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Training Talk: Is Your Training Repeatable?
by: Robert Johnson
December 9, 2009

(Editor's Note: In 2010, we here at LetsRun.com hope to make a huge push into talking much more about training. Every two weeks, we hope to present an article, book excerpt or interview of a top coach early in the week. Later on the week, probably on Thursdays (Track Talk Thursdays or should we call it Training Talk Thursdays?), we will host a live call-in show with that coach where we talk training with the coach and take questions from LRC visitors.


To get things started, LetsRun.com co-founder Robert Johnson, who is the mid-d and distance coach at Cornell University, wrote an article entitled, "Is Your Training Repeatable?"


We encourage you to read it over and email him any questions/comments you have about the article. On Thursday at 8pm, Robert will host the first edition of Track/Training Talk where his featured guest will be LetsRun.com coaching guru John Kellogg. They'll answer a few emailed questions as well as audio questions on Internet broadcast on Thursday. They'll even address Rojo's infamous claim that he'd resign if Cornell wasn't a top 10 program.)

Training Talk: Is Your Training Repeatable?
by Robert Johnson

As a coach, I've always felt that one of the most neglected and poorly understood but important aspects of distance training is the idea of training repeatability.

Quite simply, I feel like after a good season one should ask themselves, "Can I replicate this again next year and do even better?"

There are a slew of recent high profile examples of runners who have been unable to replicate their magic year over year.

Example #1 - Alan Webb
Alan Webb is prime example #1. Just look at his mile seasonal bests each year since he set his HS national record in 2001.

2001 - 3:53:43, 2002 - no mark, 2003 - 3:58.84, 2004 - 3:50.73, 2005 - 3:48.92, 2006 - 4:00.87, 2007 - 3:46.91, 2008 - 3:55.47, 2009 - 3:55.99

It's really rather remarkable, but until last year, in no back-to-back year period did Webb come within 5 seconds of his mile seasonal best from the previous year. The only time Webb was consistent - in 2008 and 2009 - he posted a time more than 8 seconds off of his personal best.

Now the fact that we are using mile times does skew the statistics a bit. Using 1,500m times, Webb appears more consistent, but in only two of 8 years since setting his HS personal best did Webb run within 3 seconds of what he ran the previous year. In 5 of the 8 years, the swing was 4.8 seconds or greater. 

2001 - 3:38.26+, 2002 - 3:41.46,  2003  3:44.05+, 2004 - 3:32.73, 2005 - 3:32.52, 2006 - 3:46.14, 2007 - 3:30.54, 2008 - 3:35.86, 2009 - 3:40.66+

But this certainly isn't designed to be a "Bash Alan Webb's training" article. I just used him as the most obvious example, as his name recognition is off the charts.

Example #2 - All NCAA All-Americans
A few weeks ago, I did some research and discovered that less than half or the returning NCAA All-Americans in Division 1 finished higher in 2009 than they did in 2008. For the men, just 40.2% (9/22) improved. For the women, it was even worse - 26.1% (6/23).

The inability to "recreate the magic" seems to be the norm, not the exception.

One of the beauties of the system I use at Cornell, which I'll call the John Kellogg system, is that it is very repeatable. For the most part, I'm very confident that if a guy has great success in one year, he'll have even greater success in year two as the training is very easy to repeat and build off of.

Let me use the career progression of Zac Hine, who graduated last spring from Cornell, as my poster child for ideal career progression.

Here is how he did in cross country each year:

Frosh - 26:03.4 at VCP, 53rd in conference
Soph - 25:19.1, 24th in conference
Jr. - 24:55.9, 9th in conference
Sr. - 24:43.3, 3rd, NCAA qualifier.
(Note: by no means am I claiming all athletes at Cornell progress like Zac)

Each year, he continued to improve. Some might point out that each year, he improved by a smaller amount. But to me, that's the perfect proof that we were doing things correctly, because one would think if you are training correctly, improvement should diminish over time (although big breakthroughs are always possible).

Let me now talk about what I think are the keys to repeatable training.

In general, I think training systems that are periodized and based on getting in a large base of lots of relaxed running in the base phase are much easier to replicate than low mileage/high intensity programs.

Often times on the recruiting trail, I'll encounter a high school runner that tells me that they like to run their easy days pretty briskly - near six minute pace. They'll inevitably say, "I don't run nearly as much as a lot of guys, as my coach is trying to keep me fresh for college, but everything I do is full of quality and my workouts are really good."

So basically every day is somewhat of a hard day. To me, repeating this type of training and progressing off of it is very hard to do, particularly when the mileage starts to get above the 60 miles per week range.

