Traditional training programmes are often shown as a pyramid and most often with a “base” at the bottom consisting of high mileage endurance focused training. Then follows layers of more and more race-specific work until the peak is reached. This way of training is consistent with the ten principles of old school running that we have attempted to distill from the teachings of history’s great athletic coaches (principle #10 Progress from Generic to Specific Training). In the traditional training pyramid “quantity” comes first and then what is perceived generally as “quality” is added. We differ slightly on this: just because something is hard or race-specific does not make it quality work. In fact it can be terrible work – both damaging and counter-productive.
A new training pyramid
We like to communicate this message through the an inverted training pyramid. For us MOVEMENT QUALITY comes first and only once an acceptable level has been achieved (not perfection) do we recommend adding QUANTITY (MILES, DURATION, LOAD) and finally INTENSITY (what we think is erroneously called “quality” today – steady to hard demanding work). MovNat, the world leaders in natural physical education, also speak of COMPLEXITY as another layer and this is particularly relevant to mountain runners – you need quality of movement before you can move through complicated situations (such as running down scree or running at night-time).
Movement specialist Gray Cook, founder of the Functional Movement Screen, sums it up nicely: “Do not add endurance to dysfunction”. But it goes further: “Don’t add anything, endurance or speed, to dysfunction.” If you execute a traditional training programme “by the book” you will often find that you just run with whatever quality you have and then at some late stage of the programme there is a lip-service attempt to “work on technique” through some drills or exercises. Imagine if you decided to go and lift a barbell for 10 hours per week. Then after 10 weeks of doing that you suddenly say to yourself “ok, let’s do some drills to work on my technique”. We suggest this makes no sense whatsoever once you accept that you do not naturally adopt good running form (of the roughly 100 runners filmed by us over the last 12 months, 1 had naturally good movement). Rather you’d expect to be taught how to lift and to keep practicing a good lift until it’s “on the backbone”. Then you’d start doing more volume and more intense lifting.
How to progress through the pyramid
This change essentially means that instead of going straight to “base training” you first need to establish how much volume you will need to run or can practically run. Let’s say you want to run a marathon. In that case your long run ideally needs to be at least 2 hours to 2 hours 30 minutes. This means you need to be able to hold good running form for that period of time. Once you get your technique assessed by a trained coach, he should test you for how long you can run with good form (let’s say it is 60 minutes). In that case the first phase of training focuses on sessions to practice how to get you from 60 minutes to 120 minutes of good quality running without your form breaking down. Only then do you move on into the base phase and start aggressively working on endurance. The phases of the training pyramid are not hard borders – they merely represent the focus for a period of training.
Focus first on QUALITY (you will still have some measure of QUANTITY and INTENSITY) then on QUANTITY (you will still practice QUALITY and keep some INTENSITY) and then on INTENSITY (you will still maintain QUALITY and some QUANTITY). One of the downfalls of modern periodisation systems and exercise programmes in general is to focus too narrowly on one or two “physiological variables” such as “aerobic endurance” or “muscular hypertrophy” (if you don’t know what this means, don’t worry, you don’t need to!). The purpose of our system is to aggressively prepare runners to take control of QUALITY first – to put their movement quality to the minimum level required to add sufficient QUANTITY and INTENSITY to reach their goals. The more ambitious your goals, the greater quality of movement you must possess. Otherwise you risk building on a foundation of sand – it will eventually crumble or cracks will eventually seep into the walls and the house will come tumbling down. This is perhaps the simplest rule of training: if you do not look after MOVEMENT QUALITY be prepared to count the cost whether it be 1 month, 1 year or 10 years from now. It’s like driving a car and thinking only about changing the tyres and the oil every once in a while but forgetting about everything else, including your driving. Become a better driver and you’ll be able to do more with the same car, long before the cortisone shot or the surgeons scalpel comes near your injuries.
Not for me, I’ll just run my miles…
Consider this example: Imagine that instead of asking you to run for 2 hours, I ask you to jump on one leg for 2 hours. I do not tell you anything about what constitutes a correct jumping technique. You may go out and jump for 2 hours, using a very inefficient movement. You feel a bit sore afterwards but conclude it’s “simply adaptation”. As the weeks pass you build more and more quantity of these “bad jumps” and feel like you are “getting better”. Finally you start doing the jumps with intensity. Somewhere along this road an injury will likely occur. Running is no different from jumping in this respect despite claims to the contrary.
Why then are there not pages and pages devoted on how to first perfect your technique in books and running magazines. Why is this not the first thing you learn when you begin or you join a club? We cannot say for sure but speculate there are two reason: 1) what constitutes correct running form and how to teach it is only truly understood by a few dozen coaches in the world and 2) it is perceived as difficult or not necessary because “running is natural”.
Almost all literature on motor skill development contradicts this logic because the word ‘natural’, in this context, does not mean ‘spontaneously emerges in an optimal way’. Running is natural insofar as it develops unprompted in healthy children. This does not mean the skill develops on a perfect trajectory from this point. Our movement skills form in a complex interrelationship with our environments (the better environment, the better skill development) and today this often includes sitting and staring at screens and phones for extended periods of times – both environments that severely retard development of any physical skill. Our job, on our own or with a coach, is to spot the damaging effects these habits has on your running mechanics and then reverse these back to where they would have been without these harmful habits.
For a deeper discussion on movement skill formation I recommend this article by MovNat Performance Director Danny Clarke.
To learn where you stand currently in regards to your current running technique we recommend seeing us on our workshops or personal consults.
Also published on Medium.
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