When I first started coaching, I would often have to talk a new client off the ledge of despair. Their training plan would be overwhelming and they would start to panic about the long runs and workouts.
But these key sessions–which took place in the final few weeks of the plan–wound up being entirely manageable. They just weren’t quite possible yet. The runners had to prepare for those workouts, recover well, and be in better form before they could attempt them. This is why we train. This allows you to grow incrementally and eventually to achieve things you never thought possible. And it all depends on patterning, or properly varying effort throughout a given training week.
I worked with 10 different coaches during high school and college, yet the patterning I experienced for cross country and track remained remarkably similar. Most runners are familiar with the “easy/hard rule”, where effort is divided between days. This rule was the foundation of all our training programs.
This patterning is based on a concept called training density . Once you are familiar with density, it will be easier to plan your training.
Training density reflects the pattern of effort throughout a certain time period. A high density translates into a runner who is doing a lot of quality work, such as long runs or faster workouts. Low density means that the total workload is distributed more evenly and there are fewer quality training sessions.
High training density does not mean more difficult workouts or longer runs. This means that key training sessions are more closely spaced, which results in less recovery time between tough days.
A schedule with two workouts per week (faster sessions) and a longer run per week is an example of a high training density schedule. A denser training schedule will require 1-2 days of rest between each quality day.
Training density mistakes are always on the two ends of the workload spectrum. Also, the density can be either too high of too low.
Any runner who is interested in improving their running performance should stress the body enough that it can allow for a physiological adaptation. This could include gaining endurance, strength, speed, and more. This goal is not easy to achieve.
High-density schedules can be objectively too difficult, but they can also be relatively too difficult. A weekly schedule with three or more intense workouts per week is probably too dense, except for elite athletes who are in peak training. A schedule that has back-to-back difficult days and no recovery days is almost always a mistake. However, some schedules may be too challenging for your fitness level if they aren’t too dense. If you’re just starting running, don’t try to do a weekly long-run and two fast workouts per week. It’s safer to limit yourself to one workout.
The flip side to this coin is that too much density in your life will mean you won’t see any improvement. This can lead to stagnating performances because there won’t be enough stress. This can often be seen with runners who don’t run any faster workouts o