By: Josh Seifarth
As a coach, I have a great interest in developing a training plan and watching it evolve. Although it is easy to be convinced otherwise, training is simply the application of a stress designed to produce a desired response. When training to complete a running event in a certain time you would desire a stress response to training that would progress you towards achieving that performance. This is where applying the principle of specificity correctly in training pays large dividends at races!
The principle of specificity is quite simple and, once understood, easy to implement. The basic definition is that training must progress from general to specific as the event approaches and that you must train that specific exercise in order to improve it. In our case that means in order to maximize running, we must simply run. This is not meant to mean that cross-training is necessarily a bad thing, but that it is more effective to run more if you wish to maximize this skill. Furthermore, the training required to maximize your performance over 5km should be different than what would be required to maximize your marathon. This is where careful planning of the progression from general to specific should be implemented.
Once you have planned a goal race, whether it a 5km or a marathon, you can work backwards from race day and create a skeleton outline of the type of training you need to be focusing on at any given time. The weeks most closely preceding the race date should be the most specific, which means that there should be an emphasis on efforts at goal race pace. The volume of these workouts should be representative of the race distance, meaning that marathon-specific workouts will be of a much higher volume than 5km-specific workouts. An athlete preparing for a 5k will be completing intervals of a significantly higher relative intensity than that of an athlete preparing for a marathon. On the flip side, while an athlete preparing for a marathon may be completing intervals at a lower intensity they should be totaling a much higher workout volume.
As you plan further away from race day the training should become more general. An athlete preparing for a marathon should focus on short efforts significantly above goal race pace combined with long steady-state runs slightly below race pace. These efforts will build the support for completing the marathon-specific workouts that are emphasized closer to race day. Likewise, a shorter distance runner may focus on longer steady-state runs well below race pace, and efforts slightly above goal race pace. You will notice that I used the terms “well below” and “slightly above” regarding shorter-distance races and may be wondering why. The answer is that because these races are run at a higher percentage of an athlete’s maximum speed it is simply impossible to run proper workouts at the same relative difference in speed as a person training for a marathon would.
A 3:00 marathon runner may do speed work at 110% of marathon race pace. This would work out to be around 6:11 per mile when race pace is 6:52 per mile. A 6:11 pace for this type of runner, although stressful, should be within reason and would be similar to the effort produced in a 10km race. This would allow the runner to have sufficient volume in his/her workout for it to be effective.
For a runner with a goal of 18:30 for 5km, a race pace of 5:57 per mile, a workout at 110% of 5k race pace would be at 5:21 per mile. This type of effort would be similar to running a one-mile full-effort race. It would be safe to say that a runner attempting a workout that this pace would not last very long, and the workout would probably not have the desired effects.
If you are having trouble conceptualizing this theory, a great way to look at it is by drawing a straight line in the middle of a piece of paper. This line represents your goal race pace. The far left side of the paper represents today, and the far right side represents race day. If you’d like you could number the weeks remaining across the bottom of the page for more clarity. As outline above, the weeks closest to the current time represent training that should be more general with the goal of increasing overall running fitness and the weeks closest to race day are the most specific with the goal of working at race pace. To represent this concept you can simply draw two lines, one about an inch above and the other an inch below, that converge on, and follow, the “race pace” line about 3-4 weeks out from race day. As you may have guessed, the upper line represents workouts of shorter volume performed above race pace while the lower line represents workouts of higher volume performed below race pace:
The above outlined concept provides a framework for how to progress the specific workout portion of your overall training program to meet your event specific goals. The most effective progression proceeds from general to specific in an event-dependent manner and should be planned well before race day draws near. Low-volume, high-pace workouts should increase or maintain volume while maintaining or slowly converging on goal race pace, while high-volume, below-pace workouts should increase volume while maintaining or slowly converging on goal race pace. When in doubt, consult the principle of specificity and assess how far you are away from your goal race to determine the type of workouts you should place emphasis on.
Home town: Windsor, Ontario (currently still there)
School: Bachelor’s of Human Kinetics – Movement Science @ University of Windsor, currently working on a Master’s of Human Kinetics in Exercise Physiology at the same institution
Training: Long Course Triathlon
Athletic Endeavours: Race as an Elite Triathlete in 2012 to gain experience while finishing my academic studies
Currently Coaching: Dayna Pidhoresky