When I hear one of these high school runners tell me about their training, I always think to myself, "If one's training is based on always hammering stuff, then how are you going to improve on it next year? Hammer even harder? Well then that means they weren't really trying this year."

(On a side note, I also think that if one is barely running as a high school senior say 30 to 40 mpw, that they probably had better be running it very fast if they want to be any good. I also think that it's very easy to run good HS times like 4:10/9:00 on a low mileage/high intensity program, but harder to run much faster than that).

But when one's training system is focused on progressing in a very orderly fashion in terms of relaxed mileage - getting in 10-15 more miles per week per year, particularly in the base phase, then it's very easy to progress.

Now, one might wonder what will happen when one gets older and maxes out in mileage.

And I'll admit that's a fair question, but my answer would be as follows: 1) The vast majority of elite level runners never max out their mileage, as the vast majority of even Division One runners never get anywhere close to even a 100 mile-per-week average. 2) The pace would ultimately come down on the easy days and that's one way a runner would progress from the previous year. 110 miles at 6:50 pace is fractionally more of a stimulus than 100 at 7:00 pace.

The Keys To Repeatability

1) Lots of relaxed running. Ultimately, as you get older, the pace of your easy days should get faster (John Kellogg informs me that less capillarization takes place at slower paces as you put more years of running behind you), but the pace of your recovery runs should be the last thing you worry about. The year my brother made the jump from 29:50 to 28:30, (Wejo's most popular training article, "Why I Sucked in College" Can Be Found Here) I joined him in the middle of his training cycle and quite honestly was appalled at how slow he was going and I was a 30:30/2:23 type. His easy days may have been way easier than mine but his races were way faster.

People often incorrectly assume that the John Kellogg system means people have to go out and jog 8 minute pace every day. False. If one starts slow every day and lets the run come to them, a runner could be touching on a high-end pace nearly every day, three to five times a week in the base phase. The key is effort level, not pace.

Also, it's critical that people never forget to do short strides several times a week, particularly if they aren't touching on the high end very often. A 10 mile jog with 2 sets of 6 decent-speed strides in the middle really is a light fartlek run.

2) Limited injections of high intensity. This is otherwise known as the "Don't hammer yourself very often" rule.

I could write for pages about why hammering a lot of workouts is a terrible long-term idea. For starters, let me ask you one thing: "When you run your best race, don't you often think that it felt great and a bigger PR is around the corner?"

That often seems to be the case and I therefore think it's critical to try to train your body that "relaxed is fast." So my runners pretty much do almost everything slower to faster whether it's an easy day or a harder continuous run or a workout of repeats.

If one is doing intervals and they start off at the absolute maxed-out fastest pace possible, I think they are training their body that "fast is painful" or "tense equals fast." I think that's exactly the opposite of what you want to teach your body physiologically.

Additionally, psychologically, this type of training is very hard to repeat year after year, as it's hard to gear and up "nail" some crazy-hard workout week after week, year after year.

Moreover, it's incredibly taxing on your central nervous system to have a lot of these killer workouts.

Again, I feel bad for using Alan Webb as an example, when in reality, I have the utmost respect for what he has accomplished and actually know little of the specifics of his training, but everyone knows that Webb has been known for his legendary workouts. When my good friend Chris Lear was writing Sub-4 during Webb's year at Michigan, it seemed like I got a weekly call about how amazing some of the things he did in practice were.

Youngsters Can Get Away With It, But ...

The fact of the matter is, younger athletes can do some crazy, ridiculous things in practice, as they will tolerate being maxed out and 18-year-olds recover amazingly well. But the type of training where running 1,200s in 2:46 in practice is presented as the key is a very hard one to replicate.

Additionally, psychologically, in big workout systems, one is bound to gain a lot of confidence from the workouts. The problem is a 25- or 30-year-old miler simply can't do nearly the same amount of quality as an 18-year-old, but they may not realize that and question why they didn't do the "quarter workout" or the "mile repeats." And then if the workouts don't go as well as they did in the past, they aren't going to have the confidence they need.

To me, in a properly periodized system, the hard workouts are just icing on the cake. Yes, they help get you ready and are a necessary to run a fast mile or 5k, but in reality, they should be thought of as more as the result of a great training cycle or as an indication of where you'll be in the race instead of as a way to get there.

Yes, for certain events, certain paces need to be hit in practice, but for the most part, it would be better if a coach described what a certain workout was going to be, and then took the watch from the athlete and him run it on effort, not pace, as it's pretty easy to subconsciously race workouts thinking if you beat last month's or last year's workout times that a PR is soon to come.

Runners love to brag about the killer workout they did 10 days out before a race, but in my mind, that workout is really more a result of the great fitness they have worked to build over the previous 6 months or 6 years.

