Have you ever wondered how the heck to line up races correctly to make the most of your trail running season? Or wondered how to choose an “A” goal vs. a “B goal” race? What about how to decide when to start tapering for your races, or when to do speed work, or when to take a break?
We know how hard it is to plan your trail running season. There are so many factors that come into play, and questions we ask ourselves, like:
- How much can we really handle in our training and running until it’s not sustainable anymore?
- What is the best way to plan the season in order to perform well enough, and also have fun?
- Should every athlete have an off-season?
- What should winter training look like?
- How do I decide which race is an “A” goal, vs. which race is a “B” or “C” goal?
In this blog post, we’re going to answer all of this (and more.)
And no matter what your level is (no matter if you’re training for your first trail 5k, or if you’re looking to run a 100 miler) there’s good info in here for you that applies to all trail runners.
The format of this article is a transcript of a podcast episode from our popular trail running podcast “Running Long,” which is hosted by Vert.run coach Francesco Puppi.
In this blog post, Francesco (who lives in Italy) interviews our Vert.run coach Daniel Rowland (who lives in Switzerland) to talk through all the questions they get asked by our community of over 80,000 trail runners who train with Vert.run. Enjoy!
Note: the transcribed version here in this article is a little shorter than the podcast itself. If you want the full conversation (and want to get to know Fran and Daniel!) give the podcast a listen during your next long run or commute. Click here to listen to part 1, and click here to listen to part 2!
Francesco: Hey everyone, welcome! I’m Francesco Puppi and I’m a professional athlete for Nike as well as a Vert.run coach.
Early in a new year is typically the time for New Year’s resolutions and also a good moment to reflect on what we did last year, and to plan our upcoming season.
Today, we will talk with one of the best coaches in the trail running world, Daniel Rowland, about how to plan your trail running season. (Fun fact: Daniel actually coaches our co-founder and CEO, Moisés!)
For those of you who are new here, Vert.run is the #1 app for trail and ultra marathon runners of all levels.
Without further ado, please welcome Daniel Rowland.
Daniel: Thank you for having me. My name is Daniel Rowland and I’m a trail running coach. I’ve been working as a coach for five or six years now and with Vert for the last couple of years. I have been working with Vert co-founder, Moises–he is one of the athletes I coach. I’m also a trail runner myself, and have run a range of races from multi stage races to long individual day races. Most recently, I started doing swim run races as well, which is something a little bit different, but also brings that same element of being in nature and enjoying the trails as well.
Francesco: Let’s dive into our topic for today–how to plan your running season. For me, it’s pretty typical at the end of the year to sit down with my coach and just get a calendar out and start thinking about the goals, the races, the experiences that I want to have in the next year. And, of course, it’s easy to get excited about races and goals, but at the end of the day, we have to think about how much we can really handle until it’s not sustainable anymore.
What is a good way to put together your season in order to perform well and also recover enough? Should every athlete have an offseason? What should winter training for trail runners look like?
The first topic I’ll ask you to weigh in on, Daniel, is choosing goal races and objectives. Can you take us through this topic and what you think we should pay attention to when we sit down and start planning our season as a whole?
Daniel: For me, the most important thing to consider is always how motivated an athlete is towards a particular goal. I think that can quickly exclude races that you feel that you have to do, but you’re not that interested in. Or you might feel pressure to race close to home, or that you have to do a specific big race.
We know that if you’re not motivated, it can be very difficult to do the training leading up to that race or if you hit a low moment in a race, and you don’t have that deep sense of motivation, it can also be quite challenging to get through those difficult moments in the race.
Typically, I would ask the athlete to explain to me what are the most exciting, big goals that they have in mind? Sometimes that means we have to balance out big goals for the current year or shifting goals to years down the road.
Daniel: From there, we can start asking questions like:
- What have you raced in the past?
- Is that goal that you have now a reasonable next step for you?
- Do you have the time for the training this new goal will require? (This is a big one.)
You can achieve almost anything if you’re willing to put in a big block of training and to make a big jump, but we have to filter through those factors of how much time you have as well.
I’d say that’s the big level view that I try to take.
Want to take the guesswork out of how to plan your trail running season? Sign up for Vert.run Pro today and get weekly guidance from your personal Vert.run coach–who will also help you plan your trail season! Click here to try Vert.run Pro free for 7-days.
Francesco: I think this is a great point to start.
Motivation is vital. We also need to make sure that we’re not doing something stupid, or that will prevent our progress as athletes in the future. We need to make sure that each race season that we plan is sustainable, and ultimately makes us better athletes and people.
