QUALITY vs. QUANTITY, what is the best approach to training? This question, in my mind, will likely last for eternity or, until there has been enough success of one over the other, to turn the tide. My coaching principles gravitate more toward the QUALITY side of things, however, that does not mean that I do not have a place for QUANTITY. I will get to that later.
So where does these ongoing debates come from? Well, for QUANTITY, most of the common training plans, can be linked back to Arthur Lydiard (legendary New Zealand coach who worked with many Olympians in the 60’s-70’s). Though Lydiard prescribed many “long” runs at a “slow” pace, much of his training is misinterpreted by the “common folk of running”.
It has been thought that Lydiard preached mostly high, high mileage at LSD (long slow distance) and had very minimal amounts of running at “fast” speeds. Though that is somewhat true, the exact understanding of those terms are a bit misleading.
QUALITY – This training is typically understood as the “fast”, “speed”, “interval”, “tempo” type work that focuses on paces that are near, at or below your goal race paces. Legendary coach Mihaley Igloi is often thought to be the exact opposite in regards to his training principles, than that of Lydiard. For all simplistic ways of thinking and based on popular opinion (as incorrect as it may be), Lydiard is thought of as the “long slow distance” coach, whereas Igloi, is always thought of as the “short fast interval” coach. Granted, their principles were quite different it would appear on the surface but, when you start dissecting down a bit, were they all that different?
In my opinion, it’s the vocabulary and understanding that is the problem within the distance training world. It’s terms like speed, interval, anaerobic, V02max, tempo, etc., that give very misleading guidance to the type of running and how, what or why it should be done.
The terms are just that, they are words that are often associated with a certain intensity, duration, etc. What most runners don’t understand is that, they should be more concerned with WHAT system the workout is improving, rather than worrying about what it is called.
In the endurance running world, the word SPEED or INTERVALS are almost always thought of as hard, anaerobic, lungs burning, lactic acid producing, puke inducing workouts. Thus creating the misunderstanding.
Lets take the SPEED workout for instance. What does SPEED mean? Well, to me, it can have various interpretations and meanings. Speed is relative to whatever distance you are wanting to cover. Clearly, the speed needed to run an all out 400m will vary greatly from the speed needed to carry out a PR marathon. Therefore, I like to think of it all as “RELATIVE SPEED”. A 400 meter runner will run his/her speed workouts at the velocity in which they intend to race. Same goes for the marathoner and, any distance in between. There are big differences between maximal speed and sustained speed.
Now, this is where the QUALITY vs. QUANTITY debate gets to be a little tricky. This is where volume, intensity, frequency and duration all come into play. Because a coach can prescribe so many variations to the otherwise same workouts, there will always be a bit of misunderstanding by the runner, unless the coach specifically outlines the differences of each.
If I tell a runner to go out and run 6 miles on a Tuesday evening, that sounds pretty simple, right? WRONG!! This is where all those cookie cutter internet training plans go wrong. They prescribe an exact volume, without necessarily getting into it any further. A 6 mile “easy” run, prescribed to 5 different runners, would likely have at least 2 different interpretations. This is why it is important for the coach and the runner to be in tune, in regards to the parameters of each run.
If I prescribe a “sustained speed” workout to a runner, I do not want, nor do I care IF they CAN run it faster!! For example, if I give a runner a workout of 2 x 4 miles at marathon pace, with a mile recovery between, I do not care if the runner COULD run the 4 mile portions at near 10k pace. If they run the workout faster, that is not working on the system in which we are trying to develop. There is a time and a place for every type of run, so leave the pride and bravado at home! The same goes on the flip side of it, too. If I prescribe a 15 mile long run that descends in pace every 5 mile segment, I would not be pleased with a runner who decided to run a 20 miler at a slower pace. Each run and workout is for a reason, altering the workout will often retard the intended development of the particular system that we are trying to work.
So, what do I think about “mileage” or “long runs”?
Many people believe that I am totally against long runs and high mileage training, however, that is not completely accurate. Although I do prefer to start my athletes off at less mileage than the traditional plans, it does not mean that they will never build up their weekly mileage or the total distance of their long run.
Lets look at the two components in seperate instances. The “long runs” as found most often in the typical marathon training plan is understood as those runs that are 20 or more miles. So, why am I against those? Well, I am not actually! What I am against is the “set in stone” distance of those runs. With most runners, the only objective is to cover the distance (20 miles or 22, 24, etc.). Rarely, if ever, is there any significance put on the intensity or duration of the run, only the distance.
When most of these common training plans were written by the likes of Higdon, Pfitzinger, Lydiard, Galloway, etc., they were designed around elite marathoners and those that could run comfortably below the 3:00 barrier for a marathon. If an elite marathoner (one who could run below 2:20 for men) went out and run an “easy” or “relaxed pace” for 2 hours, they would likely cover 20 or more miles by “comfortably” running 6 minutes per mile pace.
