Ask the right questions

Training, when boiled down to its bare essentials, consists of asking your body to solve a specific challenge or a series of separate challenges. We can consider this the same as asking your body to answer a question. The question you ask, and in which context you utter it, dictates the response you will get. Ask the wrong question at the wrong time and you will get an answer you would rather not have heard as many of us have likely experienced to our chagrin as we made our way through life!

Scientifically speaking every training method creates a stimulus which is nothing more and nothing less than another environmental stimuli for our internal systems to act upon. Done right our bodies will respond by constructing the appropriate answer to the stimulus. Drink some alcohol and your body improves its ability to produce alcohol dehydrogenase and aldehyde dehydrogenase enzymes. Different types of running challenges elicit similar responses.

Six honest questions for your workouts

In order to choose the right questions you, unsurprisingly, need to query yourself first:

  • What stimulus am I looking to achieve
  • Why is this stimulus desirable / my next priority
  • How must I execute this workout to ensure the stimulus applies as expected
  • Where in my schedule will/should I be ready for this stimulus
  • When will be the best time to apply this stimulus and when will I be recovered enough from it to apply another stimulus
  • Who will this stimulus work best for and am I one of them?

Sample answers

If had to construct a workout progression for a marathon that begins with long 3 km intervals at marathon pace, for instance, I would query this workout:

What stimulus am I looking to achieve?

I want my body and mind to accept the goal marathon pace and monitor my reaction to it.

Why is this stimulus desirable / my next priority?

Because of the Law of Specificity – the body get’s better at doing exactly what it is asked to do regularly. It is my next priority because I feel I have completed the foundational training.

How must I execute this workout to ensure the stimulus applies as expected?

Marathon pace represents a certain level of perceived effort. If I go beyond this effort I am no longer executing a marathon-specific session but instead something faster. I must adjust my effort then and perhaps my expectations or my readiness for the workout.

I should execute the workout on similar roads and similar time of day to the race for best simulation of the real race situation.

Where in my schedule will/should I be ready for this stimulus?

My body should be prepared for the overall workload involved in the workout through more generic training. This would mean, among other things, that I must be able to sustain the desired pace for a significant period of time without pain and I must be able to run much longer than the workout prescribes at slower paces.
When will be the best time to apply this stimulus and when will I be recovered enough from it to apply another stimulus?

It should happen early in the specific period of training to allow time to adjust and revise and to be properly prepared by the general period. It should be done after some easier days so the body and mind are fully charged and ready for a race-specific stimulus.

It will normally require 48-72 hours to feel fully recovered after this type of workout although it varies with the individual. I believe that for me it generally takes only 48 hours.
Who will this stimulus work best for and am I one of them?

An experienced runner with a strong endurance-base and no injuries would be ideal but as long as the pace is retained at the marathon level then it should be suitable to any person who has otherwise prepared adequately for a marathon in the general period.

How to implement this

It would excessive and onerous to perform this query for every workout in your schedule. Experienced coaches ask themselves these questions on the fly as they put the plan together – so if the answer to question around when recovery is expected is 48 hours, the coach will now to place only restorative and easy runs on those days after the workout in question. The runner who executes the plan must then have a firm measure by which recovery is gauged so they can make a simple ‘yes/no’ decision if the original answer does not seem to have been true (all answers about the future are guesses by definition and must be treated so).

For those without coaches, begin by querying the harder workouts and the key workouts you will use to truly feel prepared for the race and then build everything else around them – place easier supportive workouts far enough before or after that they do not interfere and put easier days on the rest. Plan how long you think you need to be ready to do the workout and how much you feel you need to progress it before you are mentally and physically confident enough to face your race goal on the starting line.

Training planning would require a separate article so I will keep it as generic as that here.  I will leave you with the advice to understand the variables of training which these questions are asking you to consider:

  • Intensity: the absolute intensity is kilometres per hour (or mph) and the relative intensity is how it affects YOU in terms of heart rate, subjective discomfort and muscular soreness etc. (i.e. ‘4:00 min/km or 15 kph or ‘5 out of 10 discomfort’ or ‘144 heart rate in relation to my maximum of 198’)
  • Duration: Is the time in minute of the workout (i.e. it took 34 minutes)
  • Volume: This is the total distance covered (i.e. ‘3 x 2 km’ is 6 km)
  • Density: The relationship between exercise and recovery  WITHIN a workout (i.e. ‘1 minute HARD, 1 minute rest, is 1:1’)
  • Frequency: The number of training sessions per period of time (i.e. ‘7 days per week’)

In future posts I will look at workload and monotony and how we can analyse ourselves whether the way we combine the five above factors based on the six questions can help us avoid planning poorly.

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