Can you talk a little more about setting goals, not only for one season, but goals that are also good for your general progress as an athlete thinking about long term development?
Daniel: I think that with the goals we set, we need to understand what the demands of the events are–each event has its own specific demands.
Every race or event can vary drastically in terms of length, time on feet, and vertical gain. If you’ve come from a road marathon background, do you have the endurance to prepare for a mountain ultra? Should you choose a more runnable mountain ultra as one of your first ultramarathon races?
If you live somewhere really flat, it’s very ambitious to try and race somewhere very hilly. It’s still possible with the right training (here at Vert.run we even have two great ultramarathon training plans for flat places: this one for a 50k, and this one for an 80k) but we have to understand the different components of that.
Finally, I would try to look at those aspects of the event first and also consider things like environmental factors such as heat, altitude, and what time of year you will be competing in these different places.
For example, it can be quite difficult for some athletes to go to Transvulcania or Transgrancanaria, in February or May, if they’re coming from Switzerland or Germany, where it’s very cold. If you don’t have time for a heat adaptation camp, that’s not going to be the optimal conditions to race in.
I would suggest starting with those two things…
…and then, we need to understand what the athlete’s expectations of the race are.
Does the athlete want to perform to the best of their abilities? Or are they just going there for an experience? If you want to perform and win a particular race, that’s a much different project to just completing the race. Together, those different factors can all come into the plan, and either remove races that are too difficult for a natural progression or we can say, we’ll skip some of those rules, because you just want the experience and you do want to push yourself to the limits, and go further than you’ve been before.
Francesco: As you know, one of our pillars in our coaching philosophy of Vert is communication and feedback between the athlete and the coaches which is vital and crucial. Even when planning the season and setting the goals–it’s not just an athlete adding the races to the calendar and asking the coach to set up his training around those races, but it’s an exchange of ideas and thoughts because the coach needs to be able to really understand where the athlete is coming from and how realistic those goals are.
Do you have any suggestions on how to go about the actual planning process of determining how much time we can realistically have for training and racing?
Daniel: For me, I like to start my planning by pulling out a calendar that shows each week, not the day to day, but just each week as a period so that we can structure looking at the whole season. From there, we can start to slot in races at different points.
One of the key things that you might be trying to decide is whether you want to try and peak for one or two big races, or whether you have a series of races that you want to do when you need to be in peak condition for six or eight weeks.
Those are the ways that we can start to see the schedule by printing out the calendar or making it an Excel, putting the goal races or the races that an athlete is most motivated for, and then trying to adjust the plan to see if we can fit enough blocks of training into the schedule.
Daniel: Sometimes there will be an athlete who has two ultras planned two or three weeks apart and I might advise them to change that plan because they’re either too close together or there’s not enough recovery time.
The real practical part of it is trying to set up the different races in a visual way on a calendar that shows the whole year. Once we have those in place, and once we’ve removed some of the key obstacles that might occur like: Are you traveling with family? Do you have a very busy period at work at the end of the year or tax period or something like that? Then we can start to bring the different blocks of training into the calendar itself.
In general, the best way to go about the schedule from here is to work backwards from the goal races and to have the most specific training closest to the race.
Then, we work back through different physiological components to the least specific, which is where you’d be starting now, and try to create a progression through those different blocks of training.
Francesco: Do you have any advice on how many races is ideal, healthy, and sustainable for runners in the sport? I know that this varies a lot based on experience, but any tips around this topic?
Daniel: For the more experienced athletes, I think we have more data to work with, right? We can look at their previous races and see, when did they start tapering for the race? Do they like to have a seven day taper? Or a two week taper? How does that fit in? That’s a big block before each race.
We can also look to see how quickly they bounce back from each race. That could be just sensations, it could be HRV measurements to see how quickly do they return to baseline? How long does that take?
If we put the individual races into the calendar, then we add these first components around the races themselves, the period leading into the race–the taper, and the period afterwards of recovery. When we have those blocked off in our schedule, we can see that that already takes out a big part of the calendar depending on the race or event.
Then we need to figure out how much training is needed for the athlete to achieve that. If it’s a long ultra, you might need a six or eight week block of specific training and when we place that in the calendar, that will tell us how many races are possible.
Want to take the guesswork out of how much training you need for your trail running races? Sign up for Vert.run Pro today and get weekly guidance from your personal Vert.run coach–who will also help you plan your trail season! Click here to try Vert.run Pro free for 7-days.
