Elite-level runners are always looking for whatever advantage they can get over the competition. Some of their training techniques can be used by recreational runners to help them boost their performance, while others should be strictly for professionals only. Here's what top-level runners are doing to beat the clock.
Technique: Pool running
Gasping factor: Deep breaths
Twice a week, Dylan Wykes can be found running in the deep end of the Vancouver Aquatic Centre. "It's an extra cardiovascular boost," says the 27-year-old Olympic marathon hopeful. It's also a way to ward off injury - no one's going to get shin splints running in a pool. "The goal of long-distance running, really, is to try and train as much as you can, but your body can only handle so much, especially with the pounding," Wykes says.
Deep-water running has been popular with world-class runners since the early 1980s, says Richard Lee, Wykes's coach.
"Pool running is more of an all-body workout because of the resistance when you're swinging your arms through. You're working your core, and even with your legs you're using some muscles you don't normally use when you're running," Mr. Lee says.
Running in the pool only makes up a small amount of Wykes's total training volume, but it can give him an edge.
"It's not going to make you go from provincial level to national level, but it's one of those tiny things that, once you are national level, can boost you to that next step."
Technique: Running twice a day
Gasping factor: Deep breaths
The key to becoming an aerobic machine, is building up training volume, says Corey Kubatzky, a coach with the Hansons-Brooks Distance Project, a U.S.-based Olympic development program. Members of the team, log upward of 241 kilometres each week - the upper end of the spectrum for professional runners. How do you build volume and boost your aerobic system without putting excess strain on your legs? Run twice a day, Kubatsky says.
Runners in the project's marathon stream do a 22.5-kilometre run and then a 9.7-kilometre run on their easy days as a way to keep their volume up without feeling totally wiped out. "Once you start getting into a longer run, you start depleting your energy stores at a more rapid rate. You don't want to go to the well every day."
Should amateurs try it? "I would rather someone do a four-mile run than two two-mile runs," Kubatzky says. But if they're getting up to the point where they're putting in 12-miles a day then eight and four might be more reasonable."
Technique: Functional movement screening
Gasping factor: Breath easy
Athletes at the Pacific Sport National Endurance Centre for Athletics, in Victoria, B.C., undergo seven tests of fundamental movements, designed to expose their weaknesses in terms of posture, balance and muscle use.
"It basically gives us an idea of their strength and weaknesses, and whether they have a mobility or a stability problem," says Brent Fougner, a middle-distance coach with Canada's national team and director of the centre. "When you put [the tests]all together, you start to see that maybe they don't even use their right glute at all because it's never been activated." Test results allow coaches to put athletes on a program that will "increase their ability to run farther and faster."
Best of all? A growing number of personal trainers are beginning to provide functional-movement screening, meaning weekend warriors can hone their biomechanics, too.
Gasping factor: Bent over double. Do not try this without first consulting a physician.
Plyometric training is a broad umbrella that includes training techniques designed to build explosive speed and power and improve the functioning of the nervous system. Many top-level runners, for example, do box hops, an exercise in which you start from a semi-squat position and then jump with both feet onto a box, step back down, repeat and also hop on one leg.
"That sort of thing would be absolutely verboten to anyone who is just starting out," says Steve Boyd, founder and coach of the Physi-Kult running club in Kingston, Ont.
Another plyometric exercise top runners use is running 10-second hill sprints after a long run.
It is a punishing exercise even for elite athletes. But utilizing muscles in ways they aren't used during a typical long run can have amazing results, helping runners feel stronger and, oddly enough, better rested when they wake up.
What you shouldn't do
We asked coaches what are the most common training errors new runners make. The consensus? Slow down.
"There's a pretty broad misconception that the harder you run, the more benefit you get and that you should run hard every time out. That's just not how it works. Professionals on the team here will do one hard day and then two easy days after every hard day. People who are just starting out think, 'No pain, no gain,' when the reality is that really just building volume and time on your feet is going to give you the biggest bang for your buck."
- Corey Kubatzky, a coach with the Hansons-Brooks Distance Project
"Trying to do too much too soon, whether it's the intensity that they're running at right away or the volume that they try to do right off the bat. The most important danger is injury. Whether you're just starting out or you're an international athlete, your goal is to not get injured so you can be consistent in your training. You can train hard, but you need to understand how to recover."
- Brent Fougner, a middle-distance coach with Canada's national team
"The most common mistake is inconsistency. Even if your program isn't ideal, if you're doing it consistently, you'll eventually see results from it. You can be very dedicated for one week or one month and then just disappear for a week or a month. And if you try and jump back into the same program, then you risk a lot of injuries and you've lost fitness."
- Richard Lee, coach of the Lower Mainland Elite, a B.C.-based running club.
"These days, the No. 1 most common mistake is trying to run a marathon in the first six months of having taken up the sport. It's like a mountain climber trying to climb Mount Everest three months after they learn how to put a spike in a wall. That leads them to do a little too much running before their bodies are ready for it, and that leads to a huge number of lower leg problems, and then they're out of the sport as soon as the marathon is over. People need to be more patient."
- Steve Boyd, founder and coach of the Physi-Kult running club in Kingston, Ont., and a five-time national champion in track, cross-country and road racing.