Running Biomechanics Seminar

In this article, Gavin explains why a ‘generic’ program might sometimes be the right answer.

Listening back to our recent podcast with Tom, I felt that my response to a question from Callum didn’t really convey what I was trying to say. So I wanted to write a quick article to try and clarify my thoughts. 

The question in question , so to speak, was regarding generic training plans and whether they are ever a good thing 

You can hear the section in question here at the 46:50 mark

I said something to the effect of that a lot of the training that Alex (Tom and my coach) set us is pretty much the same day on day and week on week. And that if you adjusted for factors such as injury, where we re in a training cycle and the like then you would be hard pressed to find a difference between my schedule and Tom’s. 

IE if we were both fit and healthy rather than building back from a layoff then there wouldn’t be a great deal to choose between the two schedules. The hard days would be very similar if not identical; the same types of runs would be scheduled for the same days and the overall mileage wouldn’t differ greatly either. 

Principles v Generic
However, rather than saying that therefore I think a generic schedules are fine, what I meant to convey was that I am in favour of a coach having set philosophies and principles which they firmly believed in and applied to at least some extent to all their athletes.

Coaches will have principles and philosophies which underpin their entire program, then they will have types of training which they utilise in order to attain the goals set out in the principles, then they will have favoured workouts which meet those ends.

Let’s look step by step using my coach and situation as an example:

First we have a philosophy, and one of Alex’s stock beliefs (we’ll get him on the podcast soon enough to explain things better than I can) is that ‘speed comes from strength’ (where strength means a sort of combination of endurance and ‘tolerance’ to the impact of running rather than strict definition of strength in dictionary terms). So this ‘speed through strength’ is a principle which will be hard wired into all his programs whether you are an under 20 1500m runner or a veteran marathoner. 

The next layer beyond the general principles are specific types of training to achieve the goals of the principles. So in our case that is a general idea that we believe in ‘high’ volume of controlled easy running with post run strides for turnover, long controlled tempo runs, and controlled intervals/fartlek (notice also the recurring theme of control as well…)

So I would expect all athletes under Alex’s guidance to see these same types of training in their program on a frequent basis. 

Beyond these general ‘types of running’, we then have specific workouts that a coach employs. In our case this would be frequent use of 10mile tempos, minute reps off a 30second recovery and 6×1 mile run in progression. Not forgetting the twice weekly ‘maintenance day’ (9mile easy + strides and long run on a Sunday.

So with this in mind, if you took two athletes of roughly the same current standard who are aiming for the same sort of races it makes more sense to me that the training is the same than that the training is different. 

Sure there are some differences on a daily, weekly and longer term level but there’s an awful lot of overlap as well. 

I think I would be more concerned if a coach had so few principles that every one of their athletes was doing something completely different. I’d be asking myself hang on what does this person actually believe in and do they have a firm grasp on what is consistently working for their athletes.

It doesn’t mean that they have to be closed minded to thinking that other approaches could also work. But I think I would feel more confident knowing that my coach had belief in their own convictions than that they bounced around at random either because they were trying to second guess every minute detail of the program, or even worse because they were deliberately trying to avoid being thought of as one-sized fits all and therefore creating change and variation for the sake of it. 


Runners training in Iten Kenya

Is Canova a generic coach?
This all reminds me of my happy days in Iten Kenya coaching alongside Renato Canova. Canova is well established as one of the worlds top elite coaches and known as a deep thinker and analyser when it comes to the theory and implementation of endurance running training. But if I think back to the specifics of the programs there was a tremendous amount of cross over between different athletes schedules. 

There were certain workouts which would crop up time and again, and certain times of the year where athletes who never ran together, such as the men’s group and the women’s group, were doing identical workouts on different days. (For example we often coached the men’s group on a Tuesday then the women’s group on the Wednesday). Different athletes, but with a very overlapping profile, IE same event, same goal race date (or thereabouts), same relative standard (IE both male and female athletes aiming for podium places at World Marathon Majors) and same coach. Therefore we saw a lot of the same workouts.  

There were adaptations made for the individual, and these were largely based on coach experience with that particular athlete. What have you learned in previous marathon training cycles for example and what can you do to course correct where something hasn’t been quite right, or what can you do to double down on what has gone well. 

These adaptations would also tend to follow a pattern whereby the closer to the race we would get, the more variation you would expect to see between athletes. The training becomes more specific to the individual rather than addressing the generic demands of the event. However, even this would still be largely the same workouts, just used in different proportions; Florence may have needed 2 shorter track speed sessions during the same period where Abel needed only 1. 

For me, this is a preferable situation to one where by you could look at the schedule of 2 marathon runners and not be able to tell fairly easily that the program had been written by the same person. 

So, whilst this isn’t a piece in defence of generic or ‘off the shelf’ training programs, it is hopefully a better answer to the podcast question and explains my position on athletes under the same coach having the same or very similar programs. 

What do you think? Let us know here or on insta and we can address it on a future podcast.



About the Author:
Gavin Smith

Gavin Smith is the Co-Founder of Kenya Experience and Running Trips. He is a distance runner and formerly a coach to some of Kenya’s most decorated athletes. He graduated from Loughborough University in 2007 and lived in Iten Kenya from 2010 – 2014 where he was Assistant Coach to Renato Canova one of the world’s most celebrated distance running coaches. He now lives in Loughborough with his wife Lauren, Son’s Jacob & Etienne and Whippet Yego.

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