In recent posts I’ve outlined some of the difficulties that runners face when training—a phenomenon I call the runner’s catch-22: people want to start running, but they either don’t get fast, or they become overtrained and their health deteriorates.
This is because running is relatively physiologically demanding: the minimum requirement for being able to run at all is far more rigorous than (say) for cycling. Most of the time, the reason people experience the Runner’s Catch-22 is because they’re physiologically not ready to train for their chosen sport. They need to develop more fitness on multiple levels before they’ll be genuinely ready to begin running.
In this post, I provide the basic concepts I use to develop a training plan. This is not just for runners, but for anyone that hopes to increase fitness in a safe, structured, and predictable way. My goal for this article is not just to provide a bird’s eye view of the “how-to,” but also to give the reader a framework to understand why it might not be a good idea to run some race or get into some other sport until certain requirements have been met. To do so, I divide this process into 4 basic steps: Training for (1) the person, (2) the sport, (3) the event, and (4) competition.
At the end of each step, I provide several questions whose answer will help you figure out the duration, frequency, and type of exercise that is best suited to helping you develop towards your athletic goals. (Keep in mind that in practice, these steps are far less discrete than I make them out to be.)
If you skip one step, you’ll have a very difficult time meeting the next. And the problem isn’t that you’re flaky, or that you’re not an athletic person, or that you’re not determined. No amount of determination will be enough to overcome the fundamental problem: That you skipped a step.
Step 1. Training for the person:
Even before you pick a sport to train for, it’s crucial to consider your overall situation: physical, physiological, psychological, nutritional, etc. If you’ve been sedentary all your life, hoping to suddenly be able to run and lift things over your shoulders will be damaging at best and impossible at worst.
Take a long, hard look at your particular body: all the muscle imbalances, digestion problems, moods, energy levels. Typically, any body is well-suited for its present activity levels: what, how long, and with what intensity you do whatever it is that you do. But the less activity you do (or that any part of your body does), the harder it is to change.
The best strategy is NOT, for example, to become a runner despite insulin resistance or a severe muscle imbalance. You’ll just hurt yourself in obvious and non-obvious ways. Instead, any training program should first address the constraint—muscle imbalance, insulin resistance, etc.—(and eliminate it) in order to bring the body back to a relative baseline of physical and physiological competency. What does that baseline look like? In a basic sense, when you go searching for odd pains, sorenesses, various symptoms of sickness, and you just can’t find any.
Keep in mind that while the process of doing so might include some “running” (for example), the fact that you’re “running” doesn’t mean that you’re actively training the running movement, or that you’re explicitly training for the running sport.
Ask these questions about yourself, and train according to the answers:
- At present, how (and how much) are you physiologically able to train?
- In the simplest terms, what is the biggest barrier to growth?
- Considering the answer to question (1), how can you train to remove it?
Note how question #3 is about training yourself out of the constraint, rather than mitigating the constraint through other means. NOT training yourself out of the need for orthotics (to the extent possible), means that it will be more difficult to get faster and perform more consistently. In systems terms:
“Any long-term solution must strengthen the ability of the system to shoulder its own burdens.”
This is how I start.
Step 2. Training for the sport:
When I say sport in this context, I mean “the specific movement or movements required for participation in the sport.”
There are minimum basic requirements that must be met to even be able to participate in any given sport. (Training for proficiency at a sport comes later.) Any conceivable sport has minimum participation requirements in at least 5 domains of human motor expression: mobility, stability, skill, power, and endurance. However, for all sports, one or two key requirements reign above all others. For example:
- Deadlifting: The most salient requirement for deadlifting is more transparently understood as a mobility requirement: to perform a clean toe-touch. While standing upright with feet together and knees straight, to be able to reach down and tap your toes with the tips of your fingers without having to strain (read: while breathing continuously). If you can do this, it’s a good bet that you’re going to be able to consistently grow and develop in the deadlift.