Daniel: You can use some races that would be a lower priority as a long training run, or as a simulation for the main goal of the year.
If we look at professional runners, for example, Sangé Sherpa, seems to race an ultra almost every two weeks. He’s been able to do that for three or four years, if not longer. It is a very individual thing and it really depends on recovery and the relative intensity of the race.
We know from some research that it’s actually easier to recover from a race like Tor des Géants (a really long, multi-day ultramarathon), because you’re not able to go as hard as you would in a shorter race–you have to manage your efforts a lot more carefully.
For less experienced athletes, I think it’s a challenge to know exactly how long to take off after a race. What I would try is to test some different scenarios. Maybe an athlete could try and do two races, two weeks apart and then reflect on how well that worked for them. For some athletes, that kind of approach works really well–doing two races close together. They’re in top form, they recover quickly, and they can race quite effectively. For other athletes, that doesn’t work. For a new athlete, I think the goal would be to try and create tests or conditions where you can try different things and be very mindful and diligent about how you plan, record, and prepare so you can determine what works well and what doesn’t work as well.
Francesco: Communication is key. It’s not just about following a training plan, but this constant exchange of feedback between the coach and the athlete, both for the everyday training and for the bigger picture planning of the season.
I’ve personally been racing and running for over 10 years, but mostly shorter distances, sub-ultra. My favorite and best event is the marathon distance. I find it very hard to be in peak shape for more than two races in a year. When I usually set my goals at the beginning of the year, there might be 10-15 races, not all of the same length–some of them might be really short, like VK’s, or mountain races less than one hour.
Francesco: Of course, not all of them are “A” goals. I might set just a couple of “A” goals per year. For example, big races that I care about, that excite me, give me motivation, and that I really want to go for. Those two might be slightly longer races around the marathon distance.
It might be the final of a circuit, like the Golden Trail, or it might be a World Championship. Typically, I will want to be as fit as possible for those two main goals, then all the other races serve as prep races.
It’s important to remember not to do too many races as each start line is a huge emotional and physical investment for me, getting ready to race and being in the right mindset to perform.
After the big races, like a World Championship, I usually take a big period of rest and make sure to recover fully.
Francesco: It’s always important to remember that if you need more time to recover in between a race, you don’t have to be afraid or compare yourself to the others, because everyone is different. No running and racing season is equal to one another, so what you did one year might be different the next, and that is 100% okay.
Thank you so much for listening to Running Long. In this quick break, I wanted to share a message from one of the athletes we coach through Vert.run named, Omri.
Omri is from Israel and he says,
“Before I started training with Vert.run, I was a solitary runner. I trained myself without any structured plan. It was fine until I started to get injured. Looking around online, I found Vert, and I decided to give it a try with a full plan and coaching. They took my basic plan and adjusted it to my needs, race goal and schedule. They gave me all the support to overcome the injuries and get all the way to the finish line of the Desert Half Marathon in Elliott Desert.”
We were really proud to be able to coach Omri and watch his progress as an athlete and also help him overcome his injuries. This is just one example of the progress that our athletes have had thanks to Vert.run coaching and training. If you’d want to try out Vert.run coaching, give our podcast a listen for our special podcast discount code.
Now back to the podcast.
Daniel: That’s two big goals. That’s not dissimilar to a marathon runner, for example, someone on the road who does a big period of preparation and has two big goals to try and achieve during the year. There’s always some risk in that.
For a newer runner who’s perhaps not looking for a high performance outcome, they might try and have more races in the season, maybe not have that duration or have that intensity.
Running multiple, “less important” races in a season is a great way to learn more about yourself as a runner and lessen the stress or pressure you put on yourself.
Otherwise, if you have only one or two big goals, it can be mentally very devastating if you get sick, injured, or something else comes up that prevents you from being able to race your “one big race.” This is where having many races of less importance can be good. I think that’s something that different athletes and coaches need to work on together to realize if something does go wrong, can we pivot to a different race? Or are there any sort of backup scenarios or things that can be done to account for potential illness or injury later in the year?
Francesco: This year, for example, I wanted to do another road marathon like I did in 2021. When I raced a marathon in April, I ran 2:16, which was pretty good for me, but it required a very big effort, huge emotional and physical investment, and the recovery was hard afterward. This year, I decided not to do a road marathon because that would probably put me in a less than ideal situation to be ready for Zegama, for example. Even though you know, it cost me a little bit, I made the decision to just wait and not do the marathon which is a good reminder to be realistic if you have certain goals, you can’t always achieve them all in just one year.
