Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Getting in Shape

Each year the same thing happens. A new runner comes out for the team. The team starts together and all of a sudden they are breathing hard and falling behind, while the veterans of the team seem to be talking and hardly breathing at all, and running faster. The coaches say “just get your miles in and you’ll get into shape”.

But what does getting in shape really mean?

Well, to push your body forward you need two basic things – muscles and oxygen. Muscles make sense. Just like when you do pushups every day for a couple of weeks, you can do more at the end of two weeks than when you started, the same is true in running. Your muscles become more toned to push your body forward, and you can go further and faster.

Oxygen delivery is the really important factor in distance running though. Every time your muscles contract to push yourself forward another step there is a little chemical reaction between the glucose and oxygen in your body creating that energy. People generally have plenty of glucose – especially for a 5K race or under an hour of running – so that is not the limiting factor. Oxygen is the limiting factor. It is why you get short of breath so easily when you are starting to get in shape.

The best way to improve the oxygen delivery system is to run. Every day. At an easy pace.

Running too fast is one of the most common errors made by new runners (and even veteran runners). Running too fast makes muscles sore and limits the ability to go out and run every day. Running too fast increases the risk of injury as you are stretching your muscles and ligaments to their limits. Running too fast limits the distance that you can go on a single run. Your heart and oxygen delivery system get built up a lot more by going for a slow 5 mile run than a fast 3 mile run.

Coach used to tell us that we did not get the elite level runners at Bucknell, and the only way we could compete with these other schools was to build up our base. We ran 100 miles a week most of the year. Over four years this had an accumulating effect of building very high capacity and efficient oxygen delivery systems. We may not have been as talented as other teams, but we had built up to the point where we could compete with them.

We take a similar approach on the MXC team. We recommend the following template for runners:

Freshman/Year 1: 25-30 miles per week.
Sophomore/Year 2: 35-40 miles per week.
Junior/Year 3: 40-50 miles per week.
Senior/Year 4: 50-60 miles per week.

To optimize this, the mileage should be done on a year-round basis. With some variation of lowered mileage towards the end of a season and a week or two off when the XC and track seasons are over and a gradual rise back up to this mileage level.

While some elite high school teams train in the 70-100 mile per week range, we do not recommend it except for the unusual athlete. We think most high school boys are still growing and developing, and too much mileage can cause injury or burn-out on the sport.

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