- Running: The requirement for running is more transparently understood as a power requirement: To be able to accelerate into a cadence in the ballpark of 180 steps per minute (spm). This ensures that the critical neuromuscular processes necessary to efficiently maintain the running movement are developed enough to carry your weight.
(I say that a “salient requirement” is “more transparently understood as X” because if you really pick apart the toe touch or the ability to hit 180 spm, you’re going to find mobility, stability, skill, power, and endurance components for each.)
For some people, a cadence as low as 175 spm works just fine. I’ve yet to meet the person who hits peak efficiency below 170 spm. Keep in mind that a cadence of 180 spm is brisk as hell.
In order to meet that requirement, your joint stacking (the alignment of your ankles, knees, hips, and shoulders) has to be excellent—and has to stay excellent for the minimum amount of steps that it takes to accelerate into 180 spm. (And that’s just for starters. Maintaining a cadence of 180 spm for any kind of distance is much more difficult).
If you don’t have the requisite mobility in a given area (say, you have a hip restriction), movement becomes more awkward. That means you probably can’t produce stability: your abs can’t keep your upper body steady, making it difficult to control the arcs of motion of your arms and legs. So you can’t develop a high level of skill (the ability for your entire body to move in the best possible way given its structure and capabilities).
This means that it takes a lot more power to accelerate into a cadence of 180 spm. So, training for just about any event (short or long) becomes inordinately difficult—and as a result, you might just end up coming to the (wrong, wrong, wrong) conclusion that you’re “not athletic.”
A few guiding questions:
- What are the minimum requirements for your chosen sport (mobility, stability, skill, power, and endurance)?
- How (and how much) do you need to train to meet them?
Step 3. Training for the event:
I define event as: “the minimum planned volume of sports-specific activity.”
If the deadlifting competition starts at 100 lbs, then you better be able to meet the minimum requirement for deadlifting when loaded with a weight of 100 lbs. What does this mean? That you have to be able to perform the equivalent of a clean toe-touch—no straining—with 100 lbs on you.
It’s similar for running. If you want to run 100 yards, you have to be physiologically capable of accelerating into a cadence in the ballpark of 180 spm for 100 yards. If you want to run a marathon, you have to keep a cadence of 180 spm for the entire marathon.
This is why training for the event is s Step 3 in my list (and not Step 1). I’m well aware that a lot of people would like to pick from a menu and “choose” to run a marathon instead of a 5k because they “like” the marathon better. It doesn’t work that way. That would be like a novice “picking” to enter a deadlifting competition that starts at 250 lbs instead of 150 lbs, because they “like” 250 lbs more. For obvious reasons, you don’t do it.
What we don’t realize is that distance must be earned as surely as weight. Weight, is volume. Distance, is volume. They may not be the same kind of volume, but they’re both volume. They both deserve the same respect: they’ll both break you (in different ways) if you don’t train accordingly.
If you haven’t earned a certain distance (read: if you can’t physiologically meet the sports-specific requirement for the entire duration), pick a shorter distance. Here’s 2 questions to help you in this process:
- What are the sports-specific requirement at the planned volume (duration, weight, speed, etc.)?
- How (and how much) do you need to train to meet them?
Step 4. Training for competition:
I define competitiveness or competence as “being able to exceed the sports-specific requirement for a particular event.”
It has nothing to do with being particularly good (that would be “elite-” or “semi-elite competitiveness.” It’s just about being better than the minimal physical and physiological requirements the event requires.
Training for competition, then, occurs when you can already meet the sports-specific requirement for the event, and now you want to exceed it. This is also a great way to gauge whether you’re ready for a more demanding event. Once you can hit 190 spm for 100 yards, you’re pretty sure you can train for 200 yards at 180 spm (and expect to make good gains). Same with deadlifting: if you are able to do 2 reps at 100 lbs, you can probably start training (say) for 1 rep at 150.
An important caveat: None of this means that the best, or the only way to train is to increase reps first, or increase power first (or whatever). Training is always strategic and multileveled, and you always approach it from as many angles as there are people in the world. The above only means that exceeding the sports-specific requirements at a given event is a decent gauge of whether you’re ready to train for a more challenging event.
