Being an elite runner has surprisingly little to do with leg speed. It’s about attitude, about not drawing lines–neither ruling out possibilities nor setting limits for yourself -or others-. It’s about understanding that we are all runners and we are all trying to do our best with what we got.
In order to become an elite runner (or a better runner) it’s helpful to remember that good runners are made, not born. After all, hard work beats talent when talent fails to work hard.
If you want to become a better runner the opportunity is there if you take the right steps. Too many runners find excuses like “I don’t have time” “I’m not the type of person who does strength exercises” or self-limiting beliefs like “I would like to finish a marathon one day but I am not built like that”.
The limitations we put on ourselves are holding us back from becoming the runner we truly want to be. Remember, being a good runner is a choice.
So, How can we become better runners? How can we train like an elite runner?
1 IT’S ALL ABOUT CONSISTENCY AND IMPROVEMENT
There’s no doubt that successful distance running is a long-term endeavor. Beginners must take the long view and expect to progress gradually. Make running a habit and keep training, year after year.
There’s a tendency to look at successful runners and try to do the exact workouts they do. Or think they’re lucky, gifted, or genetically predisposed to running fast. And of course, talent plays a part in everyone’s ability to compete in any sport but it’s not all of it.
Before any great performance, every runner has undoubtedly endured years of setbacks, grueling workouts, hard work, injuries, small successes, and stretches of poor performances.
Focus on each individual brick. Not on the crown waiting for you at the top of the ladder.
When people tell me how lucky I am that I was able to qualify for Olympic Games or to run a 1:13.5 half marathon at 44 years old I wish I had a movie of the many years I have been training for that moment. 21 to be exact. I spent 14 years training as a swimmer and I have been running for 7 years now. I wake up every day before the sun comes out. I have asthma and sometimes it’s even hard to talk, but I keep focusing on the process and I am committed to be the best I can and to train the best I can with whatever situation I am facing.
A gradual, progressive approach that focuses on consistency over time is the only “secret” to successful running. There are no shortcuts.
2 IT’S ALL ABOUT THE PROCESS
Outcome goals (like a PR or Boston Qualifying marathon) are important, but they are not under your control. The process of training should be your primary goal on a day to day basis. You can’t expect to get a big personal best when you only want to run three days a week or to one train when you feel good. Think about quality versus quantity and remember it’s all about execution: execute perfectly your warm-up routine, your workout, and your strength exercises. Then go deeper: execute perfectly a good night’s rest and a decent diet.
Remember that you have to live a healthy lifestyle with adequate sleep and a good diet before you can expect to be a good runner. Health comes before performance.
I learned the hard way that workouts are a guideline to take us where we want to go, but that they are not set in stone and that sometimes it’s better to listen to your body and change the workout instead of forcing it to happen. Listening to your body requires discipline and elite athletes know that there are priority workouts that you need to do (although the day when you do them is not set in stone) and workouts that are meant to work as recovery. Priority workouts are the long run and 1-2 faster workouts per week. So ask yourself, Are they being executed at the right pace? If so, then the pace of your base runs isn’t as important. Going slower just means you’re working harder on your priority days and need the extra recovery a slow distance run provides.
As long as the process of training is going well, there is no point in worrying about much else.
3 DO RUNNING-SPECIFIC TRAINING
There’s a reason why elite runners train they way they do: it’s the most effective way to get faster. If you have a time goal in a race, then your focus is on performance and you therefore need to train not simply run.
Training is more specific. It requires a more structured approach. If your goal is an upcoming race but you’re tired or injured, are you also trying to fit in cross-training that’s not helping your running? I have a friend who wants to run a personal best in the marathon distance. He is a great runner but recently broke his femur. I called him yesterday to see how the recovery is coming along and he said “Can you call me later? I am at the gym”. I have another friend around my age who really wanted to qualify for Olympic Trials in the marathon as well. She is talented and she could be fast, but she doesn’t want to stop going to crossfit and lifting crazy weight at the same time than preparing for a marathon. I get it, we love doing other activities. Dancing, Softball, Basketball, CrossFit, Rock climbing, etc may be fun but they are not helping you become a better runner. You can still do it but not thinking it’s a part of your specific cycle
The principle of specificity is at play here. If you’re planting potatoes, don’t expect to harvest carrots. You might get good at CrossFit, but you may not be any closer to your goal of finishing a faster 5k.
Instead, choose aerobic cross-training that’s more specific to running like cycling, swimming or aqua jogging. These forms of exercise boost your aerobic fitness while carrying an extremely low risk of injury. As a coach, that’s what I love to see.
4 YOU HAVE TO DO MORE THAN JUST RUN IN ORDER TO BE A GREAT RUNNER
I know, it doesn’t sound logical, especially after we just talked about running-specific workouts. But don’t be confused – running is still the most important thing in your training plan.
But in order to be the best you can’t just run. Training like an elite runner includes a lot more than just easy runs, long runs, and faster workouts.
As important as running is body maintenance, dynamic stretching and strength workouts.
Elite runners training plans are structured in such a way that it prioritizes injury prevention. It’s not about what to do when you get injured, it’s about avoiding getting to that point so you can keep having consistency in your training (Remember our first point?) because if you’re only running, you’re bound to end up injured. And you likely won’t run as fast as you possibly could.
While it’s true that there are big differences between what an elite athlete and a non-elite athlete does (weekly massage, cryotherapy, chiropractic care, physical therapy, personal coach for strength training…) and most of us don’t have an extra two hours a day (or extra cash) to devote to strength work, self-massage, physiotherapy, dynamic stretching, and ice baths.
The truth is that we can we do some of these things, some of the time.
When I was a professional swimmer all I was doing was training, eating, taking care of my body and sleeping. Now I am lucky enough to still have sponsors that help me with taking care of my body, however I don’t have the time to do it all the time. I am a mom, a wife, I work, I travel for work. However I realized doing some of this is better than not doing it at all. And I have discovered ways to do it from home or the office (or a hotel room) that won’t take much of my time (and money, and are adaptable to wherever I am) (Check my Facebook page for videos regarding this).
So, as you see, becoming an elite runner requires more than talent or resources. It starts with the belief that you can also become an elite runner and with the personal attitude to go as far as you want to.
Burn your excuses and focus on the process of sound training.
When you start seeing success, you’ll get addicted to it.
Now it’s your turn. Get after it!
I hope this helps. Remember to follow me on Facebook (Page Tere Zacher/Athlete), Twitter (@TereZacher), and Instagram (@InsightfulRunner) for daily motivation and training tips.