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As this is quite a complex subject, I handed this over to a far more experienced runner than myself to answer this question. Phil Kilgannon has represented the Irish Masters Cross Country Team and has ten year’s running experience.
Running as with any other training will display a predictable improvement curve, particularly as you increase from little or no training to sustained effort over a period of time. Usually people will do a charity 5 or 10k as a target/dare to start off with. After ‘catching the bug’ and when running becomes a daily endeavour, significant chunks of time will naturally be taken off race times next time around. Frequency and time running will achieve a basic fitness level and prepare the body for more demanding training.
The way in which you train will then determine how much and how fast you progress. If you just meet up with mates and go for a run a couple of times a week, you’re unlikely to progress that much. If you engage in structured training sessions/plans however, then considerable gains are to be made.
There are a variety of training sessions to increase an athlete’s aerobic capacity and push their threshold of endurance. The main ones are:
To address plateauing in training it’s important to understand the utility of each session. Generally there are two tough sessions a week, a long easy run after one (usually on a sunday) to flush out the lactic acid. A good warm up and cool down is important with these as well as stretching. Other runs during the week are steady/easy. Variety of training is important, as different sessions test the body
in different ways and optimal training should combine the different aspects. A training plan should be devised over a period of weeks, 6 for example, usually in preparation for a target race, with a shorter race every 2/3 weeks to sharpen up. Week by week gradually mileage is increased, sessions combined and intensity increased. Again this is done in a very controlled fashion.
Plateauing can happen for a number of reasons. First of all it’s natural to a degree. Big initial increases are great and encouraging but the faster and stronger an athlete becomes the achievable gains correspondingly diminish. To get from 45 to 40 mins for 10k for example is considerably easier than getting from 40 to 35 mins.
This is a time to reflect, not to get frustrated. There is always an explanation for a stagnating performance level. It may just be a matter of time, and patience is important. Great training sessions may not be translating into great races, but fitness is being built and sharpness attained. At some point it should click and a great
performance can come when you’re not expecting it. Maybe you just need to take a break and recharge the batteries.
How much and how fast an athlete improves really depends on how smart they train and how well they learn and apply their experience. A training log is a good way of monitoring what works/doesn’t work well. Some people may not vary their training enough or push themselves hard enough and some may over train. As Einstein said “Madness is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result”.
Diet and lifestyle is also important to supply the right nutrients for energy and recovery. Runners can often become deficient in their iron levels or not take in enough protein. Sometimes a hard work schedule can leave you tired so it’s important to achieve a balance that works for you. If you are feeling lethargic continuously then consult a doctor/nutritionist or at least question why this is the case.
It is important to be aware of your own body - how it responds to training and how it recovers as everyone is different. Take a full rest day each week. Don’t train hard back to back days, take at least 2 days between running sessions, 3 if possible. Quality of training leads to quality in racing. If you’re tired, don’t run hard. Be
conscious of what muscles get strained during certain sessions. Reduce the intensity in that case or adapt/replace the session.
Sometimes people just race badly. Sometimes they learn, sometimes they don’t. Mixing up and building distances is important. A fast 5 k is important for a good 10k, a good 10 k for a half marathon and so on.
If you only race 5k’s, your unlikely to make large gains each time. Motivation is important also and again variety of training/races, training with friends and enjoyment all help.
Dave Brailsford and Team Sky always talk of marginal gains and this is a key concept in sport science. After being involved in a sport for a long period at a high level, you have to work harder to achieve the gains. Core work is fundamental to running as this is where your strength is. If your middle isn’t strong then your running efficiency
is likely to be poor, which can add up to minutes lost. Pilates is a great help with this. Flexibility is extremely important and often neglected by even by very good athletes. A regular stretching routine should be the first consideration in any training or yoga.
Strength training also leads to significant gains by building the power in the muscles and strength in joints and connective tissue. All these measures will make you stronger, faster and prevent injury.
So like anything else in life, you get out of running what you put in. The more holistic approach you take to looking after your body and your training, the better you’ll race.