Daniel: I think one of the key principles that I try to bring in with my athletes is to say, “we can’t progress on every different feature of your running at the same time.”
You need to put some aspects of your running into “maintenance mode,” where you’re just doing enough on that physiological feature to maintain the attribute that you’ve developed while we progress in another area.
That could be your endurance and top speed–or, if you’re going into a race with a lot of vert, it’s hard to try and increase your speed on the flat, improve your ability to run in the steep mountains, and stretch your endurance all at the same time.
It all depends on what the goal is and where that’s placed. You should choose to keep some things in maintenance, which means you can cut down on the time that you focus on that aspect of your training, and put other things into focus progression mode. It’s certainly a tricky balancing act to perform.
Francesco: We’ve talked quite a bit about the performance side, but it’s also important to talk about people who are just out there planning their races just for having fun, and getting to the finish line in the cut off time, which is totally respectable, of course, even from my side.
What advice would you give for someone like this, who is not expecting a certain performance, but competing for fun or to finish a challenge?
Daniel: I think for those kinds of athletes, the most important thing is setting really clear expectations. The time that we don’t enjoy races is when our experience during the race itself doesn’t meet our expectations.
Typically, that occurs when we expect to have a better result in the race, without training accordingly for that result. So the questions you need to ask yourself are: okay, based on how much time you have to train and how much of a priority you’re going to make this race in your life, how do you hope to compete? How much training will it take to finish your race in 20 hours, for example, for a long Ultra? Does what you’re able to put in in training match the result you are hoping to achieve?
It has to be clearly established that the expectations match what you’re doing in training itself.
A coach can bring some of that experience and say “this is what I’ve seen with my other athletes, this is how much training it takes to achieve this sort of time in this kind of race.” If that’s aligned with the athlete’s expectations, then it’s possible to enjoy that race and to have fun and to know what it’s going to take going into the race. That doesn’t mean that the race will be easy. There’s always going to be ups and downs and low moments that you need to deal with.
Daniel: I think the key is to understand that you need to get a coach who can show that to you or look at other athletes on Strava you can see how many hours they’re training and see how they did in a race, whether it’s your friend or someone from your running group.
Of course, not all athletes are comparable, but there is all sorts of data and different training volumes and training specificities that lead to different race results.
If you try and set an expectation that far exceeds the general public, or the general achievement from the kind of training that you’re doing, you’re likely to not meet that and to be disappointed with your results. That’s how I would think about going about that whole process for an athlete just trying to finish–making sure that your expectations and training ability are aligned.
Want personalized help on which trail race is the best goal for you? Sign up for Vert.run Pro today and get weekly guidance from your personal Vert.run coach–who will also help you plan your trail season! Click here to try Vert.run Pro free for 7-days.
Part 2 of this discussion with Daniel begins here. (Click here to listen to the podcast version of Part 2!)
Francesco: Let’s dive into the second part of how to plan your running season with trail running coach, Daniel Rowland. Do you think every athlete would benefit from having a coach? I might be a little biased asking this question and you answering it because of our backgrounds and perspectives but I’m just trying to be as open and as honest as possible. Do you think that every athlete needs a coach?
Daniel: That’s a great question. It’s tricky to say because I’m in both positions. I’m a self coached athlete, myself, and I have athletes that I coach. That being said, I think that there are many things that a coach can bring. For example, the athletes that I work for, they know that I’m not going to bring motivation, it’s not my style to try and excite them and try and bring discipline– it’s up to them to do the training. The advice that I provide is refinements and scientific background and my own experience, to say “this is the kind of training you need to do” or “this is how we’ll adapt and how we will change things, etc.”
Daniel: There are other coaches out there who are much more excited and bring their own enthusiasm and fun to the training process. And if you want that from your coach, then you need to look for a coach who’s like that. The final point I would ask is that a coach never knows what’s going on in the athlete’s body. You can be objective enough, as an athlete yourself, you can register your own sensations and look at those in an objective way and make good decisions, then you can coach yourself as long as you have enough experience or knowledge. It’s certainly possible. You need to think about where you are as an athlete to decide whether or not you need a coach and what kind of coach you need.
Francesco: It depends on what you want to do, where you’re starting from, and who you are. Even for my personal experience, I probably have enough experience to be self coached, but I still want to keep a coach to keep me accountable and that outside perspective. I trust my coach, we have a good relationship, and I appreciate all the planning he does for me that I know is going to bring progress to my running and performance.
