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Finding Your Sweet Spot Maximal vs. optimal adaptation rate

By Greg McMillan, M.S. As featured in the November 2010 issue of Running Times Magazine

How many times has this happened to you? You perform incredible workouts but your racing performances are disappointments. You train harder only to race even poorer. You begin to ride the highs and lows of an emotional roller coaster. You're confused and frustrated and begin to search for the latest and greatest training method that will help you. Often, what you really need is to understand a simple training concept, one that will put your training back on track and open the possibility of new PRs.

When training results outpace racing results, the training is too hard. You're asking your body to adapt at a greater rate than is possible. You can maintain your intense training regimen for a short while, but something has to give eventually, and in the end your too-hard routine is your downfall. (See "Coach's Notes" below for signs of if you've fallen into this trap.)

Great runners and coaches have learned how to avoid this disastrous scenario. They recognize that each runner has two rates of adaptation: a maximal rate and an optimal rate. Adaptation is defined as the physiological and psychological changes that allow us to perform better.

The maximal adaptation rate occurs when your body is adapting as fast as possible to the stresses you put on it. It summons all its resources to build new blood-delivering capillaries, energy-producing mitochondria, and stronger muscles and tendons. But adapting at the maximal rate requires that your body be stressed to its limit. Over time you're bound to push past that limit and get injured or burned out and perform poorly.

The optimal rate of adaptation, on the other hand, occurs when the body is stressed to a tolerable level, allowing it time to adapt without having to draw on every ounce of its physical and mental reserves. It gradually adapts and is at far less risk for injury or burnout. At the end of a training run you feel pleasantly fatigued but also know that you could have done a little more.

Thus, the challenge during speed work is not to give the old 110 percent, or even 100 percent -- it's to train at around 90 percent. Great coaches such as Arthur Lydiard, David Martin, Bob Larsen and Bill Squires advocate this method of "controlled" training. You'll find that your body is never overstressed and adapts gradually but progressively, always leaving you hungry for more. A little control will make training more enjoyable and lead to greater overall improvement and, most importantly, better race performance. I call it finding your sweet spot in training. Once you do, you'll never have so much fun with your running.

Consider Brian, a non-elite but ambitious runner I coach. Brian is a naturally competitive person. His drive and tenacity helped him become very successful in the medical sales industry. He carried this same drive into his running but quickly hit a plateau. He worked harder. Got slower. Worked even harder. Got even slower. Like many driven runners, he constantly tried to "beat" the training paces from my online training pace calculator.

I saw Brian's pattern early in our coaching relationship and knew he was training maximally, not optimally. It was a tough change to back off slightly in workouts, but he soon started setting PRs at every distance. He's now qualified for Boston and blows away his rivals from just a year ago. Brian is the perfect example of finding a sweet spot in training. Challenge yourself just enough but not too much, and you'll race well. Push yourself to the max in every run and workout, and you'll soon get injured or see your performances level off . Brian learned to control himself in training and now has his sights set on a new PR at Boston.

As someone who has suffered through the maximal training scenario far too many times in my running career, I'm committed to controlling my excitement and training optimally, not maximally. Shouldn't you commit to doing the same? 


COACH'S NOTES:

MAXIMAL TRAINING RED FLAGS

Training results outpace racing results.

Injuries pop up suddenly after you feel you're in super shape.

A string of poor workouts interrupts your string of amazing workouts.

Your racing performances quickly plateau and you feel "stuck" at a certain pace.

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The information contained in the preceding story may not be published, broadcast or otherwise distributed without the prior written authority of McMillan Running Company, Inc.
© 1999-2014 Greg McMillan

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