In Iten, a small town in Kenya known around the world (and on social media) for the large training groups shown in popular photos, more than 200 runners often come together for a morning run. Interestingly, the same group of runners going for a one-hour morning run includes 800m track runners together with 42km road runners and all others in between, performing the same workout.
(Photo above of runners arriving for a fartlek run in Iten, Kenya, by Steven Vanlancker.)
“At times I join the large training group of Kimumu in Eldoret for my morning runs only on Mondays, but I have a different program for the rest of the week,” Bethwell Birgen, the 2017 world indoor tour 1500m winner and 2018 3000m world indoor bronze medalist, once told me. Birgen is a 1500m runner, but most of those in the mentioned group are marathon runners.
Even if there were somehow a perfect training program that suited everyone, it would still be impossible for everybody to diligently follow it. That “perfect” program would be interrupted by normal personal inconveniences like work schedules, injury, and illnesses, as well as uncontrollable events like floods, heavy rains, heat waves and—in some areas—political instability.
Endurance Programs and Apps
Some elite long distance runners openly share their training programs, and fans and other runners try to copy everything they do in the hope of reaching the same level. With advances in technology, runners in training can now easily check apps like Strava and Garmin Connect to see the training programs other runners follow.
“Coach, you gave me a long run of 30 kilometers, but I checked and an elite runner I follow is always doing 38 kilometers in their long runs.”
These are the type of comments and questions any experienced coach hears from their runners. But it is not necessarily straightforward that the programs others use will apply to everybody else, depending on different fitness levels, goal races, weather patterns, and other factors.It is not necessarily straightforward that the programs others use will apply to everybody else, depending on different fitness levels, goal races, weather patterns, etc., says @kenyanathlete. Click To Tweet
Advances in technology have also led to an emergence of fitness wearables and apps that offer advice on how long to run or how long to recover. But most of these devices can be inaccurate at times. I had to call one of the clients I coach online to inquire if he was still alive when I checked and saw his heart rate was showing 0 bpm in the last stages of his run! At times, the device may advise you to recover for seven hours after your afternoon run, which would put you in an awkward situation of having to wake up in the middle of the night to go for your next run.
Below are some considerations that an endurance coach and a long distance runner should make while modifying programs to suit their different situations.
One man’s food is another man’s poison, goes the old saying. There are runners who run an easy pace in 3:50/km while others do their threshold runs at around a 5:00/km pace. It would only be proper for a coach to separate runners according to their abilities and give them different workouts.
One of the best ways to go about this is to base the training programs more on duration than on distances.It is only proper for a coach to separate runners by their abilities and give them different workouts. One great way to do this is to base the training programs more on duration than on distances. Click To Tweet
A 1-hour 10-minute easy run may take some runners about 16 kilometers to finish, while others may cover around 8 kilometers. However, at the end of the day, they all went for a 1-hour 10-minute run.
A coach should know what their runners are aiming to achieve in their runs in terms of race times and when they are expected to compete next. It won’t make sense to ask a runner whose goal is to finish their first 10-kilometer race to go for a 35-kilometer long run with another runner who is preparing to run a marathon.
There is also a time to simply build up mileage and endurance, and there is a time to focus more on speed workouts and tempo runs, depending on the nearness of the targeted races.
As runners grow older, they are more prone to injuries, and there are workouts that are more suited for the older generations. For example, shorter Fartlek runs of one-minute hard and one-minute easy repetitions may not work well for runners over the age of 60 years.
There are mixed opinions about children under the age of 18 running marathons, and while there are no sufficient studies to support or disapprove this, it comes naturally that allowing children to run grueling distances borders on child abuse and exploitation.
A coach should take into consideration the age of their athletes and give out workouts that are proper for them. Older runners should not be given a lot of short, explosive track intervals, as they would easily end up injuring themselves.
Circumstances, Injury, and Illnesses
Some runners are too competitive to accept the fact that they need to stop their training momentarily for their own benefit. It is the job of a coach to observe the behavior of their runners and know when something is amiss, when they should slow down their training, and when they should even stop it for a while.
There are case-by-case individual circumstances that may arise. Some runners may be allergic to cold and need a different time of the day to run, while others could be recovering from injuries and illnesses that may require them to do some easier training.
Discipline and Determination
A coach needs to learn more about the character of the runners they coach. There are those who tend to have too much drive to train hard and end up overtraining, and there are those who always feel that the workouts they have been given are too much. A wise coach will know how to get the runners from both extremes to come to a middle ground that the coach feels is the best workout for them.
“For athletes who are used to asking for more workouts, I normally give them slightly less so that when they ask and I allow them to do the ‘extra workouts’ they actually end up meeting the threshold that I had designed for them in the first place; for those who complain, I give them a little extra and will allow them to stop when they have done what I had in mind for them.” Sammy Mitei, a famous coach in Kenya, told me this bit of advice once during an interview we had together.