Daniel: Yeah, that’s a good point. Understanding what that athlete needs, what type of motivation, or what type of advice or how to communicate, that is something that is important for coaches to learn and develop as well.
Francesco: We tend to think about progress and dreaming and a lot of aspects about training as linear, while in reality the line isn’t always that clear. However, there is a very clear linearity between the volume of your training and the performance that you’re going to have at your race. The best athletes are usually the ones that train the most or put in the most hours. In order to achieve your goals, you need to be able to put in the time and enough volume of training.
Daniel: The way that I would look at that phrase of “progress is not linear”, is to look at our long term plan as an athlete or coach, and set up different phases. For example, we’re going to do four weeks of VO2 max training, eight weeks of threshold training, and then 12 weeks of steady state training before you go into your ultra or big goal for the season. Those numbers are based on experience or research that each athlete develops at different rates–maybe you need five weeks of VO2 max training, and we need to adjust that plan as we go along. There’s definitely a linearity like you’re saying between the volume an athlete does and performance, but we also need to accept that each athlete adapts at different rates. Different things might happen in your life and you can’t always pursue a perfect plan–you need to allow some flexibility or ways to adapt the plan or alternative pathways to get to your goal if something occurs. Once you’ve set up your plan at the beginning of the season, you need to accept that and use it rather as a guide, as opposed to a perfect plan that every session has to be achieved.
Francesco: For sure. One thing I think is sure important next to overall planning, is maintaining consistency and not compromising on achieving consistent training. Of course that includes taking breaks, taking rest days and having an off-season, but making sure to regularly get in your training sessions. It’s always possible to redefine your goals, even throughout your training process, and it’s important to realize that the races you want to do are always going to be there so you don’t have to do all of them in one year.
Francesco: What do you think is the best method for planning out your training for ultra or sub-ultra distances? What does the structure of a training block look like? For example, if we are starting in January or February for the first race of the season in the spring.
Daniel: I think there are a lot of different options and different ways to go about this. My preferred method for athletes who are doing ultramarathons is to use a reverse periodization approach. That’s reverse to the original periodization that the Russians were using back in the 80s, where they went through a base period, and then threshold and then higher intensity training closer to the race.
That original periodization approach was more for shorter distances, and involved building an aerobic base, and then sharpening up as you got closer to the race.
For an ultramarathon, the demands of the race are almost the opposite of that. I think that the best way is to work backwards, start with the race, think about the specific demands of that ultra, and build a training block.
I would call it a steady state block or a race simulation block closest to the race which considers the distance, the amount of vertical game, and the pace that you’ll be racing at.
Then, I would set up a period, probably between eight and 12 weeks depending on the athlete and the demands of the race, that is very specific to that race period. We would still keep some speed in there and some threshold work, but as I said earlier, those things will be in maintenance–we’ll be looking to do the minimum dose to keep that aspect of the athlete’s’ fitness there.
Working backwards from that block, we would do a threshold block, because that’s the next kind of duration and we still need to be efficient at carrying lactate from the body which is something that’s important for all athletes. This block can be somewhere around eight weeks or so, just as an example.
Then prior to that, I would look at doing a VO2 max block. This block would include workouts with shorter intervals–anything from two to five minutes at quite high intensity. For example, it’s an intensity that an ultramarathon runner will never hit in their race itself, but it helps develop the body and the physiology to increase the maximum ability that they have.
Then the hope is that when you’re training in the preceding blocks, you will be doing training that helps you to achieve a higher percentage of that maximum. In this scenario, we want to push up the maximum ability, or the VO2 max of the athletes, but in total it is less of a focus for an ultra marathon athlete.
Prior to this VO2 max phase, it would almost be a sort of general preparation phase or the period where you would be coming from an offseason break.
It’s important in this base building phase to think about what is coming in your training blocks and start preparation for that by building a little bit of running economy and speed, and mixing in strength training. During your training, your strength sessions might go from three to four times a week down to only once per week closer to your race date.
Want to take the guesswork out of which training blocks to do when for your next trail running goal? Sign up for Vert.run Pro today and get weekly guidance from your personal Vert.run coach–who will also help you plan your trail season! Click here to try Vert.run Pro free for 7-days.
Daniel: Another modality for strength training is to use a weighted vest in the season to simulate and practice some of the hiking you might be doing during your ultramarathon.
