I’m often asked, “What is training the McMillan way?” Since all of our training plans are built to match the uniqueness of each individual runner, the answer isn’t as simple as high mileage or low mileage, endurance first then speed or speed first then endurance or any of the other categories that runners use for training systems.
That said there are a few key principles that inform McMillan training; no matter if it is for a new runner, age grouper or Olympian.
#1) Training Readiness
This is a big one and why it’s the first principle in the McMillan system. I learned it from the great Arthur Lydiard who figured out that it isn’t that we don’t know the best training for athletes. The problem is that runners aren’t prepared (physically and mentally) to complete that training. So, the idea is that you need to “do the training so you can do the training so you can finally do the training” to achieve your race goal.
In the McMillan system, we identify the training that athletes need to do in order to reach their goals, and then we figure out if they are ready for that training. Because most athletes are trying to go to a next level in fitness (no one yet has said they aren’t interested in running faster), they usually aren’t quite ready for training at their goal level. So, we design a preparatory training phase (or phases) to get the athlete ready for their race-specific training. These preparatory phases can look very different depending on the athlete. Some athletes need to spend more time working on basic fitness (endurance, stamina and running form). Some need to develop a stronger and more resilient set of legs (through run training and/or non-run exercises). Some need to build up their speed so they can then carry this new speed to longer distances. Some need a totally different approach. Again, it’s all about preparedness for the race-specific work, whatever that is for you.
When done correctly, the athlete arrives at the most important training (the race-specific work, usually 6-8 weeks before the race) ready to get more from this critical training period. Just as Lydiard found long ago, this idea leads to better prepared athletes who can do better quality training to reach a fitness peak just at the right time – race time!
An athlete’s training is built with this concept as the base – get fit to get fit to do the best training that will deliver the best race performance. Simple concept but it requires a skillful eye to spot limitations as well as opportunities to help the athlete make a big jump in performance.
#2) Optimized and Evolving Training Load
The second idea, training volume or “mileage”, is one I’m always hesitant to talk about. I think it’s because I don’t see it in the black and white terms that many do. I can never agree that you must run X miles per week in order to achieve X goal. I guess it’s because I coach a very diverse group of athletes. I have athletes who run 15 miles per week and have some that max out at 150 miles per week. I have athletes (same gender and age) who have BQ’d on 30 miles per week and some that needed 50 to do it. Again, it flows from Principle #1 where it’s all about where the athlete is and how to prepare them for the work to achieve their goal. Different athletes, same goal, different mileage. Hard to be firm given that everyone’s situation is different (work load, time availability, injury risk, etc.)
One thing I am happy to talk about though is optimized training load and advancement of that mileage across a training cycle. First, the best mileage for you is one that fits within your life schedule and keeps you healthy. That last part is critically important. It does you no good to be the fittest spectator at the race.
In the McMillan system, we work to find a mileage that is within your capabilities. If the current mileage seems to fit your life and keep you healthy and provides enough training to achieve your goals then we don’t change it (though it may fluctuate to allow for recovery weeks).
If, however, you need to boost your aerobic fitness or to challenge your legs with longer runs, then we plan out an increase in mileage. As with everything, there must be thought put into the increase in mileage – not just on how it will boost your fitness but how your body will tolerate it. So, step one is to figure out the optimal mileage for you. Then, step two is to determine if it needs to change or not based on your goals. If it does need to change, then we plan out how it will change from week to week. That’s the optimized training load part.
Evolving the training load takes some knowhow and experience. Some runners can advance their mileage quickly with no problems. Others may need a slower increase. In both cases, recovery weeks every 2-4 weeks are usually inserted just to make sure the body never gets too stressed and at risk for injury. Some mileage increases are “permanent” so that you will be at a new level most of the year. Some are just mileage phases where a higher mileage is done for a period of time then the mileage is reduced back to the “normal” level.
