When Mike Baard decided to sign up for a half-marathon, he knew he was going to have to approach his race preparation differently than in the past.
Baard started racing in 1983. He has a list of sparking personal bests to his credit, including a 1:16:29 half marathon from 1986. But Baard, 60, also has a significant history of injury, including two surgeries on his right foot.
The challenge for a body like Baard’s was clear. “I had to figure out, ‘What’s the most I can get out of the least amount of running?’” he said.
The answer Baard arrived at provides a good basic blueprint for the many runners like him—ones with a lot of mileage on the running odometre who still want to race to the best of their ability. In Baard’s case, he was able to beat his half marathon goal by more than three minutes. Keep reading to learn the why behind Baard’s schedule, or see “Less-is-More Principles” at the bottom of this article for guidance on creating a program like Baard’s.
Biggest Bang for Buck
Baard consulted with his physical therapist as to whether he could even attempt a half marathon without the kind of running mileage he would have done in the past. “He said, ‘As long as you’re not trying to pretend it’s still 1986, go for it,’” Baard said. “But I had to promise him I’d keep the total mileage to a minimum, and take a week off from running after the race.”
Given the green light for his training, Baard followed a conservative, quality-over-quantity approach for his 14-week buildup to the half marathon. He limited himself to four runs a week, with an average weekly mileage total of 32-40.
Baard knew from painful experience that hill repeats and runs of 16 kilometres or longer would inflame the scar tissue in his surgically repaired foot. So his longest run was only 13 kilometres. “Back in the day,” he said, “I would have done 30 or 32 kilometres before a half.”
For quality, Baard found he could do weekly 1,600 metre repeats (three per workout) on a treadmill without aggravating his foot. His two other running days per week were 8 kilometre treadmill runs, preceded by 30 minutes on an elliptical machine. On his non-running days, he lifted weights and did additional cross-training.
“Twenty years ago I would have sneered at this,” he said. “Training for a longer race meant running longer, running harder. No weights, no elliptical machines, no treadmills and not many off days. But I’ve changed, because I’ve had to change.”
Along with managing his training, he needed to manage expectations: His goal for this, his first serious half-marathon in years, was to break 1:40. A far cry from the days of 1:16, but in his mind, realistic.
On race day, Baard started conservatively. “I felt fit from the training I’d done, but I knew I couldn’t rely on a whole lot of strength,” he said. “I did the first few kilometres at 4:40 [per kilometre] and felt good, so I picked it up. When I got past 10K, those 4:40s all of a sudden became 4:30s.”
Still, he hit the 16 kilometre mark with trepidation. “I was like, ‘Okay, I haven’t run this far in a long time. The piano’s going to drop on my back at any minute,’” Baard said. “And it never happened! The last mile I felt great…I was passing people.” Baard finished in 1:37:02.
He’s sold now on a new approach to training. “From now on,” he said, “less is more for me.”
Is Less Really More?
It’s a nice, uplifting story, but can you really do less training and get the same, or even roughly the same results? When you’re young and more impervious to injury, generally the more mileage you can handle, the better. But what about the multitudes of masters runners with decades of hard training and racing already behind them? Does the value of volume change as we age?
“Regardless of how old a runner is, the single biggest influence on performance is total weekly mileage,” said coach Jason Karp, Ph.D., author of The Inner Runner. “When you get older, however, you take longer to recover. That’s why less may be better, because it can keep you healthier.”
But while cutting total mileage may minimise the impact forces and reduce our chances for injury, simply running fewer kilometres is definitely not a way to improve or even maintain performance.
“If you’re not replacing that with more quality mileage, then you’re doing less of less, and you’ll probably get slower,” Karp said.
“Less is more sounds good and does make sense on some levels,” said Liam Collins, assistant cross country coach. “But how much less do we mean? It can’t mean so much less we’re not doing the basic things we need to do as competitive runners.”
Those things include the time-honoured building blocks of a running program: A long run to build endurance. Some form of high-quality training, such as intervals on the track or roads. Hills for strength. And maybe, if you’re aiming for a goal race, some pace runs to teach your body to hold the level of intensity you’ll be demanding of it on race day.
Let’s say you used to run five days a week, and that one of those was a speed workout and another was a hill workout or a tempo run. If you switch to four running days a week, should you now do three hard workouts per week to compensate for the reduced volume?
“Two high-intensity sessions per week is enough for almost all of us,” said coach Andy DuBois. “Prioritising your sessions to get the most benefits and still recover is the key.”
So, as Mike Baard did, we need to choose our quality workouts with care and with a view toward what we’re training for. For example, Baard eschewed hill repeats because he knew they aggravated his foot.
Consolidating Your Gains
We also need to look beyond running, if we want to keep sharp on less.