Another point to mention if we’re working in that reverse periodization approach, is that it means that now in the winter, we’re doing the shortest intervals and the lowest training volume, which can be a little easier to get through for athletes during the winter. It works well to ramp up that approach of the periodization to match the seasons, which can make it easier to plan and fit your training into your life.
Francesco: That is my personal approach to training–thanks for sharing that. For example, after the World Championship that I did in Thailand, I basically took the whole month of November as offseason, then I restarted training in December, with some general training, no very specific workouts, just some strides here and there and long run in the mountains, but nothing specific.
I spent a lot of time in the gym, did a bit of cross training and now I’m starting to get ready with my first VO2 max block. Can you give us a couple of definitions of what VO2 max is and what threshold is?
Daniel: VO2 max is the maximum volume of oxygen that your body is able to uptake during exercise. In general, we’ve moved away from calling intervals VO2 max intervals, but we know that the greatest stimulus for the rate of oxygen use in the body is short intervals of about two to four minutes. These kinds of intervals have two benefits–one is that it increases your heart rate significantly and it increases the pressure and the stroke volume and the heart as well. Both of these benefits will cause adaptations to the heart that are beneficial for an athlete. These are really short intervals of two to five minutes, they’re very intense, and they provide a very strong, sharp stimulus to the body to create an adaptation.
Threshold intervals are slightly longer intervals, about six to ten minutes in duration and you probably aim for a total time and intensity of 30 to 40 minutes. This is at the rate in which your body is clearing lactate from the body and is the rate that you would carry it in about an hour. If you think of a race, whatever kind of race that you will achieve in an hour–if you’re a very fast athlete that might be half marathon, it could be a 15k, or a 10k–but that’s sort of speed.
That’s helping your body to develop the ability to use the lactate that’s generated during the anaerobic process as a fuel. This is a way of becoming more efficient. If you want to use really basic analogies, for your VO2 max work is building the engine, and lactate threshold is making it more efficient.
Then finally, when you go into the steady state phase of your training block, you will focus on preparing for the demands of the race and the pace of the race. It’s typically at a slightly lower intensity, especially if you’re doing an ultra. In the first few blocks, you’re looking specifically to develop your metabolism while in the final block, you’re looking to achieve the requirements of the race.
Want to take the guesswork out when to do things like VO2 max training for your trail running races? Sign up for Vert.run Pro today and get weekly guidance from your personal Vert.run coach–who will also help you plan your trail season! Click here to try Vert.run Pro free for 7-days.
Francesco: Thank you for highlighting those points. I think it’s crucial to have a clear purpose for each training block and purpose for each specific session. The way we can look at it is like the first two blocks of training should be aimed at getting the body ready to put together the different pieces that are like the demands of our race. Physically, the last block of training is putting it all together and doing the specific workouts and training that is required for our goal.
Francesco: Can you give us some examples of VO2 max workouts and threshold workouts that you would use for a trail runner? For example, if we’re doing a session on the trail, how do you measure the intensity? Do you use heart rate or RPE? Can you give us some practical examples of those workouts?
Daniel: Yeah, I think one of the best ways to to achieve the specific stimulus that you’re hoping to with those different workouts is through the structure of the session. For example, a good session for developing VO2 max would be five by three minutes, hard, and then three minutes easy on runnable hills or runnable trails. The idea is that you should try and have the same consistent performance across all five of those three minute intervals– you run at your maximum effort that you’ll be able to achieve through all five intervals. The recovery period is the same as the interval itself.
So, three minutes hard, three minutes easy. If you achieve it consistently throughout them as hard as you can, then you should be achieving the stimulus that you want.
When you go to threshold, the equation changes slightly, so these intervals are longer and the recovery shorter. For example, you might do a session of four by eight minutes, hard and two minutes easy. Again, you apply the same principle that you want to be consistent across the entire session. If you think about doing it as hard as you can, but being consistent, the intensity will be a little bit easier than those previous short intervals.
In this scenario, you’re letting the structure of the training session dictate the intensity and that is the easiest way to do it. I try to use the structure of the session itself to say, if you achieve this session consistently through all four intervals, then the structure of the workout is forcing you to be in the right zone for the appropriate stimulus.
Francesco: It takes some practice to understand your efforts, and you probably aren’t going to nail your paces in your first tempo runs or interval sessions. The more you pay attention to the efforts, to your RPE, and the more practice you put in, the better you become. My coach doesn’t ask me to track my training with heart rate or anything, but he knows that I’m experienced enough to put in the right amount of effort for each session.
