Partly I think the rise of exercise physiology is to blame. Don’t get me wrong, huge advances have come from the scientific study of running. But I think the focus on measurable physiological factors has misled us.
I think in a lot of cases, athletes could get more benefit from their workouts if they thought about what they’re trying to prepare for and then simulate that (or pieces of that) in the workout.
For example, most runners and coaches now have a pretty good understanding of the benefit of tempo runs – they help to increase the anaerobic threshold and allow you to run faster without relying on the anaerobic energy systems.
Of course this is vital to good distance running. But, I think we get too caught up in raising the anaerobic threshold and don’t think enough about how to use tempo runs to help us run faster in a race.
Obviously doing tempo runs is a good idea. But, I would argue that if you’re going to do them, you might as well get the most racing benefit out of them that you can. So when my athletes do tempo runs, they always run faster in the second half of the workout and finish the last mile pretty hard.
Is that the most effective way to raise their anaerobic threshold? Nope. If we were testing them in a laboratory, they would probably be able to raise their anaerobic threshold more effectively by running a steady pace the entire run.
But, I don’t care what happens in the laboratory. I care what happens in the race. And having the experience in a tempo run of crossing the anaerobic threshold will leave them more prepared for what happens to them physiologically in the second-half of the race.
To me, this is “teaching to the test.” That phrase is often used negatively to mean that the students aren’t learning anything except whatever is going to be on the test. While that may be a bad thing in the classroom, it sure isn’t in distance running.
So the next time you’re coming up with a workout to run, I’d encourage you to think about what you’ll be required to do physically in your goal race and “teach to the test.”