One of the reasons I started this blog was to encourage younger runners who may not be the best or the fastest, but want to improve. As I mentioned previously, I was never a standout runner, in high school or college. Even at the small Class C high school I attended, I was never higher than 8th on the team. Despite running for a small community college, and later a small Division III college, I never scored any points for my teams, and was actually cut from outdoor track my senior year.
Now I will be the first to tell you that I am still not a standout runner, but the times that I run now would put me in the mix in a D3 meet. So to go from not even being on anyone’s radar and getting cut, to having the potential to score points is a pretty decent transformation, if I may say so myself. At the time that I write this, my 5K PR is 16:00, and my 5-mile best is 27:16. Again, those are not times that will win any college meets, but at least I wouldn’t be getting lapped two or three times like I was in college.
When I transferred into SUNY Brockport, my 5K PR was 19:30. Obviously, this indicates a very slight propensity towards running, as it is still above average, but I wasn’t fast enough to do anything more than place in my age group in small road races. I certainly could never win a race. After just one season at Brockport, I ran 18:25. A year later I dropped my PR another minute to 17:24. But it wasn’t until after I graduated that I broke 17:00 and started winning races.
Rather than blaming my coach at Brockport for not enabling me to attain the times I can now run, I credit him for educating me enough to know how to train successfully. With his approach to running, I learned that I do well with higher mileage, and that running specific paces for workouts is better than hammering every repeat and steadily slowing down. I read Jack Daniels’ Daniels’ Running Formula and Pete Pfitzinger’s Advanced Marathon, and even bought a copy of Tim Noakes The Lore of Running. And in the years that followed college, I experimented and discovered what worked best for me.
One piece of training advice that has always stuck with me is to run as much mileage as you can handle without getting hurt. Obviously, this benchmark is different for everyone. I can run in excess of 100 miles per week, although I do find that the accumulated fatigue from that much mileage prevents me from running workouts well. I have several friends who run less than half of that, but can still kick my butt all over the roads and track, and tend to endure overuse injuries if they run more than 6 miles a day. Find what your limit is, and try to stay just below it. One of the great things about running is that this limit can change. When I first ran 70 miles in a week, I promptly sustained a stress fracture. Now, anything less than 70 feels like I am slacking. Just be patient and gradually increase your mileage, and your training will follow.
The other paramount piece of advice is to be consistent. I try to run every day, and do at least one workout a week. That way, if by some stroke of bad luck or timing, I am unable to run or squeeze in a workout one day, that’s ok, because I have all those other days to back me up. Even if you’re not training at full intensity, just the repetition of the same act day-in and day-out will help you improve. You don’t even have to run every day or run a lot of miles. As long as you are running more days than not, and don’t take week-long hiatuses (hiatii?), your fitness will improve. In a few months, you will see your times drop. Over a few years, your mileage can increase and your PRs will fall like deer flies speeding into a bug zapper on a warm summer evening. The trick is that if you have this consistency, even some unexpected breaks won’t ruin your fitness, because you will have such a huge base to fall back on.
I can attribute all of my improvements over the past ten years to those two points of consideration. Everything else is trial and error and honing the edge of my fitness. I always try to run as much and as often as I can without getting hurt or sacrificing my ability to train hard, and I try to be consistent with my training. Note that this does not mean I don’t believe in periodization, which those of you who have read Daniels’ Running Formula are familiar with. Quite the opposite. It just means that I don’t spring into an all-out Repetition-phase training segment without having a good base of consistent mileage first.
So if you are a younger runner, or even an older one who is looking to improve, all I can say is keep at it. Train like a clock, day-in and day-out, and always try to push the envelope a bit (but safely!) There is a fine line between training to your maximum potential and overdoing it, but if you learn to listen to your body, take a rest day or six if need be, and be patient, I guarantee that you can improve by a large amount*.
*Results not guaranteed. Void where prohibited. Do not train if you are experiencing heart palpitations, shortness of breath, excema, or diarrhea, for other people’s sake. Limit one per customer per visit. Not to be used with any other offer. If at first you don’t succeed, skydiving probably isn’t for you.