Daniel: It isn’t easy to master, as you said, in fact, I think even the pro athletes struggle the first time they do that session again when they start their season. They probably don’t get the pacing exactly right, but two or three sessions in, it sort of reverts back to the sensations that they know. If you’re starting out with a training program, and you execute the first session poorly, and your last interval is a lot slower than the first one, don’t worry about it too much.
Francesco: We’ve mentioned how to plan the different training blocks for a big goal or race that we want to focus on–do we need to complete a full preparation for each race that we plan for our season?
Daniel: You have a lot of flexibility on that first race because you generally have a bit more time. After that, you have to assess your race calendar and factor in the recovery period from your first race and a taper period for your upcoming race, and work with the time that is left. Is there enough time to fit in different blocks, maybe a threshold block and a steady state block or is your time limited? Perhaps you just need a short hit of high intensity work to make simple progress or to maintain that aspect of your training, and then get back to focus on race simulation for the next race. The way that I would plan is a perfectly structured reverse periodization approach for the first race, then fitting in which blocks we can, depending on how the athlete performed in that race.
Francesco: Let’s say for example, we only have six weeks or two months in between a 50k and then a 50 miler. How would you structure that period in between?
Daniel: One of the challenges is if you have a two week taper and a one week recovery period, you’ve almost lost the last three weeks of training in between the two races. The race itself is a stimulus for the following race, but if you take a two week block of recovery after a race you might lose almost a whole month of training where you’re not really working on progressing any of the important physiological adaptations you need for the next race. If the athlete can handle it, I wouldn’t take a very long break after a race, maybe a couple of days of complete rest, a few days of easy training, but try to get back into proper training as quickly as they can handle it.
Typically, I would say that the if you’re going into a 50 miler as the next race you obviously need to have at least four weeks that you can do race specific training again, and that might leave two weeks or so in between (in this hypothetical example) where I would probably put a threshold block in there. It’s still important to maintain the physiological adaptations that are critical to the race. It all depends on the different goals, but always keep the specificity in mind and the concepts that some things will be in maintenance, and some things will be a focus. But you shouldn’t get too far away from the specific race training, if you can help it.
Francesco: I think it’s important to highlight that you can not expect to train for all physiological aspects of training at the same time. If you’re focusing on speed, then it will be difficult to focus on strength or endurance. It’s always a balance between those different variables. What is the rate of adaptation and decay for the different physiological aspects of training? For example, if we train VO2 max as our first block of training, how long can we expect to keep that fitness? Or if we train strength, how long can we expect that type of strength to last into our training blocks?
Daniel: As a general rule, the higher the intensity, the faster that we adapt to that stimulus, and the faster we lose that fitness. If you think of pure speed, you can pick it up quite quickly, it might take three or four weeks to develop a little bit more speed. Then if you leave that behind and you don’t do any speed training, you can lose that speed quite quickly. As you go up the threshold, you might take a little bit longer to develop your ability to run at threshold. Again, it takes a little bit longer to lose that fitness. For the endurance side of things, that takes the longest to develop, and it’s also the one that you lose the slowest.
That’s why those blocks that we were talking about have certain durations. The VO2 max block might be four weeks, a threshold block might be eight weeks, and a race specific block 12 weeks. You have to keep in mind that you can keep things in maintenance for a long time, so you don’t want to completely stop VO2 max training after the VO2 max block. That becomes another balancing act for the coach and the athlete together. The good thing is that the maintenance process requires a lot less training than the process to make adaptations and to develop as an athlete.
When you spend time working on a specific physiological adaptation, like speed, it’s important to understand that you will lose your progress quite quickly if you don’t keep it in maintenance. The key here is that the different physiological components adapt and decay at different rates and that should inform how you structure your various training blocks.
Want to take the guesswork out of how long each training block should be? Sign up for Vert.run Pro today and get weekly guidance from your personal Vert.run coach–who will also help you plan your trail season! Click here to try Vert.run Pro free for 7-days.
Francesco: I think once completed, our training plans reflect that idea of different focuses and different stimuli through the training based on what your ultimate goal is in the end. Whether it’s a 50k, a shorter race, or a 100 miler, there is always a mix of those ingredients to help you get as fast as possible for your goal.
What are some elements in a training plan that you think are non-negotiables for every athlete?
