“Good and bad training can look the same on paper.”
— Arthur Lydiard

Let’s get the language right when communicating about racing, training, physiology and the sport of running. 

Athletics is a sport, lifestyle and healthy pursuit which carries a language of its own. The lexicon can often be disparate and confusing. Even the word “athletics” is misused. Athletics is the sport of running, field events, on foot, wheeled and para. In North America, it is common to interchange the word “sport” with “athletics,” much like soccer vs. football and likewise athletics is often referred to as “running,” which isn’t wholly incorrect, but not all-encompassing of the sport.

When an athletics coach (skilled or otherwise), uses incorrect language to describe something, the message may cause the athlete to execute the wrong effort during a training session or race or recovery period. Likewise, the athlete may share the incorrect information with the coach. The coach cannot know how the athlete is responding to training with inaccurate information.

Accurate and concise communication is vital to success. Let’s visit some common language faux pas that can lead to a workout, race or recovery run going the wrong way. If you are an athlete (of any level) seek clarification. If your coach cannot explain the purpose of any particular run, get a new coach. This latter phrase may also be credited to Mr. Lydiard — the man who created modern training 70 years ago.

Intervals

Let’s start with one of the most common language abuses in use today: “Intervals.” 

Intervals are the rest or recovery period in between repetitions of hard work. Case closed, that is the accurate way to phrase it. So, how many of you have said or have heard “intervals,” when what was meant to be communicated was “repetitions?”

Do not fret, even elite athletes and professional coaches often mix the two.

But we should fix this. It is inaccurate and may lead to confusing messaging. On the other hand, if you know exactly what your coach is telling you and the intent, no harm – no foul. Keep aware of the language as you read about training or listen to your coach.

Examples 

400m track session

Correct: 10 x 400m repetitions run in 70 seconds each with 60 seconds of rest (or recovery) in between.

Incorrect: 10 x 400m intervals run in 70 seconds each with 60 seconds of rest (or recovery) in between. 

To be the devil’s advocate, it is unlikely, in most scenarios, to confuse an athlete with this particular incorrect description. In the second example, it is clear that the word “interval” is meant to be the quality part of the session. However, imagine scenarios, where a coach and athlete are rapidly exchanging information back and forth over the phone by text. You and I both know this could go sideways.

Tip: Establish meaning and intent early with your coach or your athlete.

Tempo

Tempo is another one of the most misused terms in run training. It is not so much abused, as it has morphed into a catchall for slower-than-race effort and above jogging.

How often have you heard, “I am going out for a tempo run,” or, more coy-like, “I raced that as a tempo run.”

The latter is an excuse to deflect from the fact that the athlete is either out of shape, set the goal too high, raced with poor tactics or is in over his or her head. It is refreshing and rare to hear, “I raced that one poorly, next time I will execute better, lesson learned.”

A tempo run is at a pace that is approximately 15-20 seconds per kilometre slower than one’s own current 5K race pace. Popular coach Jack Daniels is one of several people who popularized the term. 

A good and hearty tempo session includes an easy warm-up run of 3 to 5K, followed by 20 minutes at the above pace (or effort), and followed by another easier portion of the run called a warm-down (yes, warm-down). 

Athletes will want to improve their ability to clear lactate (not lactic acid; now an archaic term). One of the sessions to include in a training program is tempo running, as well as threshold running.

Threshold

While a tempo run, as per above, will help train the body to more efficiently clear lactate, a 60-minute run (give or take) may also be effective. 

Anyone wishing to learn the ins and outs of threshold-termed training may become very confused by the myriad of definitions and ever-changing language available on the internet. 

As long as the coach and athlete or training partners know what they mean to say, we can get away with loosely termed language. Again, it is still best to get it right. 

Aerobic threshold (AT) (depending on who you ask) is a steady effort run in a long or long-ish run, just below the lactate production pace/effort. Therefore it is not that easy. Aerobic Threshold is morphing toward archaic terminology and Lactate or Anaerobic Threshold are more common.

Anaerobic threshold is lactate threshold (LT) running — which carries a limit of about 60 minutes. Your best 60-minute effort (world-class runners in the half-marathon), is at LT.