I always think one of the easiest jobs of a high school or college coach is to get 14- to 23-year-olds to run very hard. A harder job is to get them to be patient and build an aerobic base over months and years.

(At this point, I was thinking about ending the article there as it might get too long but I'm kind of in a writing groove and think I'll continue and expand on my key beliefs on training.)

The 3 Tenets of Training
The John Kellogg training system really can be defined by three key principles.

I always describe it as a Progressive, Periodized, Aerobic Approach. Each phase is important and means something; let me expand on the key aspects of each tenet.

1) Progress in your training each year - For most people, this should mean running more, not necessarily running harder. In terms of running hard stuff, remember that for the most part, you want to be teaching yourself that "relaxed is fast." Even when you are doing hard stuff, if you are having to strain from rep #1, you are teaching your body exactly what you don't want to do in the long term (that to run fast is difficult) and you're putting a ton of stress on your nervous system, which you won't be able to do for many years.

2) Periodize - Do different things at different times of the year. Two relaxed mileage-building base phases per year are critical, as they let your body get stronger and allow you mentally to relax. But during a base phase, never forget to touch on all aspects by doing some high-end running, medium-speed hills and strides.

Also, never forget what time of year it is. Just because your average pretty good NCAA D1 runner can go out and bang out a 5-mile tempo at 5:20 pace or faster in the middle of July doesn't mean that they should do it. There is no need to do anything that fast for that long in July. I'd much rather see them pick it up for the last 45 minutes of a 12 miler with most of the run in the 6:30 to 5:50 range and with the last 3-4 minutes faster and even the last half mile at sub-2:30 than to see them run 5 miles at a concentrated effort.

Once you get in season where you are running hard workouts, the pace of your easy days is almost 100% irrelevant. At that point, it's all about going through a range of motion, spending time on your feet, and relaxing your body. In season, some of your workouts should be focused on maintaining your fitness - not all of them should be devoted to your event-specific training.

One last thing about periodization - it's very critical, but particularly when you are younger and less experienced as a runner. When you are older and have more lifetime miles under your belt, you can touch on key workouts more often and in fact can train in such a way as to always be only a few weeks away from being in sharp racing shape.

I can't believe I haven't really explicitly talked about periodization before now in this article because for me, it's arguably the key to repeating your training. In order for one to be able to repeat his or her training, both the coach and the athlete must know every day what they are trying to accomplish. Or as I tell my guys at Cornell:

"Every day has its purpose. Do you know what it is?"

3) Aerobic approach - THE KEY to long-term development in running is without a doubt high-end/tempo runs. Work on building your fitness at least once a week year round. Always start at a jog and go slower to faster. And if you are under the age of 20, take the pace you think you should be running, add 20-30 seconds per mile to it and you are probably now at the right intensity level, as it's generally better to be going too slow rather than too fast.


Repeating a training cycle and building on a dream season certainly isn't easy. Many runners fail to grasp that during their dream season, whether they were an All-American in cross-country or ran 3:53 for the mile in high school, that nearly everything went perfectly for them.

So almost by definition, it's going to be difficult to improve on that. But if their training system is built on some key principles rather than a lucky nailing of a bunch of killer workouts one-after-another, it makes it a lot easier from a physical standpoint.

If one periodizes the training and has different goals for different times of the year, things get easier. Moreover, if one knows the focus should be on taking the next logical step in training, which normally means upping the mileage and dedication a little bit, then things also are a lot easier.

But there is one last thing that I haven't talked about that may make it easier still. To me, if one has an easily repeatable training system, the hardest part about continually improving is psychological.

It's psychological and it comes in two different ways.

1) Many young runners who have been taking chunks of time off their PRs just assume that's the norm and that the chunks will keep on coming off and as a result they have unrealistic expectations. Given the fact that Alan Webb had gone from 4:03 to 3:53 during his last year of HS, one can understand why he probably thought it was reasonable that he'd go 3:45 or better as a frosh at UM (10 seconds one year, 8 the next year). In reality, young elite runners need to be told that it's likely that the rate of improvement is going to decrease and that they might plateau for a season or two before having another breakthrough. They also need to be shown the stats (like the one I showed above) that less than half of the All-Americans are improving.

Sure,one can let them dream big dreams, but runners need to be given doses of reality, as the early stages of most running careers are just full of huge improvement year-after-year and novice runners need to be prepared for the rough patches that are bound to come.

2) After a big year, many runners struggle, as the next year they psychologically only can fail; there is no way for them to really win.