There are runners whose work schedules don’t allow them to have more than one run in a day. Instead of a one-hour run in the morning and another 50-minute run in the evening, a coach could find a middle ground and give the runner a 1-hour 30-minute run for the day.
Not just work schedules but other conflicts may interrupt the normal training for the day. A coach should look at the training week as a whole, note the areas that have not been covered, and reschedule the next program to cover that. It may mean moving a long run into the following week, among other adjustments.
Modifications Runners Can Make on Their Own
A distance runner in a training group can also adapt their program based on a number of factors relative to the other runners in the group.
If a runner has been out of training for a while and is just resuming their training, it is likely they have gained some weight. Joining a group doing some track intervals in this state is a sure recipe for injury: These runners should begin with slow and easy runs as their body adapts to training.
The other sense of fitness level is being honest with one’s maximum ability at the moment. It takes a lot of patience to be able to run like some of the world’s top runners, and it is only wise to gauge oneself and not fall into the temptation of trying to outdo everyone in training. Training should not be a competition or a way to always measure oneself against others.
A runner should know what exactly they want to gain from a particular group’s workout. For example, a middle distance track runner may choose to go with a group of marathon runners on a long run, but they should know when to stop and let the rest continue.
In an effective training program, a hard day should always be followed by an easy recovery day. A runner should avoid being drawn into the temptation of doing hard workouts every day. The previous workout may have been easier for the group but hard for you. Or, you may have done a different workout from that of the group.
During sickness and immediately after, it is good to allow your body time to recover before getting back into hard training. Impatient runners often get back into their normal training too early and spend more months ahead wondering why their bodies are not responding well to training.
Patience is a virtue that most of the successful endurance runners possess. It is better to live to fight another day than to keep struggling without seeing any improvements.Patience is a virtue that most of the successful endurance runners possess. It is better to live to fight another day than to keep struggling without seeing any improvements, says @kenyanathlete. Click To Tweet
A runner may realize that they lag behind in a particular area in training. Perhaps they may have been away when others were concentrating on speed workouts. In this case, while others may go for a different workout, the runner may decide to schedule more speed workouts in their individualized programs to try and catch up.
It’s okay for a runner to skip a certain workout in the group and go back to repeat a speed workout after a recovery day between the previous workouts.
Decision-Making in an App-Based Program
The advantage of app-based training programs is that they can easily detect when you are improving, when you overtrained and need a longer recovery, or even when you may be sick, advising on the appropriate time to rest accordingly.
Runners who follow app-based training programs may also need to modify their scheduled training based on individual factors the software doesn’t account for.
Sometimes, the time the app recommends for you to run may not be the right time according to the reality on the ground. From storms to political violence to odd night hours, it is always good to make judgments for yourself on when and for how long to go for a run.
There are benefits from group training, especially when it comes to long runs and speed workouts. Groups can make it easier to pull resources together to hire a pick-up truck to provide you with rehydration drinks on the course or for transportation to a good course to run on. In this case, a runner may have to adjust their training program to be in harmony with the program of the group members.
If as a runner you see the need to join a group for a quality workout, and your app is giving you a different program, feel free to ignore the app.
Work and Family Demands
There are occasions in life that require your full commitment, be it work- or family-related. This will force you to reschedule some runs for a later day. This is fine. But make sure you note the particular workout you missed and find a way of compensating for it. Reschedule the workouts only if doing so won’t interfere with the other workouts ahead of the week.
Most of the time, I would recommend skipping the workouts you missed rather than letting more than two hard workouts follow each other consecutively. You will end up not having quality training in your second workout and not recovering well from your first workout.
Injury and Sickness
You don’t need the app to recommend a rest for you when you tear a hamstring. As a runner, you should always give first priority to your health and well-being.
Making Individualization Work
Back in 2007, the first full-time coach I got lucky to work with as a runner was Erick Kimaiyo, who currently coaches Brigid Kosgei, the women’s marathon record holder at 2:14:04. This was when I joined a high-performance altitude training camp for the first time in my life. The camp, Kapsait Nike Athletics Training Camp, is at an altitude of over 9,600 feet above sea level and continues to produce some of the world’s top runners.
Looking back at how Erick used to issue his training programs and how he would deal with us as a large group of runners, I can now fully understand why he did so. There were instances when he would assign runners into different groups in the evening before giving out programs to be done the following morning. One group would be taken to a faster course, while the other group would be taken on a tougher course—often, the slower runners would be given the tough course!
I remember one day when he described a route of about 38 kilometers to go for a run, then asked if anyone wasn’t feeling well and needed a shorter course. Some runners came forward. He scrutinized them closely, then said we were all going for the 38-kilometer run.
Over the years, I have trained under other coaches, and I took many lessons from them and also from my personal experience as a long distance runner. In all these, the main aim of an individualized program has been to cater to the specific goals and circumstances of an individual runner. A coach or a long distance runner needs to be quick and flexible in identifying and adjusting to situations that require customization for better results from their training.
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