Arthur Lydiard created an interesting threshold-like run called an out-and-back. These runs are intended to allow a few things to happen:

1. Gives the athlete a session to stimulate the aerobic strata during the base or marathon phase without just running slow all the time.
2. Practice burning glycogen (blood sugar), going at this effort may bring you to near the end of your blood supply of sugar (coupled with warm-up and warm-down) and may also get into lactate-clearing practice. These are wonderful efforts to strengthen your cardiovascular engine.
2. Check fitness without checking fitness. Let me explain. 

During the aerobic phase of training (off-season, base or marathon phase), an athlete can often get impatient and may want to check where their fitness is at by racing. Racing all out or doing an anaerobic session very fast may usurp aerobic development. It is like planting a seed, watching the tree grow, then pulling the sapling from the earth to see how the roots are taking, harming the tree in the process. 

Out-and-backs:

A common out-and-back run includes a warm-up for 3K or 20-30 minutes. Then run 30 minutes out and then turn around and come back over the exact same route (flat or gently rolling). The effort should be consistent 100 per cent of the time (not pace: effort). Imagine a tachometer in your car and you have the needle hovering just below the red zone the entire time, your heart and breathing rate are the tachometer. This is not easy. When you have finished the run, you should say, “I could have run faster if I had to, but I am glad I didn’t.”

An indication of progress is when this run is undertaken, the 30-minute outward bound takes the runner further before turning around. Once the improvement in these runs stops, it is time to move on to the next phase of training.

Alternative: Instead of running for 30 minutes out and then turning around, you may run to a turnaround point that you know is about 30 minutes away. As you become fitter, you will need more real estate to complete your run. Another option is if in a group of runners with different abilities, the coach may handicap the run. Although this can lead to racing (so, to not be caught, or to catch others), it is a good way to keep the effort high.

Again, should you find yourself with a group of runners with varied abilities, turning around at a set time should result in all finishing together, which will keep the social aspect of the warm-up and warm-down in-tact.

This particular run should be run a maximum of once per week and toward every 10 days to two weeks during the base phase.

Full Marathon

This is strictly a pet peeve. Again, even some long-tenured folks in the running community say, “full marathon,” or “the full.” 

Technically speaking a marathon is a full marathon only when registrations are sold out. Otherwise, the distance, named after the Plain of Marathon where Greek messenger Phidippides died, is it. Marathon. Say no more.

Unfortunately, dance-a-thons and telethons co-opted the term and ruined it for everyone involved. It was during the 1960s that the half-marathon was created. In 1965 popular runner Ron Hill helped increase the notoriety of the event by running the world’s best-known time (certification for records came later). The half marathon did not get popular for decades. During the 1980s, the marketing of half-marathons increased so that marathon events could attract more people, especially the families (husbands and wives) of the marathon runners. The half-marathon took off in popularity and even more so during the late 1990s and early 2000s.

The advent of the half-marathon contributed to the misnomer, as participants chose to differentiate between the half-marathon and the marathon.

Let’s stop referring to the marathon as a full marathon. The marathon is a 42.195-kilometre run, plus 1m for every km measured over the shortest possible tangents. Or for those who live in imperial measure countries: 26 miles and 385 yards.

Perhaps the marathon should have been named The Phidippides Race. Mind you, this may have created the half-Phidippides and the full Phidippides — moving on.

Long run

Running shorter than 32 kilometres (20 miles) as a long run can be forgiven. Referring to a 15, 20, or 25K run as a long run is okay if it is a long run to that athlete, at that time. However, for distance running and not just the marathon, a “marathon long run,” does indeed have a minimum standard of 20 miles or 32K. Well after two hours and getting toward 32K is where some training magic happens.

The training effect well over two hours becomes less and less as time passes, but the fuelling, weight control and general muscle fatigue adaptation are of value when preparing for the 42.195K-long marathon. Cardiovascular and cardiorespiratory (the former includes the lungs, otherwise it is the same term) benefit just as well for most runners with an approximate two-hour run. This is where the author prompts all sorts of personal emails correcting the information.  

Things are changing now. For example, super shoes permit athletes to train harder and recover sooner. Doping also contributes to superhuman running volumes, paces and efforts. For anyone not sub-elite or elite in this event, you may admire the world-class runners, but be careful about choosing who and what to emulate.