Again, it’s all about helping you perform the best race-specific training (the last 6-8 weeks before your goal race) so you race your best. When done correctly, the mileage is optimized to best fit the runner and is evolved across the training cycle based on the athlete’s needs. It certainly helps having so much experience with different athletes. I feel I can quickly get a feel for optimal mileage and how we may want to modulate it.
#3) Gradual Adaptation & Planned Progression
Principle #3 gets at how fitness improves mentally and physically. Every runner knows how it works. You stress the body and mind with training then give it some recovery and it will not only recover from the stress but will build in a way to better tolerate that stress in the future. Do this over and over again – stress, rest, stress, rest – and you can change your fitness in a nice predictable way.
Of course, if you get the stress/rest cycle out of balance – too much stress and/or too little rest then you will end up injured, ill or unmotivated. A big part of a McMillan training program is an understanding of how this process works (having a degree in exercise physiology certainly helps) and how to best manipulate the stress and rest to help the athlete get the desired gains in the desired timeframe, especially if the athlete is an older runner where the stress/rest cycle may be changing.
That leads to the other part of this principle and one that many don’t consider enough in my opinion. Training isn’t just about getting as fit as you possibly can as quickly as you can. It’s about reaching peak fitness at the right time – race time.
Again, it takes a skilled hand to plan the fitness improvement – mostly advancing it but sometimes tempering it – so that everything comes together on race day and not 1, 2 or 3 weeks before. Doing so requires a proper understanding of how training builds mental and physical fitness, as well as knowledge of how to increase or just maintain fitness increases, so that the mind and the body are perfectly peaked for your goal race. This is a key part of the McMillan system.
#4) Variety for Maximum Fitness boost
When I was getting my degree in exercise physiology, I learned that the number one determinant of distance running performance was the speed at the lactate threshold. So, I decided that’s what I wanted to study since ultimately, I’m interested in helping people improve their running performance.
As mentioned before if you stress the body in certain ways, it will adapt in certain ways. For example, if you want to improve your lactate threshold pace, then you can run workouts at your lactate threshold and the body will adapt so that your lactate threshold pace is faster. Simple concept and you see this play out in the training plans of most runners. Case in point, most runners know of the most common stamina or threshold workout, the Tempo Run – a medium-hard run lasting 15-40 minutes – and include it regularly in their programs as a way to increase their stamina.
But, it’s not so simple. My literature review in my graduate work and in conversations with expert coaches and successful athletes shows that while you can get benefits from this type of repeated workout, you can actually get faster and better results if you add variety to the stimulus. Using our stamina workout example, you’ll get better results if you include workouts AT your lactate threshold (tempo run) but also some that are just slightly slower than your threshold and some that are slightly faster than your threshold. This slight change in variety keeps the body adapting. That’s why McMillan training plans have a lot of variety within each training zone, particularly the Stamina, Speed and Sprint Zones.
Not only is this variety helpful physically but I find that athletes prefer variety to repeating the same workouts over and over and over again.
#5) Race Ready Specificity
Ultimately, of course, the proof is in the pudding – race results. The final Principle in the McMillan system is that you must be prepared to handle the demands and limitations of your chosen race distance. For example, a 10K stresses the body and mind differently than a half-marathon and certainly differently than a marathon. And, the mental and physical aspects that limit performance in those events vary as well. Training must specifically address these. Our deep understanding of every event from 800 meters to 100 miles, allows McMillan training programs to give you an edge when race day arrives.
The final component of the McMillan system that helps achieve the goal of race readiness is an analysis of each individual runner (our Personal Running Evaluation). This evaluation teases out unique physical and mental traits and provides the final insight needed to design the absolute best training program that adheres to all the principles and results in a faster you.
I’m so pleased that the system, learned from so many of the greatest coaches and athletes in our sport as well as from a thorough understanding of exercise science, helps so many runners succeed. The results speak for themselves so if you have an important goal and are ready to work hard yet smart toward it, we’re here for you.
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