Adios "Comfort Zone"

By Carmen Ayala-Troncoso – March 1, 2013
Photo by Stacy Berg

In our ever growing Austin running community, spring means new outfits, the ever-present water bottle, track workouts, and the hope of a fast 10K, 5K, and/or mile.

We slowly start to make a transition from our local “distance challenge” to the more heat-friendly shorter distances.

I’d like to take you through the transition from a base-oriented fall plan to the more speed-oriented spring program. Though this is a generalization applied to the Austin running schedule of races, the concept is based on some solid physiological principles.

First, let me get the boring stuff out of the way:
If you have been running for a few years, you probably have heard the term periodization, a “buzz word” that comes out of the closet every few years. The term refers simply to the specific time scale and format of all the various parts of a training plan.

This is a continuum of cycles that, I like to think, follows an upward spiral trajectory. This spiral will continue upward as long as we follow a yearly plan that makes sense for our goals and, in the case of most of you reading, this should also take your lifestyle into consideration. Thus, the training life of an athlete is a constant cycle of hard work (with fatigue), recovery, improvement in performance, and brief layoff (for mental and physical rest) to permit another cycle to begin.

All this might sound like a never-ending, boring process not unlike the myth of Sisyphus, except that Sisyphus had only one goal in mind—to get that rock to the top! At least we can entertain ourselves on the way to the top by creating intermediate goals. We have races to prepare for; we want to run faster than last year; we want to feel better at the end of the next 10K or 5K; we want to run the mile under 6:00, and so on. If you are hooked on running, I bet that, no matter who you are or how fast you run, you want to run faster.

The first goal as a coach is to have a yearly plan (or at least a season’s plan), complete with realistic goals that include races, time performances, and timeline.

Now, let’s go back to our Austin micro-cosmos for a minute:
Assuming that you have already a few months of easy mileage under your belt (perhaps mixed with some hill work, steady state runs, tempos and a couple of long distance races), you might feel like you are now ready to jump onto the track and awake those fast twitch muscle fibers before the first 5K.


In order to reach your Bolt-like dreams later in the spring, you need to make a safe transition into speed work; no matter how fast (or slow) you think you are, you will need at least four weeks (and as many as six weeks) of medium-fast speed before going all out.

During a base-oriented phase, or aerobic endurance phase, at least 85 percent of your training should be under 75 percent of your maximal capacity. This is how you develop your stamina.

During the anaerobic endurance phase, you should introduce work done above 85 percent of maximal capacity.

Why is this? Your stamina will help you finish races, but your anaerobic work will help you finish first (or faster).

Going from 75 to 95 percent of your maximal capacity is not only difficult but puts you at a high risk of injury if not done gradually. Yes, we can all go to the track and have at it—do a fast session of 200s at our mile pace—no problem!

The problem lies not with our muscles or our ability to finish 10 x 200. Yes, you can run 200s; the key is, at what pace?

The answer is simple: somewhere between 80 and 95 percent effort but not mile pace, no matter how tempting (remember that mile pace on a trained athlete is done above 100 percent of maximal aerobic capacity).

This all takes roughly four to six weeks. As a coach, this period is a good “reality check” tool. I take these four weeks to figure out exactly what each runner’s anaerobic threshold is and then try to do a lot of work on that bubble. The external cues I look for are any changes in breathing pattern and changes in biomechanical efficiency as well as whether the runner can keep the chosen pace throughout the workout and recover within a day or two.

What types of workouts should you target in these four to six weeks? Workouts that will get you out of the comfort zone and push your anaerobic threshold just a tad (this should be around 10K pace). You should have enough recovery to rid your body of most of the lactic acid accumulated in the previous repetition.

How often? Once per week is enough, or about 15 percent of your weekly mileage. If you are doing 30 miles per week, you want to do about 4.5 miles of work at 10K pace (or slightly slower). The easy answer is to introduce repetitions of between three to eight minutes, done at the runner’s current 85-95 percent of maximal effort and taking three to five minutes of active jog as recovery between repeats.

Hill repeats, done at 85-95 percent effort, one to two minutes in duration, are a very effective way to help you with this transition.
As we gradually introduce anaerobic intensity, we need to pay attention to the whole training plan. You might need to decrease the weekly volume in order to recover. If there’s no recovery, there’s no adaptation to the new intensity.

Think of it as a rubber band held at both ends by you; one extreme is the volume in your training and the other extreme is the intensity. You can pull on one side or the other and control the stretch of the rubber band but, if you start to pull hard on both sides…well, you get the picture.

Why should you take the time to make this transition?

1. There is the structural answer; you should give your tendons and ligaments time to get used to the new paces (your stride length will change, your body needs time to adapt).
2. Then there is the chemistry answer; your muscle cells need time to develop enzymes and other “goodies” that will help you “buffer” the acid that your body will produce while trying to run above 95 percent of your maximal capacity.
3. And then there is the psychological answer; you need to help your mind get out of the comfort zone that you have been in for the last few months.


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