runs. Stride for 60 to 100 meters, gradually accelerating to about 85 percent of your maximum speed, then decelerating in the final third. Walk 90 seconds for recovery, and repeat.
ELITE TWEAK: Greg McMillan, a Flagstaff , Arizona, exercise physiologist and coach, has his runners do repeats that total goal race distance at goal race pace. This works your VO 2 max and lactate threshold. For example, runners prepping for a 10-K will do three by two miles at goal pace, with five to seven minutes of recovery in between. "The mental effort is similar to what goes on in a 10-K," says McMillan. "Getting out quickly, feeling comfortable on the first repeat, starting to suffer in the middle, then needing to keep your brain engaged to finish. If you can run them at your goal pace, then you can feel confident in your ability to hold that pace on race day."
YOUR MOVE: Break down your race distance into three to five equal segments and run your goal pace, recovering for about half the time in between each. Half-marathoners should run three to four segments of three miles at goal race pace. Marathoners should top out at three to four goal-pace segments of four miles.
Pick Up The Pace
ELITE TWEAK: Progression runs, which start comfortably and get faster, train you to hold onto speed when you're tired. Peter Gilmore, who won this year's Napa Valley Marathon in 2:23:05, will often do a midweek 10-miler with the last three or four miles at marathon or half-marathon pace. "If you're feeling bad, you can hang back," says Gilmore. "If you're feeling good, you can keep pushing."
YOUR MOVE: Turn a tempo session into a progression run. After a 10-to 20- minute warmup, run for 20 to 60 minutes, starting 20 to 30 seconds slower than tempo pace, increasing 10 seconds per mile every five to 15 minutes.
Kick Some Grass
ELITE TWEAK: Workouts on grass strengthen your cardiovascular system, tendons, and ligaments, build stabilizer muscles, and cushion the joints. Which is why the runners of Team USA Minnesota routinely head to the park for grass repeats. "You can't go as fast as you do on the road, so it keeps you under control," says Emily Brown, who won the 2009 USA Cross-Country Championships.
YOUR MOVE: Take a track workout to the grass, and run hard for a predetermined time rather than for a given distance. For instance, if you could do 1200- meter repeats on a track in 5:30, simply run for the same time on grass.
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