How to Apply the Principles of Training Specificity When Running

Curious about how to the principle of training specificity with running? Read the full article to learn more!

Most runners know that if they want to prepare for a race, they can’t rely on Crossfit or swimming – they need to run. If you want to get better at something athletically, you have to repeatedly do that thing specifically. That is concisely the principle of training specificity – one of the training principles that guides how you prepare for races. This article will dive into the question of why is specificity important in training, plus how to implement this principle into your training. 

What Is The Principle Of Specificity?

Broadly, the training principle of specificity means that if you want to run well, you have to run in training. In training theory, specificity in training also encompasses preparing for the specific imposed demands of an event. 

Specific training accounts for various physiological systems. When applied correctly, the training principle of specificity considers the metabolic, biomechanical, neuromuscular, and other demands of the race. Your body becomes most economical at the paces you train at the most. Therefore, the principle of specificity focuses on becoming most economical and prepared for the paces you will run your goal race at. 

Specific training is an application of the training principle of periodization. You do not train at goal pace all the time – otherwise, you would neglect other aspects of fitness. Instead, you train at various paces throughout the year; and then apply the principle of specificity close to a goal race.  

Related: The Guide to Training Periodization

Why Is Specificity Important In Training

While all are running events, the types of workouts and the volume of training you do will differ based on these unique demands. The application of the principle of training specificity means that your training plan looks different for different race distances. Intuitively, most runners know that training for a marathon is different than training for a 5K. 

For example, a one-mile race is run at an intensity above your VO2max. There is a significant anaerobic contribution. Your neuromuscular system needs to be able to output a high amount of power per step. Your body needs to be able to tolerate and clear the rapid production of metabolic by-products (such as hydrogen ions and inorganic phosphate, which cause that burning sensation). 

Meanwhile, the specific demands of a marathon race are much different. Marathon pace is a moderate intensity; your body needs a robust aerobic system capable of shuttling any lactate into the muscles for energy production. You want your muscular system to be able to tolerate hours of repetitive motion. Your running economy should be high so that you don’t waste energy with inefficient running form. 

You would not prioritize 200-meter repeats while training for a marathon, nor would you prioritize long tempos and 20-mile runs when training for a mile race. Instead, you choose 200-meter repeats to teach your body to clear and tolerate lactate like you need to in the mile race. You do 20-mile long runs to improve your cardiovascular and muscular endurance, while long tempos enhance your running economy at marathon pace. 

Related: Understanding Training Zones

How to Identify Your Running Goals and Target Paces

The principle of specificity applies the most in the 6-10 weeks prior to a goal race. For example, if your goal race is a half marathon, you will do half-marathon specific workouts the most in the six to ten weeks before your race. 

If you are training for multiple distances within a season, you likely still have a singular goal race. If you are unsure of which is the goal race, pick the final race of the season to guide your running goals. (And if you don’t want to make your final race your goal race, then this approach helps you more clearly define your season goals.)

If you are not training for a goal race, then you will not have a specific block to your season. Instead, you will likely adopt a different periodization approach, such as non-linear or block periodization. You want to do various workouts to improve all aspects of your running fitness! 

Tailoring Training to Specific Races

As mentioned above, you want to apply the principle of training specificity in the six to ten weeks before a goal race. Before that, you will want to do either a broad range of workouts or workouts less specific to your race. (The former is a type of periodization called “funnel periodization” – broad to specific; the latter is a type of linear or block periodization.)

Specific training typically involves paces slightly above, at, or slightly below your goal pace. These paces will be what you run approximately 15-25% of your training at (depending on the race distance). The remaining 75-85% of your training is easy running. (While easy running is not close to goal pace, it does improve endurance, fatigue resistance, running economy, and aerobic capacity – all of which allow you to maintain your goal pace for the desired distance.)

5K Specific Training

For most recreational runners, a 5K race lasts 20 to 35 minutes. The intensity is slower than your velocity at VO2max but higher than your second threshold (commonly called lactate threshold). The 5K is predominantly aerobic, but it does require you to shuttle out a rapid production of lactate (especially near the end). You need to be able to tolerate a burning muscle sensation and cognitively go into the pain cave. 

In order to prepare for these demands, your specific workouts will be at 3K to 10K pace. These workouts will include intervals at 5K pace, short speed sessions at 3K pace (or VO2max), and cruise intervals around 10K pace. Some runs may periodically intersperse threshold runs or short tempo runs as a secondary workout of the week. 

Sample 5K specific workouts include: 

  • 2-3 x 5 minute at 5K pace (2 min recovery jog), followed by 3-5 x 1 min at 3K pace/1 min jog
  • 4-6 x 800m (½-mile) at 5K pace (2-2.5 min jog)

10K Specific Training

Depending on your pace, the 10K race is run at slightly faster than or right around your second metabolic threshold (lactate threshold). You produce a significant amount of lactate (and its accompanying metabolic byproducts), thus toeing the line of stable vs unstable physiology. The 10K is a distance that becomes significantly harder near the end – you need to be able to tolerate discomfort while pushing the pace at the end. 

The specific training phase will include workouts at 5K to 15K/half marathon pace. Typically, these workouts will all involve some sort of interval, often with longer intervals at goal pace. 

Sample 10K specific workouts include:

  • 6-10 x 1K (0.62 mile) at 10K pace (1.5-2 min jog)
  • 4-5 x 2K (1.24 miles) at 15K pace (2 min jog)
  • 1-2 x (1 mile at 10K pace/0.75 mile at 10K pace/0.5 mile at 5K pace/0.25 mile at 5K pace), (2-3 min jog after each)

Half Marathon Specific Training

Except for world-class athletes, most runners pace the half marathon slower than their second metabolic threshold – but still above the first threshold (aerobic threshold). You experience mild levels of lactate production; not enough to make your physiology unstable, but enough to trigger some muscular fatigue in the later miles. Additionally, your muscles need to be able to tolerate a relatively fast output for a long amount of time. 

When you apply the principle of specificity to half marathon training, you typically do most hard workouts at 10K pace and half marathon pace. Some training methodologies may also include a second run per week at marathon pace. 

Sample half marathon specific workouts:

  • 2-3 x 2 miles at half marathon pace (2-min jog)
  • 10-13 mile long run with final 2-3 miles at half marathon pace
  • 3K at half marathon pace/2K at 10K pace/1K at 5K pace (3 min jog)

Marathon Specific Training 

The marathon is a truly endurance event – but since most runners run it slightly faster than easy pace, you need to prepare your body for that. Poor running economy impacts all distances, but its effects will be most felt in the marathon. If you do not train at race pace, you are also more likely to experience muscle fatigue or even cramping from holding a faster pace than you trained at for so long. 

Marathon specific workouts typically center around marathon pace pace. You will likely also include workouts slightly faster, often at 10K-15K pace (threshold) and half marathon pace. 

Specific marathon pace workouts include:

  • 2-3 x 3 miles at marathon pace (½ mile easy)
  • 6-10 miles at marathon pace
  • 3 miles at marathon pace/2 miles at half marathon pace/1 mile at 10K pace (3-4 min jog)

Other Tips to Use Training Specificity in Running

While the principle of training specificity is important, it is important to not over-emphasize it. For example, if you only race marathons and never include any short, fast intervals in your yearly training plan, you may gradually get slower with time. 

Additionally, training specificity requires an accurate understanding of your fitness and paces. If you set too aggressive of a marathon pace (a pace that is actually your half marathon pace), you set yourself up for overtraining or a negative outcome on race day. You can use time trials or previous races to enter into calculators (such as the VDOT calculator) to provide realistic estimations of your training paces. 

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