Updated: Sep 7, 2020
What does progression look like for you? Is it a linear process? What are the best ways to quantify progression and what are some of the tools that enable this process? Meet Matt, a 40 something male from the small town of Brooklyn near the Muogamarra Nature Reserve on the southern bank of the Hawkesbury River. In July this year, Matt ran 18:29 for 5km on a cool winters evening on the track at E.S. Marks and I thought we could dive into how he got to where he is and some of the learning he's done along the way.
First, let's look at his 5km progression from his entry to the sport in February 2018, to present day: Feb 2018 - 35:00
May 2018 – 25:21
June 2018 – 22:30
July 2018 – 21:54
Oct 2018 – 21:06
Apr 2019 – 20:55
Nov 2019 – 20:02
Dec 2019 – 19:57
July 2020 – 18:29 July 2020 Matt would be passing February 2018 Matt multiple times on the track while encouraging him with positivity, letting him know he should think about traveling internationally while he can, invest in Zoom and other video conferencing companies , and that the secrets to progression aren't really a secret, nor are they terribly impressive on paper. So what are these terribly unimpressive secrets of training and how do they manifest in reality? Volume through progressive overload. Volume isn't the be all and end all, but it is a metric that carries tangible outcomes particularly with newer runners. Volume is a simple approach that does have individual merits and limitations, but the simple rule is: to get better at running you must run more. In 2018 Matt was running between 35-40km each week, as well as embracing many of the niggles and injuries that tend to plague inexperienced runners. 2019 was a progression to 55-65km, with an inability to handle any long term higher volume weeks. The second half of 2019 came with a break from running but not a break from load, where Matt and his partner Aimee trekked the GR10, a 900km through hike of the French Pyrenees. Returning to training in late 2019 and early 2020, the volume floated to between 70-80km each week, before finding what seems to be the sweet spot in the second half of 2020 at 85-90km each week. I use the word 'seems' in the sense that training is a fluid practice with many moving parts that can and will change over time. To summarise the above, Matt has essentially doubled his training capacity over the course of two and a half years when we look purely at training through the lens of kilometres run. Progressive overload is key but progression isn't just a numbers game. Progression is finishing a week of training feeling ready to roll again. Progression is also Matt's ability to function as a human after the weekly long run (in the past he would barely move in the afternoon), get out the door the day after a harder effort while also acknowledging that rest is an integral part of training, not the absence of it.
What does that volume actually look like? Have you ever been to a wedding where the cake is sitting front and centre of the reception and everyone is making comments on how incredible the decorating and presentation is? Plot twist, that's not what the bulk of training looks like. Beneath the fancy writing, the replica bride and groom figurines and the beautiful colours, lays the structure and foundation of the cake that allows those pretty things to be standing upright in the first place. Don't like food metaphors? I'm really sorry about that. As a coach the one thing I'm trying to do on a regular basis is take complex ideas and simplify them into something palatable. One of the key ingredients that brings these complex ideas to life is easy running. An easy way of increasing the amount of running you're able to tolerate is to progressively overload the amount of easy running you're doing. It's pretty boring stuff. When was the last time you unpacked someones easy 45 minute run and got deep into the details? The people at the wedding who only care about the colour of the writing on top of the cake would probably benefit from spending an afternoon in the kitchen appreciating that the base of the cake holds more weight and structural integrity than anything else. It's easy to fall into the habit of chasing the super workout or the next best thing in tech when the best place to begin is to find purpose in the parts of the process that don't look as pretty on paper. That was a very long way of explaining that Matt has been spending plenty of time in the kitchen developing the base of his cake, and a little bit of time each week working on the decorating and finer details. It's important to be excited and motivated for the decorating, but it's more important to understand the base is what elevates the stuff on top. The long range plan. Enough of the food analogies. Running is a game of patience. To answer the question at the top of the page, progression isn't always linear. Acknowledging this and forming a long range plan is an integral part of developing as a runner. This means having a set of processes within the process, understanding that consistency is best paired with patience. For Matt, ticking off easy runs and workouts each week gives him that sense of achievement in the short term, while also contributing to the bigger picture of training in the long term.
As a coach, I'm less concerned about how a single session looks in the week of training and more concerned about how that session fits into the month, the year and beyond. Stacking single sessions into weeks into months into years is an important foundation of training and the single reason people preach the value of consistency with training. Pairing this idea of consistency with goals and desires is where the magic happens and outcomes establish themselves. Goals. Matt needs some kind of focus to his training, but perhaps the more interesting component of his training is he doesn't always enjoy races as much as he enjoys training. As runners we normalise racing as the full stop for outcomes, whereas progression exists and can be quantified just as importantly within training and other objectives. For Matt, this means acknowledging an increase in pace during workouts, knocking minutes off his 5km time as we mentioned above, or increasing his capacity to handle training weeks. This also means immersing himself in his environment, discovering new trails, increasing the amount of elevation gain he can tolerate and enjoying the process. Doing the training so he can do the training is an important piece of the picture that probably doesn't interest cake guy from a few paragraphs ago. Again, it's mostly boring stuff that drives the biggest adaptations but it's also buying into your goals and desires and having some element of emotional engagement that elevates this process. Your goals are your own goals, owning them and engaging with them is important. Time on disguised as time off. Matt hiked the GR10 in 2019 and learned a few valuable things that have impacted his approach to training. Here's three that have no doubt contributed to his progression. 1. He developed a great deal of physical and mental strength from hiking 25km each day and climbing over 1000m+ each day with a heavy pack for seven weeks. 2. He chose to prioritise running and training over other things, making a deliberate choice to not let things like work dominate his life once he returned from his trip. 3. He made the choice to align his goals with a desire to get better and explore during the process. Being on the GR10 made him want to get into the mountains more and explore further.
A summary of ideas. Fitness before specificity. Beginner athletes have more room to work within and more modalities that drive adaptations easier than experienced athletes.
Progressive overload. What do you want to do and what are you actually capable of doing? These often exist on different sides of the page for new runners. Experienced runners develop the ability to frame these on a singular page by stacking years of training together. Many paths lead to singular destinations. Training is about practice and finding what works for you, the individual. Do the simple things well. Training is mostly unimpressive. Unimpressive training is the part of training people are less likely to want to hear about or replicate, yet it's the part of training that most likely drives the biggest adaptations. Patience you must have, my young Padawan. As a coach, I'll take stoke over fitness any day of the week. Enjoy your running!