"I want to improve my 5K time." "My race times aren't improving." "Why do I keep getting beaten at races?" This statement was said by no runner. Ever.
I am surprised at the number of times I hear something along these lines, as well as the occasional "weight issue" and "how can I improve my triathlon performance" queries. Those are questions which are really "tell me the secret to successful running" questions. When I tell them the uncomfortable truth; the fact they race too much and train too little, it's my way of informing them there's only one secret to being a successful runner: "Choose your parents wisely." There are no miracles in running, and only one secret. The successful runner chooses their target races wisely. They train wisely leading up to the race date, and they return to training when their body is ready.
Depending on the training focus - race distances, specific times of the year - and the individual athlete's economies (physical and fiscal) a well-trained runner can sustain peak racing performance for four to six weeks. A longer, more-controlled training year with a single peak period will reveal a longer peak, a two peak focus or longer distance target races are closer to four weeks. I know persons who participate in half-marathon and marathon events on a weekly basis; most do little more than the event as their weekly volume, and often at paces which more closely resemble quick walks. Regardless of the pace, damage happens. I often wondered why I could trot 5,000 meters on a Saturday morning at eight-minute pace and grade papers or study with no ill effect, but a 5K road race run six minutes faster would find me asleep in the recliner for two hours. Damage happens in training runs, but more acutely so when we race.
Double a race distance, and the muscular and molecular damage which comes from racing is not just doubled; it's doubled, plus "interest." A marathon isn't only eight and a half times the distance of a five-thousand meter race, it's ten times the damage. So the recovery rules-of thumb - complete rest for each hour of racing, easy run training for each mile of racing - aligns well for the 24-minute 5K runner and the four-hour marathoner; followed wisely, all other things being equal, both can start another 18-to-24-weeks of training as long as the base training has been done.
But many recreational runners fail to ensure they've developed a good, solid base. They don't consider long, steady runs which develop muscle, brain and heart to be necessary. Speedwork, including short repeats and tempo runs of 20 minutes, aren't that important to them. Everything is run at the same pace, with little variation from day to day. To continue to do the same thing from week-to-week, without variation and expect anything else but the same performances, searching in vain for the secret, is the runner's way of living a lie.
"I want to live a lie." This statement was said by no serious runner. Ever.