Adequate sleep, a good diet, strength training, and alternative forms of cardiovascular exercise all become more important as we age. A 25-year-old runner can probably still run well on a few hours of sleep and a diet that’s rich in beer, pizza, and potato chips. That’s not the case when you’re 45 or 55.
“When we get older our ability to repair is diminished,” said exercise physiologist and coach Carwyn Sharp, Ph.D. “We need more sleep, we need more hydration, we need to make sure we’re getting adequate protein.” As for resistance training, he said, “making your muscles, bones, ligaments, tendons stronger is going to improve your running.”
Bottom line: Reducing total volume is a wise idea for the aging, competitive runner who wants to stay in the game. Making the kilometres count is a sensible way to compensate for that reduction. But making every workout in a trimmed-down program a high-intensity workout is just as likely to lead to injury than if you keep trying to grind out 112 kilometre weeks.
What really might be required in a less-is-more program is more patience and realism.
“You have to have a program that is sustainable,” Sharp said. “A high-volume, high-intensity 12- to 16-week program is not sustainable season after season. But a program with less volume and the right amount of high intensity is likely to fit better into your lifestyle, and you will still see improvements. It just might take a little longer.”
Here are some of the key principles of a less-is-more program for veteran runners.
Do less: Long runs
Do more: Cross-training
Obviously if you’re training for a half-marathon or marathon, you need to do long runs to build your endurance. But perhaps not every week, said coach Liam Collins.
“I think doing the every-other-week long run is a good way to get that ‘more’ from doing a little less,” he said. “And if you’re racing for a 5K maybe you don’t even really need a long run. You can focus more on higher-intensity, V02 max training.”
Instead, try filling in kilometres with minutes. That is, if you’re reducing total mileage to keep running for the haul, add aerobic cross-training time. “You’re not trying to be a triathlete here,” said Loveland, coach and author of Become a Fat-Burning Machine: The 12-Week Diet. “Your purpose for the bike or whatever form of cross-training you choose is to add a little bit of volume on the front end.”
So if you feel you really need a two-hour training run three weeks before a half-marathon, “then run 1:15 or 1:30 and get the remaining minutes on the bike,” said Bernhardt. The cross-training can occur before your run, as an extended warm-up, or immediately after, as a prolonged cooldown.
Do less: Days per week of running
Do more: Quality workouts
Time was, running six or seven days a week was not atypical for a competitive runner, and not just the pros. “A lot of the guys when I started running ran six days a week minimum,” said Mike Baard.
But as total mileage is the single factor most linked with injuries, many of those daily, high-mileage runners ended up getting hurt. The smarter ones began to reduce the number of days they were running—and oftentimes with surprising results.
Nick Panebianco, a coach, has been running three or four days a week for about 15 years. He attributes his success in marathons and ultramarathons to his less-is-more training approach, which includes a weekly long run, a track workout and a tempo run.
“I’m a firm believer in that frequency,” says Panebianco. “I attribute my ability to run on average four sub-4:00 marathons and one ultra per year to the less-is-more-foundation.”
Do less: All-out sprints
Do more: Intermittent intervals
A common tendency is to go all-out on the track, in hopes of building speed. What you really might be doing is setting up yourself for an injury.
“It’s very common for older runners to tear a muscle when they jump into speed work,” said Gabriel Lombriser of Runningcoach.me.
Instead of workouts such as 8 x 400 metres at the top speed you can muster for each interval, try breaking it up like this: Do 200 metres at slightly faster than 5K pace, followed by a 100-metre jog. Repeat that eight times. Do that sequence—8 x 200 metres fast/100 metres slow—a second time; eventually, try building up to a third. Jog for three to five minutes between sets.
“What’s important is that the 200 metres aren’t all-out,” said Lombriser. “The goal is to keep a challenging, but even pace, without putting undue strain on your body.”
Do less: Frequent racing
Do more: Selective racing
Some older runners continue to jump into the local 5K every weekend. “This is my speed work” is often cited as the reason. Bernhardt disagrees with this approach.
“When you use races as training, you lose control,” she said. “Other factors—the other people racing, the course, the event—dictate your day, and you often don’t end up doing the workout you would have if it wasn’t a race.”
Instead, she recommends identifying a few key events, and then choosing tune-up races as part of the build-up to those events. “I think you’re much better off doing that than simply racing a lot,” she said. “Being more strategic about your races generally leads to better results.”
Do less: Whining about diminished speed
Do more: Thinking about how to be the best current you
“We will all lose speed, that’s a fact,” Bernhardt said. “Some will lose more than others. Being strategic about your training will help keep you as fast as possible and keep you enjoying the sport for years to come.”