Daniel: It depends on the race that the athlete is training for, but if it’s for a longer race like an ultra of 80 kilometers or more, I always try to plan back to back sessions, so that they can simulate the race without doing the whole race in one day. Those sessions will be key, non negotiable elements of the final block of training for an ultramarathon athletes. I would likely schedule those back to back sessions somewhere between three and four weeks out from the race, and then six to eight weeks out from the race, and then 12 weeks from the race. If we think of a 12 week race simulation block, you might have two or three, back to back training sessions, where the athlete is doing up to 10 hours in two days.
Another option could be a really big block of work in one day. For example, doing two sessions on one day, with a lot of intensity. This example is almost is a marathon distance, maybe 20k in the morning with 10k at race pace, and then two by 5k at race pace or a little bit faster. Then 20k in the afternoon, again, with 10k at race pace, and maybe 10 by one kilometer at slightly faster than race pace.
In addition to these back to back sessions, I also recommend that all of my athletes do some sort of reconnaissance of the course that they’re racing. Basic level would be just simple reconnaissance and easy run on the route, getting to learn the key climbs, the different features of it.
If you live close to the race, then you can do some key training sessions like some of your final long runs while also practicing race hydration and nutrition.
Francesco: Is your training and coaching philosophy very oriented to polarization like, easy days should be very easy and hard days, very hard?
Daniel: I would say that it’s more tailored around specificity of the race demands. So there’s, there’s examples of the steady state block or the back to the back sessions–I would make those the most critical elements.
Depending on how much time the athlete needs to prepare for that, maybe they need two or three days to go into a back to back, and maybe four or five days of recovery after a back to back.
The training will be more focused around the most important elements at other times in the season. I don’t think every athlete has to follow the same structure. There are examples of athletes doing four days of intensity in a row, that’s not generally recommended, but it’s certainly possible.
You can follow a cycling approach where they do short intervals on Monday, threshold intervals on Tuesday, longer intervals on Thursday, and then they race on the weekend. It’s easier to adapt as a cyclist. That structure might not work exactly the same for trail athletes, but you could think of ways to structure the week that fits each athlete individually. That doesn’t necessarily have to follow a hard day, easy day approach. You could put in more periods of longer intensity with longer recovery. I think it’s finding the approach that works best for each athlete.
Francesco: What are a few key philosophical points that you think are important for an athlete to pay attention to when it comes to planning his or her season?
Daniel: I think that maybe the best way to think of this is to think of the trail season plan like a map. You want to get from point A to point B but there’s different routes to do it and you can change the routes along the way, but it’s important to have the right kind of direction.
I think that when we consider the season coming ahead, we need to know the direction we’re going in and we need to have clear focuses for different periods of the year. Once you have those set up, you need to assist them along the way, but also try to separate the process of planning and doing the training. Don’t doubt yourself or think through something, while you’re in the session, don’t think why did I choose five by three minute intervals instead of four by three minute intervals. Try to separate the execution of the plan and the planning process, so that you’re clear that the planning process is objective and considers all of the components that we’ve discussed today.
Daniel: My last bit of advice is to think about these three questions: What could you do? What should you do? What would you do? You might start by saying, what could you do? How much time do you have? What’s your current fitness? What’s your ability? That gives you a big picture of what is possible in the next year. What should you do? This could be advice from a coach, this could be best practices that you’ve learned from. How should you spend that time that you have available? What should you do with it? What would you do relates to how much motivation you have, even if you have the best program that came from your Vert.run coach, or from Killian himself, you might not be willing to do that. You need to think about what you would actually be willing to do each week. Use that to guide you in the long term, to make sure that you’ve considered both your abilities, the best practices, and your level of motivation to train.
Francesco: Yes, beautiful words that I think can apply to everyone. One thing that I wanted to add, for our audience, feel free to reach out with questions for us to discuss in our next episodes and topics that you want to be discussed in our podcast. Of course, you can send me a message and you can reach out to one of the coaches here at Vert.run and we’ll be happy to answer. I hope you enjoyed today’s conversation. And thank you, Daniel, for being with us.
Francesco: Thank you so much for listening to our great interview today. I hope you enjoyed it. And I thank you for being a regular listener to this podcast.
Each month, we have one or two episodes about training and how to become a better athlete in addition to the stories that this podcast already brings to you. If you haven’t already downloaded the Vert.run app, I really encourage you to do so.
There, you can connect with our ultra runners of all levels in the virtual and community, for free. You can stay in trail shape with our free workout videos, and you can get affordable coaching from Vert.run coaches like me for your next running goal for only $25 a month. Until next time, thank you for being here today. I’m Francesco Puppi, thanks for listening to Running Long.