We’re all guilty of it. We read an article about an elite athlete, find some new workouts, and think “well if it worked for them, surely it will work for me.” Unfortunately this frequently does more harm than good.
The reason comes down to physiology. Your body doesn’t understand distance and pace. When you exercise, your body knows two things: your perceived effort, and the duration of the workout. In other words, an easy run might be 45 minutes at a comfortable pace, and an interval session could consist of several 4-minute repeats at race pace. Even though you might see these as an easy 5 miles and 800m repeats, to your body they are just times and effort.
Consider, then, if an elite marathoner does a 16-mile marathon pace run four weeks before his goal race. You might be inclined to follow suit and try one yourself before your next marathon. If you do, I almost guarantee that your race will suffer because of it. Think about it: a 2:10 marathoner runs 5:00 per mile for the 26.2 mile distance. A 16-mile run at 5:00 pace would only take one hour and twenty minutes. For someone shooting for a 3:30 marathon, or approximately 8:00 per mile, 16 miles at that pace would take over two hours! That is certainly not the same workout as the elite’s! A closer approximation would be a 10-mile marathon pace run, which would take 80 minutes.
Another way of looking at it is to compare weekly mileage. An elite running 100 miles per week at an average pace of 6:00 per mile trains for a total of ten hours. The same 3:30 marathoner might average 10:00 per mile. If she attempted to run 100 miles in a week, it would take her 16 hours! She would be doing 60% more volume than the elite, and would doubtless experience symptoms of overtraining. It would only be a matter of time before she got injured. Again, to scale it down it is beneficial to compare time. Ten hours of training at 10:00 is 60 miles per week, a much more manageable and intelligent amount for a 3:30 runner.
But that doesn’t even take into consideration the other factors that separate an elite from an average runner. Most elites run twice a day, take a nap between their runs, and have a host of professionals to help them recover: massage therapists, nutritionists, and sports medicine doctors. Most of us work full-time jobs, have children, and might get a massage once a year.
What does all this mean? For one, don’t try to emulate something you heard about an elite athlete doing. There is a better chance of you injuring yourself than seeing an improvement. Also, there is more to training than just running miles and workouts ; recovery is important too. But you can still incorporate ideas from elites; just be sure to scale them appropriately and remember that you have other stressors in your life. Adapt your training to fit your life, not the other way around. Then you will see improvements.