Am I ‘training smart’?

About 7 weeks ago I formulated a long term plan to prepare for a ‘good’ marathon in three years time – after I have retired from work and when I hope I will have enough time to achieve the training volume necessary for a marathon.

However increased training volume is only part of what is required. In a post on my blog about 6 weeks ago I addressed the perennial question of the relative importance of training volume v. training intensity.  I wrote that when training for endurance events it is necessary to ‘train a lot but train smart’

By training smart, I meant planning a program with identified goals, and being prepared to adjust the program if the goals were not being achieved. I set as the specific goal for the first 12 weeks of my three year program, the recovery of the leg strength that I have lost over the past 40 years – a loss of strength that has left me with a stride length that rarely exceeds 1metre. I also have a background goal of gradual improvement of my aerobic capacity. That background goal will continue to be on the agenda throughout the three year program.

The proposed program

I planned a program for the first 6 weeks that includes the following sessions each week:

1) leg strength – initially focusing on body-weight resistance exercises

2) core strength and upper body strength – also body weight resistance exercises

3) short sprints or stride-outs

4) uphill running (4-6 x 250 metres)

6) a longish run (at least 15Km) in the low aerobic zone

7) two interval or tempo type sessions of 30-45 minutes duration on the elliptical cross -trainer

8. yoga exercise focused on flexibility, balance and body awareness.

I anticipated training for about 4-5 hours per week, and set the target of achieving at least 80% if the specified sessions, to allow for the occasional substation of an alternative activity such a hill walking, swimming, cycling or kayaking.

Planned assessments

To evaluate progress I planned the following tests, to be done in weeks 1 and 6:

1) Hopping test of leg strength: distance covered in 5 consecutive hops on one leg starting from rest. (Best of three attempts with each leg)

2) Sprint speed: the distance covered in 15 seconds.  As I train mainly on woodland or riverside paths, or on soggy grass, I employ my Polar heart rate monitor and S3 foot-pod set to record pace averaged over 3 consecutive 5 second intervals, to avoid the need to measure distance on the ground. However the uncertainty of the measured pace is probably around 3%.

3) Aerobic capacity on the elliptical cross-trainer: average heart rate during a stair case of 7x2minute steps spanning a power output of 30 to 230 watts – anticipated to cover the aerobic zone.

4) Aerobic capacity when running in lower aerobic zone: beats per Km for two segments of 2 km each within the first half of the 15 Km run, selected to cover flat terrain and in opposite directions to minimize the effect of wind.

5) Endurance at low aerobic pace: comparison of beats/Km measured in over a flat 2 km in the final few Km of the 15Km run to assess upward drift of heart rate

I also decided to evaluate upper body strength by assessing the maximum number of consecutive pull-ups – this is probably not relevant to marathon preparation, but is relevant to my overall long term goal of limiting the rate of loss of strength as I grow older.


I managed to achieve all of the scheduled sessions. After three weeks I felt fairly exhausted. Even though the overall weekly training time was about 4.5 hours per week, all of the sessions apart from the 15Km low aerobic run, the sprints, and the yoga session were quite demanding. Therefore, I reduced the intensity of several of the more demanding sessions a little. For example, during tempo sessions on the elliptical cross trainer, I reduced the target power output from 200 watts to 185 watts. After this slight reduction in intensity, I found I could cope with the schedule without cumulative fatigue

Here is a table of the test results at week 1 and week 6:



Test results: week 1 (1 Nov 2009) and week 6 (13 Dec 2009)



Leg strength

The most important observation is that the hopping test demonstrates that my leg strength has improved. It should be noted that the weaker performance when hopping on my right leg was anticipated. I have suffered from episodes of inflammatory arthritis since my mid-teens. The right knee has been the most frequent site of the attacks of acute arthritis and after 50 years of these episodes, I now have some evidence of permanent damage. So despite the fact that as a youngster I kicked a football with my right foot and I have always used my right leg for the initial push on the pedals when cycling, I am not surprised that my right leg is weaker than the left. I am pleased that there have been similar increases in strength in both left and right legs, though I am aware of the need to be cautious in the demands I make upon my right leg. However, several studies have shown that exercise is beneficial for joints damaged by arthritis, so I am confident that provided I proceed cautiously, it is reasonable to aim to equalize the strength of my legs.

Upper body strength

The dramatic improvement from 3 to 7 consecutive pull-ups probably reflects the fact that I have done very little to maintain upper body strength in recent years, and even a small amount of resistance work – in fact about 15 minutes per week over the six weeks – has produced a rapid though only partial recovery of my former strength. When I was younger, I could do 10 consecutive pull-ups and I will be very pleased if I can recover that level again.


