As Comrades runners start the hard winter training grind culminating on race day on August 28 many of them are still wrestling with exactly what type of training they should be doing on a daily and weekly basis.
Should they be running hills? Should they include speed sessions? How many long runs should they complete? How many kilometres should they run each week and, each month?
At this critical time of the Comrades marathon preparation, I am asked these questions on an almost daily basis. These questions are not as simple to answer as they might appear to be. The problem is that rather like running shoes there is no “one size fits all” answer.
So much depends on what each race runner’s goal is. Is he or she hoping for a top 10 finish, a silver medal or 12 hours, Vic Clapham medal? It also depends on how much time they have at their disposal to train – how much time can they steal from work and family and social commitments.
Finally, and most importantly, it depends on how wisely they selected their parents! In other words what type of genetic advantage or disadvantage they bring to the task.
About 20 years ago I met the Queen (and I mean the Queen, Elizabeth II). I was invited to an early evening cocktail reception, along with several dozen other guests. These included politicians, captains of industry and various celebrities. I might have been the lone sports representative. It turned out to be quite an expensive affair. I had to buy new shoes for myself and for my wife Gill, a new dress. It didn’t help to point out to Gill that Her Majesty had never seen any of her dresses. A new dress it was.
In the almost undignified melee of guests trying to meet the Queen I was one of the few who emerged triumphant both meeting the Queen and having a quite lengthy conversation with her. After a polite bow we chatted about sport in general and running in particular. (The Queen had earlier attended a schools sports gathering in Soweto).
In the course of our conversation she asked, “I do hope you will forgive me Mr Fordyce but I have always believed that marathon runners had to be big, muscular and strong and you appear to be the opposite.”
“No, Your Majesty,” I chuckled, “To be a successful marathon runner you need to be just like me, blessed with strong legs carrying a very light frame, allied to a powerful heart, and an equally powerful pair of lungs. It helps to have minimal brain cells,” I continued, “because marathon running is a silly sport.”
She laughed, “It is indeed, it is indeed”
But my point was well made. To race Comrades at around 3½ – to 3¾ minutes a kilometre you must be genetically suited to the task. More importantly, in order to complete the necessary weeks of hard training to race Comrades you must, again, be genetically suited to the rigours of the intense training that is required. Apart from an excessively pronating left foot I seem to be one of the lucky ones who was genetically suited to the task.
A glance back at my training diaries reminded me of how hard we Comrades marathon contenders trained back in the 1980s. Keeping in mind that Comrades was run at the end of May or early June in those days, from the beginning of March every year I would run 10 weeks of 160 – 220 kilometres per week.
Those weeks looked something like this:
Monday: Morning – 10kms; Afternoon – 15kms
Tuesday: Morning – 10kms; Afternoon – Hill session (4km warmup followed by 5-8 sprints up a steep 410 metre hill followed by 4km cool down jog afterwards)
Wednesday: Afternoon – 20-30kms at Comrades race pace
Thursday: Morning – 10kms; Afternoon – Speed session on a track, 4 or 5 times 800 metres or 1,000 metres (each 1,000 metres in 2:55 – 3 minutes)
Friday: Morning – 10kms; Afternoon – 15kms.
Saturday: One easy 15km run or afternoon cross country race or sprints up the famous Westcliff stairs.
Sunday: Morning – One slow long run 30-60kms.
Rest days, gym
I very rarely took a rest day and except for the long slow Sunday run, most of my training was completed at a pace of 4 minutes per kilometre or faster. In order to build extra strength, I also participated in three gym sessions a week.
With three weeks to go until race day I started a long and sustained training taper, drastically cutting back my training mileage until in the last 7 days when I hardly ran at all (just 3 easy runs adding up to fewer than 25 kilometres).
If all went according to plan and my build-up was injury and illness free, I could run close to 2,000 kilometres in that time.
As I explained to Her Majesty, only a few genetically suited runners can churn out this type of mileage week after week and even fewer have the time or inclination to subject themselves to this workload. Only runners such as Gerda Steyn and Bongmusa Mthembu should try and copy a schedule like this, and they probably listen to better advice and have better training schedules.
How can the regular runner get the most out of limited training time and poor genetics (notice, I did not write “average or ordinary runner” as there is nothing “average” about someone attempting to run the Comrades marathon).
I believe that he or she should keep to the same training principles, but just reduce the mileage I ran in the past (by as much as 50%) while including some planned rest and recovery time.
Monday: Rest is essential and a Monday seems like the correct choice, as it follows the long Sunday run.
Tuesday: 10-12 kilometres standard cruising pace.
Wednesday midweek long run: This was one of my favourite runs and was a critical part of my training programme. I stole the “idea” from Rob “Deek” De Castella, the great Australian marathon runner (1983 World Champion, Twice Commonwealth Games champion, and Boston marathon winner). De Castella used this midweek run as part of his marathon preparation. It made sense to me that a training run at a steady pace over a longer distance was essential (15-25 kilometres).
Thursday: One quality session at a club time trial, speed session, or hilly run (12kms).
Friday: One enjoyable easy paced 10kms.
Saturday: A fast parkrun or shorter run preceded by warm up jog. Total 8-10kms.
Sunday: Long slow run (with the emphasis on slow) at any distance from 25-60 kilometres.
I will carefully dissect each of these elements of what I believe is a sensible and manageable training week in future columns but essentially this programme sustained for two months should result in a great outcome on race day.
Of course, it is essential to be flexible. Nothing is guaranteed in life or in running. But the programme certainly worked for me, on 30 occasions, and I believe that it will work for every runner, even those who are just “average” or “ordinary “.
If you are interested in my more detailed training diaries and personalised training, please visit my website for more information. Go to www.brucefordyce.com