As a lifelong competitor in track and field, my entire experience with training has focused on improving performance. Week to week, month to month, and season to season this has always been the goal. Even after reaching my physical peak after the age of 40 and becoming a “Masters” category athlete, the target is still to improve my race times and overall strength, or at least be able to decline as little as possible.
With hard work, excellent coaching, and an abundance of my own research and application, I have been blessed with a successful athletic running career. My running achievements helped me earn a full scholarship to college, a professional sponsor contract with Asics, participation on US teams competing around the world, 2 Masters female world records, and 11 Masters female American records. The intangible rewards include the lifelong friendships, experiences, and knowledge I have been blessed with along the way. This all was made possible because of a focus to improve and push my perceived limits. There is a right way to do this to ensure not only success, but also to prevent injury, burnout, and the dreaded plateau. The following are guidelines you can use in your own workouts to improve performance.
In physiology, the term Habituation Principle is used to describe what happens when the body becomes “habituated” to the same training stimulus or structure over a significant period of time. Results start to plateau, or worse, decline. While this may not be an issue for overall wellness, it is definitely not ideal for someone trying to improve their performance or make a difference in their body composition.
Applying the same stimulus (training intensity, duration, modality), week after week, month after month, and year after year, eventually becomes ineffective. This is why athletes and exercise enthusiasts alike should follow another classic physiological principle: Periodization.
Periodization simply means you follow a certain training strategy or stimulus structure for a set number of weeks, and then change the structure and focus on the new one for another set number of weeks and so on. Eventually you peak, rest and then do it all again with essentially a more efficient body.
Breaking It Down
There is a training overload effect which is the body’s response to a stimulus: The stimulus (for example, hill intervals on the bike) causes a physiological response, which, in this example, is fatigue. When the stimulus ends (the workout is over), the body begins the process of recovery, which includes adaptation to the stimulus. This includes creating more capillaries around your muscles, increasing the number and size of mitochondria in your cells, improving your body’s ability to utilize the oxygen it takes in, improved circulation, and more. Over time these changes improve your overall aerobic endurance and performance.
The key factor is that you must change the stimulus after some time to ensure the gains from training do not flatten. A new stimulus is needed to keep the ideal training progression. Changing the training becomes as important as the training itself. This is why even marathoners and other endurance athletes must incorporate speed training and strength training into their regimens and, on the other hand, why sprinters must do conditioning work as well as develop their power and speed.
Realize, also, that your body needs change in all areas of your training. Using the example of endurance running, if you are accustomed to running 12 miles every Sunday, try running up to a max of 9 miles for 3- 4 weeks, but run the last 3 miles of that 9 mile total at a faster pace. If you typically do all of your speed work on the track, try doing some hill repeats on a grassy hill or the treadmill. Or try “speed play” (fartlek) where you use visual landmarks as targets for bursts of speed in the middle of an aerobic run. The point is, do something different. Have a purpose, but change it every 4-6 weeks or so. This includes your environment to keep your mind stimulated.
Periodization programs are generally 4-6 weeks per cycle and include the Conditioning Phase, the Efficiency (Speed) Phase, the Aerobic Strength Phase, and the Performance (Competition) Phase. After the completion of a full Macro Cycle (all of those phases combined over 16 weeks), a complete rest and change of exercise modality is best before the process begins all over again with an improved fitness level.
Performance Based Training Tools
Having the right tools to complete and track performance based workouts is essential. Technology has come a long way and we are fortunate to have so many options to assist us in reaching our personal best!
I incorporate the treadmill at least twice per week during my in season training build ups. I encourage the athletes I coach to do the same. In addition to the benefits of a controlled climate, softer surface, and instant feedback, I find I can focus more on my form and really control my pace during these workouts. The Star Trac FreeRunner treadmill is an amazing addition to their already impressive line of cardio equipment. The most unique feature of this revolutionary treadmill design is the patented Hex Deck, which you would have to experience personally to fully appreciate how amazing it feels! It simulates the feeling and mechanics of the new carbon fiber plated running shoes that have been such a game changer in the running community. The FreeRunner uses an aluminum deck (first of its kind!) which provides unprecedented flexibility. The patented Hex Dek polymer support absorbs the shock of your foot strikes, but also acts like a spring combined with the aluminum deck, so there is an actual energy return for every stride you take. What stood out the most to me is that the faster I ran, the more I felt the energy return and the way the deck supported my ankle to roll up on the ball of my foot, vs. heel strike as I became more fatigued later into the run. You can imagine how impactful this is during a speed work session or even a long run! Not only did I run faster, with better form, my legs were not nearly as fatigued as normal the next day and the impact was much more forgiving to my knees and hips.
Another essential tool to performance training that Star Trac offers is their state of the art console OpenHub platform. OpenHub can connect directly with your Apple Watch or Galaxy Watch for real-time data sharing with just a tap. OpenHub also offers many other ways to enhance your performance workout including one of my favorites, Star Trac 20 HIIT Programming, which you can customize with a few taps of the console for a complete performance based HIIT workout in 20 minutes, (designed by yours truly!). It also features RunTV so you can combine your performance with live imagery, web-based media access, HDMI streaming, Bluetooth connectivity, programmable speed and incline changes, and much more. It’s the next best thing to having a coach right there with you!
Regardless of where you are doing your workout, and what tools you may be using, the key is you must “Plan your work and work your plan”! Performance doesn’t just happen…it is earned through purposeful hard work based on proven physiological principles. Make it happen!
Sonja Friend-Uhl is a Core Health & Fitness Master Instructor, skilled fitness professional and USATF certified coach with over 27 years of experience. She is the reigning World Record Holder in the Women’s Masters Indoor Mile (4:44.81) and the American Record Holder in the Women’s Masters 1500m (4:16.99), the Women’s Masters Outdoor Mile (4:45.68), and the Women’s Masters Indoor 3000m (9:48.23). Learn more about Sonja and her coaching/racing background via www.TheRunningWarrior.com