Early on a chilly Sunday morning in May, along with about 20,000 others in Toronto, I completed the Sporting Life 10K. And like no doubt many other finishers, fast or slow, my first thought – after relief at having finished – was how to run it faster next year.
But is 11 months out too soon to start training for a race, when most 10K plans you find online cover 10 or 12 weeks? Apparently not, according to Jon Dunnill, co-founder of Toronto fitness studio Energia Athletics, whose 10K Run Faster clinic helped bring me to a personal best in 2011 that I'd like to beat come 2014. "To achieve your best result, it's best to do some planning well in advance," he says. I asked Dunnill and other running experts to help me devise a five-stage training program that will get me to next May. Here's what I learned.
Stage one: General physical preparedness
Duration: One to four months
Use this time to get strong and build a consistent running base.
"This stage, along with stage three, is the big difference between a training plan for a beginner and a seasoned runner looking to run faster," says Dunhill, who recommends looking for running-related weaknesses and focusing on them here now. "Goals can include getting stronger, increasing endurance and flexibility and getting leaner."
Lori Silver, a physiotherapist and strength-and-conditioning specialist who's been kicking my butt in the weight room of athletic training centre Fits Toronto, is a huge proponent of strength training, both to prevent injury and get faster.
Silver suggests starting with squats, lunges and deadlifts, then moving on to single-leg squats and jumps as you get stronger, all functional moves that include a lot of abdominal activation – core work – to build stability for the repetitive motions of running. Aim for at least twice a week, she says, on non-consecutive days, though "once a week is better than nothing."
As far as actual running goes, "consistency is the number one thing," says Chris McClung, a running coach in Austin, Tex., who's helping train runners around the world – virtually and in person – for Lululemon's Seawheeze half marathon in Vancouver in August. At first, he recommends cutting speed and distance in favour of frequency, then gradually increasing mileage, but sticking to an "almost uncomfortably slow" speed. Paula Schnurr, head track coach at McMaster University in Hamilton, who competed in the Olympic 1,500 metres in Atlanta in 1996, suggests measuring runs by "time on your feet" rather than distance. The goal is to build endurance, not run fast.
Stage two: Mileage
Duration: Two to five months
Sticking with Schnurr's focus on time, not distance, gradually build up your longest run – usually once a week – until you surpass the distance of the target race. For a 10K race, Dunnill suggests maxing out at 12 km, while McClung might go up to 20 km – depending on your personal base. Either way, you're continuing to build your body's capacity for endurance.
At the same time (as well as in stage three), aim to maintain your strength gains by continuing to cross-train, though time spent doing that might decrease as running time increases.
Stage three: Speedwork
Duration: Four to 10 weeks
Once a week, while maintaining weekly mileage, run intervals on a track, hill or treadmill to teach the body how to run fast – important physically as well as mentally. "Some people are almost afraid to run faster," says Dunnill. "If you can unlock that they can see some huge gains."
Stage four: Taper
Duration: One to three weeks
About a week before a 10K or two to three weeks before a marathon, cut back on your running to prep the body for the race by allowing it to recover from training fatigue and regain energy. "It's long enough to rest your body so that you're fresh and ready to push hard, but it's not long enough that you're going to lose any of the fitness that you've gained," says Dunhill.
Stage five: Recovery
Duration: As much as you need
This is the party after the race: the giant brunch, the nap and the beer you'd been denying yourself – plus as long a break from running as you feel you need. "You can't always be so focused on running," says Dunnill. "You would get burned out."
But throughout the year, it's worth remembering that the body adapts during recovery from training, not training itself – and if you don't give it enough fuel and rest to do that, you risk overtraining or an overuse injury. "You can only have as much intensity as you can recover from and get benefits," says McClung. Adds Schnurr: "If you're ever questioning, should I do this extra mile or another 10 minutes, then you shouldn't. It's not about one workout. Don't be afraid to change the plan."