What Recreational Runners Can Learn from How Elites Train

What Recreational Runners Can Learn From How Elite Runners Train

A recently published 2022 review in Sports Medicine brought together a wealth of information on how elite runners train. The authors included Dr. Stephen Seiler (who pioneered the discussion on training intensity distribution) and Dr. Thomas Haugen (whose study on the “golden training divide” brought new light to how we conceptualize aerobic vs anaerobic training). 

The methodology of “The Training Characteristics of World-Class Distance Runners: An Integration of Scientific Literature and Results-Proven Practice” is particularly informative. The review cites over 200 sources and synthesizes both peer-reviewed and training logs. The training logs included runners such as Eliud Kipchoge, Molly Seidel, Deena Kastor, and Meb Keflezighi. As a result, the review merges the theory and practice of long-distance running. While every scientific article has limitations, this 2022 review is the most comprehensive article on long-distance run training yet. 

Recreational runners can apply similar principles to their training from these findings on how elite runners train. The training of elite runners emphasizes easy runs, deliberate quality sessions, small doses of strength training, and tapering for races. While recreational runners may run lower mileage, they can see long-term growth from similar applications of training intensity distribution, training volume, supplemental training, and periodization.

First, a series of caveats: 

  • Elite runners are often genetically gifted. They are outliers by the sheer fact of being world-class. Elites can often genetically tolerate more training without their bodies breaking down. 
  • Elite runners spend more time recovering (particularly sleeping) and do not have the same demands of work stress that recreational runners do. 
  • Individual variations may exist. For example, first-time marathoners will train much differently!
Elite Runners Race Infrequently

While track athletes race often, world-class marathoners are more selective in their racing. Long-distance road racing places huge demands on the body (here’s what happens to your body after racing a marathon). Most world-class marathoners race four to eight times per year, with one to three marathons, one to two half marathons, and the remainder 5K, 10K, and 15K races. Notably, elite marathoners tend to take one to two weeks off of training, with either no runs or very easy runs. 

Racing too often is a common mistake for recreational runners. You can participate in frequent races; as a coach, I often program workouts into races for athletes who enjoy the experience. In terms of all-out racing though, you want to practice the strategic thinking of elite runners. Pick one goal race per season and some tune-up races if desired, rather than attempting to race frequently. 

Elites Focus on the Purpose of Each Run

In Table 2 of the study, the researchers define the various types of runs used in world-class long-distance running. Some of the sentences are almost shocking if you were to compare them to social media advice. “Easy runs are typically…lasting 40-70 minutes.” “Threshold runs… should not be overly fatiguing.” 

Elite runners are not racing their workouts or over-extending easy runs. They use doubles to increase weekly mileage, rather than extending easy runs pace the optimal duration. Every run has a purpose and they train within that purpose.

Recreational runners can practice the same approach. Run your easy runs by time instead of getting caught up in mileage. Pace your hard workouts based on their purpose rather than racing them for sexy Strava splits. 

Elite Runners Supplement with Strength Training and Plyometrics

The random running coach may argue that runners should not strength train. However, this review only adds to the mounting body of evidence that strength training is beneficial for runners. The resistance training explored in this review focuses on functional movements (squats, lunges, deadlifts, etc.) without aiming for hypertrophy. For most runners, the nature of long-distance training induces a physiological interference to hypertrophy. (It’s worth noting: this strength training is not bodybuilding!)

The benefits of strength training for long-distance runners are primarily neuromuscular and focused on improving their running economy. For this reason, plyometrics are often included as well. Plyometrics do not need to be done at a gym. Hill sprints are a form of explosive training as well, with tremendous neuromuscular benefits to runners. 

Strength training is periodized around run training. Recreational runners will benefit from mimicking this pattern. Strength training is prioritized in base building and early weeks of training. Then, the frequency of lifting is reduced during the peak weeks of training and removed in the taper. 