- Can you exceed the event-specific requirements?
- How (and how much) do you need to train to exceed them for . . .
- Greater competitiveness at the same event?
- Participation in a more challenging event?
In future posts, I’ll break down these steps further and provide concrete examples of what they look like in training. I’ll discuss how to use the 4 steps together to design a more comprehensive training plan.
5 thoughts on “A training logic in 4 basic steps.”
Very interesting in depth write up. There is a lot of truth in needing to follow the 4 steps. Keep up the good work.!
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Just found this great site… Question… I’ve read conflicting reports about trying to achieve 180 spm. Essentially, what I’ve read, and what I’ve experienced personally, is that trying to achieve this if you are a slower runner, puts you in a shuffling gate with very little hip drive…
Even elite Kenyans aren’t doing 180 when they warm up…
As I type this I see another one of your threads I’m going to check out called “muscle strength and running economy”… But I’ll post this anyway just to say this is a great website and I think it is really going to help me rediscover my ability to run fast aerobically.
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Yes, you’ve just outlined a very good caveat. I’m working on a post discussing just why this caveat applies.
To first answer your question directly, you’re supposed to train your power “up” to achieve 180 spm, not to shorten your stride “down” achieve to 180 spm.
The first goal of any runner should be to achieve 180 spm at a comfortable “average” running step length for that runner’s body. This is the step length that occurs when the runner’s leg swing is about halfway of their maximum swing—an “average” swing.
Let’s say that having an ankle-high swing (as you should see in jogging) is 10%, and a swing where your foot nearly hits your butt (as you should see in sprinting) is 90%.
The swing that you should have in habitual, sustainable running should range from 40-60% height (reasonably close to knee level).
There’s really not a lot of hard science on the topic, since it’s quite hard to study what an individual person “should” be capable of. That said, since we evolved as endurance runners, it stands to reason that your average human should be able to sustainably run at 50-60% of their maximal power output (physiology), using a step length that is 50-60% of their maximum step length (body size). In other words, most people who talk about “reaching 180 spm” make the educated assumption that a person’s physiology is genetically optimized to work with their biomechanics to be able to effectively produce what is ostensibly a “basic” human movement.
About the matter of the Kenyans:
Warming up for running is a running movement, but the goal of that activity is to warm up the systems necessary to be able to run. When starting a warmup at a lower cadence, not all of the systems necessary to maximize running are warmed up yet. Effectively, Kenyans progressively warm UP to a higher cadence so that they can make use of those systems.
It’s a similar thing to how we shake the sleep off when we wake up. Even though we’re already technically awake, when in an obtunded state there’s a lot of processes that we need to activate and calibrate before we’re “fully” awake. It’s a similar thing for running (and all sports, in fact).
So while we can say that technically, we’re running as long as both feet are off the ground, that’s a definition that benefits nobody because it’s not built into the definition to require those critical processes. So it’s not really “180 spm” we’re talking about, but rather a cadence high enough where the stretch-shortening cycle is at or near optimum energy return. (I’ve never heard of that occurring under 170 spm).
Thanks for the AMAZING replies. I’m not built to be a runner in that I have tight calves, short achilles, and very large biceps femoris (I think that’s the muscle)… I noticed recently that I don’t bring my heels up very much and it finally dawned on me how much harder that would make the swing forward from a leverage standpoint… Not to mention how off the balance would be in terms of which leg muscles got used and which didn’t.
All of which is to say I’m realizing I have very specific form/strength issues that are my main limiters in terms of improvement. I think, for example, they’ve kept me from improving using MAF. Which I did use for quite some time and saw marginal improvement before hitting a wall which I realize now was really a biomechanical one. Or to put it another way, you could have an olympic heart but if your legs are cement and your joints inelastic it really doesn’t matter. Anyway, thanks again, I’m devouring these posts and finally accepting that things like running drills really aren’t ‘just for show’ 😉