Now, take “Joe the school teacher” or “Betty the soccer mom” with their 5 hour goal marathon (11:30ish pace per mile). If they are prescribed a 20 mile run, they will now be out there for 3 hours and 48 minutes as opposed to 2 hours. Nearly an extra 2 hours of battling the elements, beating themselves against the asphalt, depleting their energy stores and watching the form fall to pieces.
You see, elite level runners are elite for a reason. They have much more efficient running form (most of them), their biomechanics are much better and they have likely been doing it for a long time. Building up to a 20-24 mile training run over the course of 15 years of running, is certainly not as hard on the body as a newbie who is tackling their first 20 miler within a few weeks of picking up running.
So to recap, it’s NOT the distance that I am against, it’s the duration. If a marathoner capable of a 3 hour marathon is running 45 miles per week at an average weekly pace of 7:30 per mile pace, they will spend 5 hours and 30 minutes per week running, whereas, a runner who plans to run a 5 hour marathon is running 45 miles per week at an average weekly pace of 11:30, will end up spending 8 hours and 30 minutes running per week. A difference of 3 hours. Aside from the obvious difference in duration, lets consider the differences in efficiency and biomechanics of those two runners. Who do you suppose is putting more stress and “wear and tear” on their body?
Based on my principles and also my application to my own running, as well as those I coach. You are better served by trying to get those 12-16 mile runs faster over time and to get them where the pace is averaging rather close to your goal marathon pace, rather than slugging through 20 plus milers week in and week out at a slow trot. Keeping the duration between 2-3 hours, no matter your running ability, is the best approach to the long run. Beyond that, the laws of diminishing return come into play. Meaning, beyond a point, the negative impacts are far greater than any possible gain.
As the runner improves, they are able to naturally increase the distance, within the same parameters of duration. Meaning, if a runner were to run a 2 hour long run every other week, then as they improve, they will naturally increase the mileage within those two hours, without specifically trying to increase the mileage. Once the runner has plateaued at improving the distance within those two hours, then another 10-15 minutes can be added. Repeating this process up to 3 hours.
Now, with a bit more understanding on my thoughts in regards to QUANTITY, lets now discuss QUALITY a bit. As mentioned before, quality is often regarded as paces ran at faster intensities than that of goal race pace. Personally, outside of recovery running, I believe in implementing some sort of QUALITY into every type of run. With that said, the quality must be defined and must be specific.
A QUALITY tempo run might consist of several miles at a set range of threshold paces. A QUALITY marathon tempo run would be defined as a set duration spent running at marathon pace (+/- 5 seconds). Then there are the various interval paces that can be implemented into every type of run. Intervals can and should be inserted into a good majority of your running. This can be 10 x 1 minute pickups inserted into a 50 minute steady run. This could be 6 x 10 minutes at marathon pace inserted into a long run. The list goes on forever and their are countless and endless options to choose.
The problem with purely running QUALITY vs. QUANTITY is that most runners fall victim to a lack of understanding or self control. Just like with adding more mileage, adding more intensity can have it’s downfalls as well. Many runners will continue to push the envelope, trying to run the paces faster and faster for each run, until eventually, something finally gives. If I were to choose between what has the greatest risks, quality vs, quantity, I would say that quality, when done incorrectly, has the greatest risks.
The sure way to get injured though, is when trying to work on intensity and volume together. The approach I recommend is to start with gradual increases in strength, then intensity, then volume. Once you have started to max your current levels of strength, intensity and volume, then it is time to start back at the beginning and gradually add more strength, more intensity and then more volume. Repeating this natural and gradual progression, you can find your self continuing to improve for years and years.
Before going faster and or longer, you should at first be stronger. Strength is what will provide the speed, as well as provide you with the ability to sustain a set speed for a longer duration.
It should also be noted, that when a coach works with an individual, they should consider and inquire about that individual’s background. Aside genetic predisposition, the individual’s recent past can also be a huge factor in their running success. It is common to see a good soccer, field hockey, lacrosse players become a good distance runner, whereas other sports or lifestyles can produce other qualities.
Regardless of what method you decide to choose, be it quality or quantity, start it with a modest approach and allow your body to build and adapt gradually at a rate that it can sustain, without overly fatiguing or over stressing the body’s various physiological systems.
For additional thoughts, ideas, workouts, etc., visit the http://www.meetup.com/The-Endurance-Project/ and take a look at some of our weekly workouts. You can also email me at firstname.lastname@example.org for any additional questions or for consulting options. In the meantime, train hard, train smart, race fast!