If you think that the “marathon long run,” is for marathon training only. Stop. It is important even if you are racing for as little as two minutes (800m distance) to have strong aerobic development. Google search the amazing athlete Peter Snell, to understand. While world-class 800m runners may not run his volumes today, they run more than you may think. For example, up to 90K to 135K per week with a weekly, semi-long run. That sounds like a lot for someone who races for 800m. But the aerobic engine must be primed to take advantage of whatever speed an athlete naturally posesses.

Speed work

Another of the many abused terms related to run training. 

Speed work is related only to the muscular and neuromuscular stimulus of the fast twitch muscles and neuromuscular function. Athletes of all abilities can benefit from alactic strides, sprints, drills, short hill repetitions and bounding-like exercises. These can be complemented well with weight resistance training, box jumps and sandhill running. Imagine sprinting and near-sprinting like exercise.

Speed, pure muscular snap, is done with good form and quick turnover, often done too fast to last more than just a few seconds. Although 200m and even 400m repetitions contribute to the neuromuscular stimulus, these efforts can become anaerobic if run very fast. Sometimes the purpose is to run them anaerobically when getting close to racing season.

Fartlek sessions should be as they were originally intended, by “feel” and only when one is feeling and willing to run fast, alternating with slow recoveries. Fartleks keep the runner “in touch with speed,” or “anaerobic-like training,” depending on effort, throughout the year.

The popular 800m, 1K, 1 mile or 1500m repetitions with 60, or 90 seconds of recovery intervals or rests are typically done at plus or minus 10K race pace, sometimes 5K race pace. Strictly speaking, this is not “speed,” but “anaerobic” training. Running at 10K race pace for two to six minutes does not do nearly as much as sprints or strides do to engage the “speed” parts of the body mentioned above: neuromuscular stimulus and fast twitch muscle fibre engagement.

Although long repetitions have their benefits, to be sure, these efforts and paces are not strictly speaking “speed-inducing.”

Olympic coach Nic Bideau has been known to alternate weekly session locations and the distances of the repetitions so that athletes will be unable to race their previous performances by looking at landmarks and checking times. Clearly, this is an effort-promoting attitude. Bideau is a Lydiard-based coach who has worked with Olympic gold medallist Cathy Freeman, as well as Craig Mottram among many other elite athletes.

Effort or pace?

This one is not so much about misused terminology, but rather misunderstood training knowledge.

If your coach has never uttered the word “effort,” related to the detail of how fast you should be moving, you need a new coach. During the interview process, find out what the coach understands about training. Listen for the cues to their intention related to some of the terminology in this article. Knowing the difference and writing a schedule with “effort” versus “pace” when appropriate is critical. It is nuanced and speaks to the aphorism: “Good and bad training can look the same on paper.”

For example, let’s say, you are a couple of months or more away from racing. And you are now beginning to work harder during your tempos, LTs, V02Max, AT, anaerobic, high-aerobic or speed sessions. Let’s just say your goal is to run a specific time in a road 10K. It may be 40:00, or 28:00 or 50:00 minutes or sub-60 minutes or even sub-26:30. You are not at this goal fitness level at this time…

Your coach asks you to run at a goal race pace over 1000m (1K) X 10 with a recovery in between each. So, the subtlety is that you are going to run hard based on a future fitness level, not today’s fitness level. This may be perfectly appropriate for the session. But it may not be. Confused? Perhaps pace, in some instances is correct and in some, “effort” would be more appropriate. As you cannot control all of your life circumstances, you should not always use “pace.” Perhaps you are tired, or well-rested. Running by effort can be used to create the workout stimulus your body needs and wearing your watch will allow you to check afterward, how that repetitions or session went.

If you feel amazing, perhaps the outcome will be better than anticipated. On the other hand, if you are tired, coming down with a cold, stressed or very busy, this will affect your outcome. Running by effort will allow the athlete to get the stimulus and not worry about racing the workout based on past best performances or a set pace. Generally speaking, workouts are not to be raced.

Running by effort will also engage the inner metronome. During the harder portions of the session, you learn rhythm, and feeling-based training and become in tune with your mental and physical signals. Sometimes slamming a square-like pace into a round-like hole just cannibalizes fitness and one’s mental well-being. Muscular damage can happen and pushing too hard will have negative effects.

To be continued…

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