We all know it is an ongoing joke that we don’t have seasons in Texas…it’s just “summer” and “almost summer.” But even if our weather doesn’t present an obvious seasonality, you should create seasons in your running life. As a coach of collegiate and post-collegiate athletes, I see the year as three or four phases, each with a different focus for my athletes. When I coached adult recreational athletes, it seemed that I always had to urge them to add variety along a seasonal approach. They just wanted to run their daily four-to-seven miles along Lady Bird Lake no matter what time of year. While I understand how easy this might be as a schedule, it is absolutely the wrong way to get stronger or faster. The human body needs variety to improve, and doing the same thing, day in/day out, week in/week out, leads to a staleness that severely limits the body’s natural ability to improve. While there are many different ways to structure a training year into seasons, I have outlined one possibility that fits very nicely into Austin’s racing scene and the type of weather that we deal with every year.
We all know that it is miserable to train in central Texas during the summer. With last summer’s record-breaking heat, it doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out that pounding out miles on the pavement can wreck your system. There are many groups that train diligently over the summer in preparation for the races that make up fall marathon season (Chicago, New York, San Antonio, etc.), but most of these runners have been at this for years and understand the difficulty involved. I recommend that runners use the summer heat to move away from the traditional “road warrior” mentality and get off the beaten path with trail running. On the trails, you can slow down and stretch out your runs; you can even escape the heat altogether by wearing a headlamp and running at night. Alternatively, get in the pool and on the bike with an introduction to the triathlon. The summer is a great time to decompress, move away from the same old-same old. With both trail running and triathlon, you will work on developing a significant base that you can use in the fall, leaving you physically and mentally refreshed and reinvigorated as you transition back to the roads.
After the slow, easy miles on the trails or cross training in triathlon, you’ll need to get your road legs back. While you will have developed an awesome base, you will need to readapt to the pounding and pacing of the roads. I have coached many road runners who are devastated by their splits in workouts or races after a summer of running the trails, and I always have to remind them that their speed isn’t gone; it’s just hibernating. After a month of weekly tempo runs and easy track workouts, they get their road legs back and are ready to race. In this phase, I recommend that you race a variety of distances from half marathons to 5Ks and focus on regaining competitiveness while not worrying about specific times and personal bests. Not that those times won’t come…a number of athletes improve in every distance after a long, refreshing summer of easy mileage. The key to success is being patient with adjustments needed to get back to the mentality and mechanics of fast running.
If you want to be a faster runner, you must do marathon training. At the University of Texas and in our post-collegiate group, TeamRogue Elite, we focus our winter and spring on marathon training. Even the milers train like marathoners over the winter. Though these athletes are not training to run the 26.2-mile distance, the aerobic development pays huge dividends in April, May and June of our championship seasons. In Austin, these months are the perfect opportunity to chase the distance; the weather is ideal for the mileage, the Austin Marathon and Half hits in mid-February, and those fast enough to secure a Boston qualifier will be training in the best training environment in the world for that race. All this strength can then be converted to fast performances at the best races Austin offers in the spring.
Once through the winter marathon build, you can quickly turn that newly developed strength into command performances in the spring. The shorter distances races, such as the Capitol 10,000, the Bun Run and the Congress Avenue Mile, provide the perfect set of races for some very, very fast runs. There are a variety of other races all over central Texas in the spring that can help you hone your racing chops and gain strategic experiences over shorter distances. You can turn that strength base into the fastest racing you have ever done within just six weeks of speed training. Racking up PRs at every distance will have you ready to transition into another summer of long, easy running.
This seasonal approach is my ideal training plan for Austin. However, we all have races we want to run that don’t fit this model, and exciting opportunities to test your fitness abound in Austin. What is key is that you keep your eyes on your long-term goal. I really encourage you to break your year up into seasons that feed into each other and provide you the best opportunity to have a huge, command performance at the end of the cycles. Of course, you can just plod along all year in the Town Lake Shuffle but that sounds as interminable as a Texas summer.
Steve Sisson is The University of Texas’ assistant coach for women’s track and field/cross country. He is also the head coach of TeamRogue Elite, a non-profit post-collegiate development group based in Austin, Texas. As a collegiate student/athlete, Sisson represented the United States internationally in IAAF’s World Half-Marathon Championship and Ekiden Relay. Sisson is also a three-time Southwest Conference individual champion as well as three-time All-American, and his time of 13.50 (’93) set the Longhorn indoor 5000m record for 10 years. In addition to coaching, Sisson is the owner of Rogue Training Systems here in Austin.