Elite Runners Train Mostly Easy, with Deliberate Doses of Moderate and High Intensity

Almost all elite runners train at an easy pace for 80% or more of their total volume. For some, it may even be closer to ~90%. In the other <20% of their training, world-class marathon runners vary the exact intensity based on the phase of training. Early in their build for a goal race, elite marathoners will complete more interval training at 3K to 10K pace. The closer they get to their race, the time at intensity is spent doing threshold intervals, tempo runs, and marathon pace workouts. Strides and hill sprints are employed, although the total volume accounts for less than 1% of training volume. 

Training for a 5K, 10K, or even half marathon may look a little bit different. For a 5K or 10K, the progression of workouts would the reverse: starting with more threshold training, then doing more intervals closer to the race. 

Recreational runners can mimic this training intensity distribution in their training. A majority of the time spent running should be easy. If you are not sure if you are running easy enough, take time to calibrate what a conversational, low-intensity effort feels like. Since recreational runners run fewer times per week than elite runners, all but one run per week may be at a low intensity. (Progression runs and continuous hill runs can account for a second moderate session per week in some training.) A few times per week, you want to add in four to eight strides or hill sprints after an easy run. Workouts should be periodized based on race goals, with the most specific workouts closest to the race. 

Elite Runners Train at High Volume

Since most of their running occurs at a low intensity, elite runners run lots of miles. The review estimated a range of 500 to 700 hours of training per year – approximately ten or more hours per week if we account for recovery weeks after peak races. Interestingly, many elites will train on dirt roads or gravel paths to reduce the mechanical impact of high mileage. 

The high volume of easy running elicits a series of neural, central, and peripheral adaptations. Easy running increases the density of mitochondria and capillaries to increase oxygen delivery and aerobic energy production. Cardiac output increases to meet the demands for more oxygen. High volumes of easy running train the neuromuscular system, so that running economy is improved and running form is naturally self-optimized. 

However, elites do not train at high volume year-round. They run less during recovery phases and then gradually increase mileage during the early weeks of race preparation. Mileage peaks for just a few weeks prior to the goal race, before tapering off. 

Not all recreational runners should do high mileage training. However, the idea that you should optimize volume is still applicable. When training for a race, optimize low-intensity volume as best as you can within your schedule and your injury background permit. Even small increases can move the needle, such as adding 10 minutes to a couple of easy runs each week for the duration of a training cycle. If you can, vary the training surfaces to reduce fatigue and injury risk. (Here’s how to determine how many miles per week you should run.)

If you are running only three or four times per week, try increasing frequency before lengthening your easy runs. If you are injury-prone, supplement aerobic volume in low-impact modes of cross-training.

Elite Runners Taper

A disciplined taper is correlated with improved performance in the marathon, so it is no surprise that world-class marathoners taper for their races. Marathon tapers for elites typically include a reduction in volume while maintaining frequency and intensity for two to three weeks prior to their race. The sharpest decrease in training volume occurs in the ten days leading up to the race. The final pre-race workout, typically at race pace, is done three to five days before the race. 

Even if your goal is not to finish on the podium, a taper is still beneficial. Marathon training is demanding whether you run 40 miles per week or 130 miles per week. The taper encourages recovery and adaptation so that you can go into race day with minimal fatigue and optimal fitness. Follow this guide on how to taper for a marathon and this guide for how to taper for a half marathon.

Key Takeaways for Recreational Runners Based on How Elite Runners Train

  • Pick a couple of goal races per year and focus on training well for them.
  • Pace your workouts appropriately for their purpose. 
  • Consider the duration of workouts, versus focusing on mileage. 
  • Strength train regularly and then taper it down before a race. 
  • Run mostly easy at a volume you can tolerate.
  • Hard workouts account for 10-20% of the total training volume. 
  • The type of hard workout is periodized based on your goal race. 
  • Tapering helps your training fully express on race day. 

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1 Response

  1. Great info, Laura!
    I’ve been training a lot on tarmac as my ultra will be a road race. In hindsight, I probably should have trained more on dirt roads or gravel to reduce the mechanical impact like the elite does.

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