"So, what is it you guys do on Saturday morning?"
After eighteen months of "social" training and a year of "un-retiring," the question comes from Teri, my wife's friend.
I shoehorn in a brief statement about "perceived effort" before a friend at the table breaks into the conversation with a "typical champagne brunch" topic. The specifics of my workouts can be explained in 25 words or less, fortunately. The method behind the madness, on the other hand, takes a little longer.
There are two schools of thought in the running world when it comes to run speed and endurance: One faction believes endurance is the Aristotlean prime mover; the other states that endurance is merely speed extended. I used to be in agreement with the first group; now I find I'm of the latter.
Why do I believe the "first comes speed, then comes endurance" order of business? Regardless of the pace, all runners start off running for a short period of time, then stretch it out as they learn the pace necessary to complete the duration. Both speed and endurance can be built upon and improved, given enough persistence and patience.
The endurance-first school looks at a person who runs four-to-five hours a week, like Teri, and says consistent running leads to small increases in fitness over time. Laid out on a graph with the x-axis (floor) representing time and the y-axis (wall) representing fitness - defined as any number of things...VO2 max score, resting heart rate, 5K time, and so on - the line will markedly jump in favor of the 'y' right off the bat, then jump less markedly until a steady state is reached.
All other factors being equal, and they rarely are unless you live in a laboratory, this increase on the y-axis will happen until about six weeks. At that point there is no more benefit to gain. I know many runners who are pleased to stay at the plateau point of their fitness. However, a runner who wants to leave the plateau and increase their fitness some more needs to change the stress - lengthen the time or distance run, find more challenging terrain, or increase the intensity (speed).
Each of the "stress changes" have their benefits and drawbacks; most persons who take up running as a fitness activity already have the majority of their day-planners booked-up with other things. There's only so much time that can be taken up by running that does not infringe upon the other activities which enable us to be responsible adults, as well as eat and sleep indoors.
When I use the term "challenging terrain," I mean terrain changes, such as hills. Persons who live in urban areas, or parts of the country which lack major elevation changes often have to make do with the use of treadmills or man-made structures.
So for me, the integration of speed training is the most-efficient means to increase running fitness. This can be done through unfocused "speed play" as part of one or more of the week's runs, or it can be a planned-out once- (or twice-) weekly session.
Local runners look at the description of the workouts from the outside, when I've posted what the group ran, and think the training is difficult. Then, they watch the group going through their paces and believe the workouts to be easy. Really, it's a blend of both.
Let's go back to the speed versus endurance argument. I'll assume you're an experienced runner, able to run at least a 5K. If I assign a workout, and say you're going to do three miles at a pace that's faster than you could maintain for a 5K race, you might probably get back in your car and leave. 'I'm going to break down,' you'd say.
But what if I tell you you're going to three sets of 10 x 160, at a pace a little faster than you can hold comfortably for 5K, with some easy jogging or walking between each repetition? You might stick around; you'd probably make it through the workout and perhaps be a little tired at the end. Were I to pick you up the next day, take you to the track, and ask you to do the same workout...you probably could.
In a couple of weeks I might throw in some 200s, and later on some 300s, and even later on some 400s...just to keep things interesting.
In about six to eight weeks you might even decide to jump in a 5K and WOW! Perhaps you lowered your best 5K time, or you ran more or less the same time but felt less drained. And you didn't have to resort to the classic "quarter mile repeats until you lose your lunch" workout we almost forgot from high school days.
It doesn't take too much work to gain some free speed; perhaps as little as three miles of speed-focused work during the week, in little pieces.