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Secrets of the Elites
What You Can Learn From the World's Best Runners

from Run Today - an exclusive of Road Runner Sports

On October 13, 2002, in Chicago, Great Britain's Paula Radcliffe set a new woman's world record in the marathon. The tall, slender but muscular woman with the distinctive bobbing head running style, averaged an amazing 5:15 per mile pace as she obliterated the previous record by a remarkable 89 seconds. When she crossed the line in 2:17:18, Radcliffe turned and began waving to the cheering crowd. For a few seconds it looked as though she might sprint over to her adoring fans and start "high-fiving" them instead of heading for the press conference and warm clothes. Clearly, Radcliffe could have run even faster.
Now, you're probably thinking "what can I possibly learn from someone like Paula Radcliffe? I could never in my wildest dreams ever imagine running that fast." Of course you'd be right, only twenty-one men ran faster than Radcliffe that morning, she's definitely in a class by herself. But not unlike other fast, elite athletes, Radcliffe's training "secrets" can help you become a better runner. In fact, Radcliffe's and others training "secrets" aren't really secrets at all, there are no magic training schedules or special diets that will help you run faster. Here are the four training principles that will help you become a better, faster runner.
  1. Commitment to your goal
  2. Consistent training
  3. Focusing your mind
  4. Understanding your body
Radcliffe went into the Chicago Marathon with a clear goal: breaking the woman's world record. She chose that particular marathon because she knew the course was flat and fast. She also knew that if the weather conditions were right, she could set a world record pace. Everything was carefully planned-from the shorter races she ran in the months leading up to the marathon to every single workout, every massage, every visit with her chiropractor. Once she had set her goal everything she did from then on was geared toward helping her reach that goal.

Whether you're a novice runner or a seasoned athlete, you'll find success if you commit to a goal. Your goal may be to run five days a week, or it may be to break 5 hours in the marathon. No matter what your goal is, you need to commit to it or you probably won't achieve it. To help yourself commit:
  • Write the goal down on paper
  • Tell friends and family members what you want to achieve
  • Write out a long-range training schedule
  • Seek out the advice of other runners, sports professionals such as coaches, or read training books to learn more (in preparation for her first attempt at the marathon distance Marla Runyan, the women's 5K champion, sought advice from several marathon veterans)
Keep in mind that you'll probably have many goals in your "running life." Goals are both short and long term. As you achieve one, you'll move on to the next one. Depending on circumstances you may not always achieve your goal when you'd like to, but don't despair-goals give meaning and purpose to life.

Consistent Training
Paula Radcliffe, Marla Runyan, Deena Drossin, Khalid Khannouchi, Catherine Ndereba-every elite world and/or national class runner runs consistently-usually seven days a week, often twice a day. Even the legendary Bill Rodgers still runs nearly every day, and has done so for thirty years. This isn't to say that you need to start a "streak"-running every day for years and years without taking a break for illness, injury or real-life commitments isn't necessarily healthy, but running consistently (with planned breaks) will make you a better runner. Many runners who are new to the sport make the mistake of jumping into races before they've built a strong running base. Prospective marathoners also tend to get themselves into trouble when they try to run a marathon before they're ready. There are few experiences more painful than struggling through a marathon when you're unprepared. Consider the following:
  • Running two or three days a week is good for your heart, your lungs and your mental wellbeing. But if you want to run faster and if you want to race, you'll need to run more often (unless you're unusually talented, young and you run very fast on those two or three days!)
  • Consistency is critical if a marathon is in your future. Generally it's a good idea to wait to run a marathon until you've been running four or five days a week for at least a year.
  • Running success is measured by mileage, at least up to a point. Most runners' times will improve, even without any specific speed training, if they increase their mileage up to 30 miles a week. However, once an athlete reaches 50 miles a week, there's an increased risk of over-training and injury.
  • If you are running 15-20 miles a week, you're better off running the mileage in four or five days rather than trying to squeeze it into only three. If you're training for a marathon, don't run only two days during the week and schedule long runs on the weekend that are two or even three times longer than your longest run during the week. Keep in mind that one of the definitions of consistent is "marked by regularity".
Here's another dictionary definition: "focus" means directed attention. The next time you see a race on TV, or attend a race that you're not running, look carefully at the faces of the runners in the front rows. Usually they won't be laughing, talking and joking around. Once they've done their warm-up strides most of them get into position at the start line and start concentrating on the task at hand. Sometimes they even do their serious focusing and concentrating long before that.

About fifteen minutes before the start of the 2002 Carlsbad 5000 Deena Drossin was observed squatting on her haunches staring straight ahead down the long straightaway leading to the finish line. The straightaway is slightly downhill and it starts after the runners have made a sharp left hand turn around a corner. The smart, focused athlete who makes his or her move once they've turned the corner and hit the downhill portion often wins the race. Drossin sat for nearly five minutes in that position, focused straight ahead, blocking out everything else and concentrating on the finish line. Less than half an hour later she had set a new woman's world record for 5K! Her focus paid off.

It certainly isn't necessary for you to concentrate hard every time you go out to run. Running should be a way to relieve stress, enjoy the outdoors and feel free and unencumbered. However, once in awhile it's good to practice focusing before a workout so you'll be able to concentrate hard when you have an important race in the future. To focus try:
  • Visualizing your performance in your mind. "See yourself" passing other runners, running hard up a hill and crossing the finish line.
  • Repeating phrases over and over. Some examples are: "strength, power, fast" or "I'm fast, I'm a winner."
You'll be a much better runner if you develop a feeling for how your body is reacting. The best runners know when they can safely push themselves, and when they have to back off. Following this year's Chicago Marathon Alan Culpepper, who ran 2:09:41 for sixth place, told reporters that he felt comfortable throughout the entire race, even during the windy portions in the last two miles, because he was running a pace that he knew he could hold, despite the conditions. He had trained to run that pace and he knew that he could hold it because his body was reacting the way it should. Deena Drossin on the other hand, had a rough time of it. Although she beat her previous PR by a few seconds, she started to cramp as early as ten miles and had to back off the pace. She knew that her body wasn't going to allow her to run quite the way she had planned.

Elite athletes who've been training for many years have developed a good sense of perceived effort. If their workout calls for 5 miles at 5:15 pace, they'll run 5:15 because they know what a 5:15 pace "feels" like. Many of them also use heart rate monitors during certain times in their training to determine whether their bodies are adapting to training stress. Using a heart rate monitor is a valuable training tool for any runner-particularly for athletes who have not yet developed a feel for how their bodies are working. Novice heart rate monitor users often say that they're surprised to find out that their "easy" days aren't as easy as they thought! Using a monitor will help you learn how to train using the hard/easy principle. Once you've grasped that concept, you'll be a better runner. You'll feel comfortable with your body, will know when to push and when to back off, and as a result you should be able to avoid the over-training that can lead to injury.

Remember that elite runners are just like you. They might be faster, but that's the only difference. They have good days, and bad days; days when they don't feel like stepping out the door and days when everything comes together and they could run forever. Isn't it nice to know that the "secrets" to their success aren't really secrets at all?

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