I am a little disappointed that there been no discernible increase in my speed – perhaps I need to develop a more reliable test, though the consistency of speed estimates throughout the six weeks suggest that the test at 6 weeks is a realistic reflection of the absence of any appreciable increase in speed. Maybe I need to be patient, and wait until the gains in leg strength are more substantial. Perhaps I also need to do some drills to improve neuromuscular coordination.

Aerobic capacity and endurance

The slight decrease in beats /Km in the first half of the 15 Km run suggests a trivial improvment in my aerobic capacity, but this improvment is not significant.  The lack of substantial change is almost certainly due to the fact that the total volume of aerobic training has been small. If I convert elliptical energy consumption to equivalent distance run using the formula 100 Kcal = 1.6 Km , my average weekly volume of aerobic training in the past 6 weeks has been 34 Km/week. In the 12 weeks prior to starting this program, my weekly average was 41 km/week ( a period during which I was recovering from illness in mid-summer). The average over the preceding 10 months since January 2009 was 45 Km per week. The inclusion of resistance training has necessarily resulted in a reduction in aerobic training volume, so perhaps it is not surprising that my aerobic capacity has not improved.

The only reason for anticipating any improvement despite the reduction in volume was the fact that during the preceding few months I had been recovering from an episode of illness. However, despite the lack of improvement in the past six weeks, it is pleasing to see that even at the beginning of the current six week program, there was no upwards drift of heart rate during a 15Km run in the lower aerobic zone. Hadd suggests that it is time to increase the pace of aerobic training when heart rate remains stable during a 10 mile run (16Km), so perhaps it is time to increase the pace of my lower aerobic runs.

The next 6 weeks

In the remaining 6 weeks of this 12 week cycle, the main goal will be to continue to increase my leg strength. The current program of body-weight resistance training appears to be beneficial, so I will increase the amount of this work from 30 min per week to 45 min per week. I will also introduce some low intensity plyometrics (hopping; lunge jumps etc). Eventually I will increase the resistance in the resistance sessions, by using dumbbells or barbells, but I am in no hurry to do this in light of the need to be cautious in loading my right knee.

I will experiment with some drills to improve neuromuscular coordination with the goal of improving my sprint speed, but increased sprinting speed is not high on my list of priorities and therefore I cannot afford to devote a great deal of time to these drills in the near future.

Because my total training time is limited there is no scope for increasing aerobic training volume at present. I will increase the speed of the 15 Km runs a little, but I am also aware of the need to avoid making all my sessions intense. At present I am enjoying the easy 15Km run each week, and I do not want to make this session onerous. I am confident that if I am patient, my aerobic capacity will eventually begin to increase. I am aiming for 600 beats/Km when running in the low aerobic zone, by the end of next summer.

7 Responses to “Am I ‘training smart’?”

  1. Free Resistance Band Video Says:

    Do you have some resistance bands? Check out live exercise online. There’s a new explosive live workout show called Chiseled. The best part is, it’s free.

  2. Thomas Says:

    I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that, but be very careful with the plyometrics. They can be a short cut to injury.

  3. Ewen Says:

    Interesting so far Canute. The hopping improvement is significant (and the upper body).

    During such a low-volume stage of training, my take would be that avoiding a loss of aerobic condition is a good outcome. Increasing the speed of the 15k run seems a good idea – perhaps 2-3k warming up, 10k tempo, rest warming down?

    Re the sprinting speed test, could there be a more accurate way of doing the test? Even using a hand-held stop watch and running over a measured course in both directions would be better than the foot-pod.

  4. RICK Says:

  5. canute1 Says:

    Rick, Thanks for that link. I am seriously considering getting some resistance bands. I have limited experience of resistance exercise, but it seems to me that bands will create less risk of injury than free weights. For example, there will be minimum risk of sudden jerking movements. Of what I have seen so far, I like the look of the Bodylastics system. Do you use bands?

  6. Amby Burfoot Says:

    Canute1: I’ve started following your highly interesting blog. I admire your method and determination. It will be instructive for all of us to see how you progress. I doubt things are as simple as having a smart and logical plan, which you clearly have. Nonetheless, I wish you great luck and hope you will continue your candid, objective followups. Best, Amby Burfoot, Runner’s World Magazine USA

  7. canute1 Says:

    Thankyou for your good wishes.
    I certainly intend to continue to present objective follow-ups. I share some of your concern about the prospects for improvement, but I am eager to continue wth my plan.

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