Let's say you have an underclassman who had a great year and was An All-American or state champ. The next year, it's likely very hard for them to come up with a goal that will make them feel good about themselves, as the next logical result-oriented goal like a national title may not be realistic at all. As a result, they can only fail in their mind and a disaster is likely to occur.

People don't realize how powerful this concept can be. But a ton of runners have fueled greater and greater training and dedication over the years by chasing easily-identifiable and logical result-oriented goals. Normally the goals are like this: make varsity, score for the varsity, be all-conference, make Nationals, be All-American. But after one is an All-American, the next goal of winning it all is only achieved by one out of 40 and may not be remotely achievable, as most runners don't realize how spread out the top 10 in most races are. For example, at this year's NCAA cross-country meet, Oklahoma State's Colby Lowe was 10th as a sophomore. I bet he doesn't realize that he was closer to the 79th finisher in the race than he was to the winner. So the next logical result-oriented goal for Lowe might be to challenge for the win NCAAs, but that represents much, much more of step up than any step he's taken so far. It's much more likely that Lowe is never in the top 20 again than it is that he ever wins an NCAA title.

It took me a number of years at Cornell to fully understand this concept. I found it pretty easy to get guys pretty good but then found it hard to maintain it initially. My best cross-country runner, Bruce Hyde, was a conference champ and NCAA XC All-American one spot behind Ryan Hall one year and then a DNF at conference the next year.

But as I've matured as a coach, I've learned to really focus on getting the runners to try to focus on the process of training as the goal. "The Process is the Goal." If they up their training and dedication, then they are a winner.

Related to this, I think it's important for coaches to be up-front and honest with their top runners. So often, the top guys are the ones that do everything right. They are big dreamers who have used that dream to motivate them to do massive amounts of training. You don't want to kill that, but it's critical that you be honest with them and channel those dreams intelligently.

NCAAs Or Bust
One year in one of my first years at Cornell, I had a fairly untalented but hard-working varsity guy tell me that he was going to go for broke prior to his junior year fall. He'd do everything he possibly could to make himself a better runner but if he didn't make NCAAs, he was done.

His goal was horrible on two fronts. 1) It was result-oriented and not process-oriented. 2) It was totally unrealistic (this guy was like a 30:40 guy).

I knew the goal was totally unrealistic, but I was young and didn't have the guts to tell him what I truly thought when he told me that: "Well, if that's your goal, you might as well hand in your uniform now."

I didn't say that, as I've always been a dreamer (hell, the motto of the site is "where your dreams become reality"), I had seen the one-in-a-thousand "untalented" guy do "unrealistic" things (so, while unlikely, it wasn't impossible), and I was afraid of killing the guy's desire. But he was totally setting himself up for failure, and in the end, he did end up quitting the team, albeit not in the dramatic fashion he envisioned, but rather in the "I'm disillusioned/crushed and am slowly losing motivation" type of way.

Process-oriented goals are the way to go. So is realism from the coach.

Now when I talk to my runners, I tell them the truth. Before the 2009 fall season, I wasn't afraid to tell my top runner, Nate Edelman, that winning the conference was a long shot for him this year. Okay, maybe I didn't use the term "long shot," but I told him, "Hey, there are 10 studs who undoubtedly have the same goal as you and three or four of them are definitely already more accomplished than you."

Similarly,the night before NCAA cross, I only hesitated a little before telling him something to the effect of, "Nothing you've done this year indicates you'd finish in the top 40 and be All-American tomorrow. Since you are an individual qualifier and want to go for it, I think it's okay to be a little more aggressive than you normally would be, but that can't be your only goal in the race."

After this, I made a point of talking about how he'd already had a great season and was a success because he'd progressed in his training and in his racing consistency against usual competitors. 

Again - focus on the process.

In the end, I think most runners have their goals totally out of whack. In the short term, nine out of ten have totally unrealistic goals. In the long term, they probably aren't ambitious enough.

Because of the fact that, from a physiological standpoint, I think we have a very repeatable training, I always tell my guys:

"If you keep on improving, you'll eventually set the world record."

Robert  Johnson is the men's mid-d and distance coach at Cornell and a co-founder of LetsRun.com. Now in his eighth year at Cornell, Rojo has helped the Big Red win a record seven straight Heps team titles outdoor and twelve team titles overall. Last year was a very successful one for Johnson and the Big Red as he coached three NCAA qualifiers as well as Heps champions in the 800i, 1,500 (later reversed on DQ), mile(i), 5k(i), and 10k. Additionally, last year, Big Red runners under his tutelage set school records in the 800i, 1,000i, 3ki, DMRi (Ivy Record) and 4 x mile.

For Robert's complete Cornell bio (which is a year old), please click here.

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