Running vs. training

Over the weekend, I had occasion to give some thought to the real, yet hard to define, difference between merely running and actually training the run. Early this morning, I was pleasantly surprised to read that Vern Gambetta had beaten me to the punch with a blog based on the same topic:

While Gambetta’s observations were spurred by watching a variety of age groups and skill levels at a swim practice, I am often reminded of the presence of a learning curve, or evolutionary continuum, in training when observing the athletes in our program here at UC Davis on a daily basis. Comparing our routine with many of the tales I hear through the recruiting process, and them again when frosh arrive on campus each fall, merely serves to underscore the existence of a true split between running and training.

In truth, there is no measurable component that defines the line between a run and a training session, and rather than rewrite Gambetta’s blog I will try simply to offer an additional point or two to the discussion.

I too believe that a good coach or educated bystander can discern the difference between true training and recreational running simply by observing an athlete. I also think that a good athlete should be able to employ an internal measure to tell whether he or she is engaging at a level that properly stresses the body without doing either too much or too little. Many developing athletes struggle to strike this balance and end up under or overtraining a workout, and that makes this internal governor a key element to reaching your training potential.

Although perhaps it only further muddies the subjective waters, I also believe that an athlete’s mindset and approach go a long way toward dictating whether the body (and mind) are undergoing real and useful training during any session. We have all seen athletes that let the workout ‘beat them,’ often times before it has even begun. An athlete that is excited about training and ready to apply him/herself will gain more from a session than one merely going through the motions. Here again, a coach can play a pivotal role in the process, but it is the athlete that must exert final control over the mental side.

A final point to which I have been giving a lot it thought recently surrounds an issue that Toby Tanser touches on in his book More Fire (, which offers a lot of valuable insight into the background of the Kenyan Way of training. Tanser talks about the tendency of the Kenyans to do more on days that they feel good and can reasonably increase the workload while also dropping out of runs and workouts once there is nothing productive to be gained. This is a notion that defies the strict structure and control that may coaches feel necessary when prescribing training or facilitating a workout, and I can truly see the value of both the Kenyan practice and the need to stick to the plan as written. Here again, I think that age and experience are the keys to allowing an athlete more autonomy in terms of how a training session can take a different form than what is down on paper. Each day should have a purpose, but we also want athletes to learn their own limits, and I have begun to consider more ways to help stimulate this process through workout design.

Gambetta aptly hits on a central element when he cites the importance of getting comfortable being uncomfortable. Any athlete can get to this stage, but it is only a true master of his/her craft that can embrace dwelling outside the comfort zone properly and when it counts – at the late and critical stages of a workbout, and then hopefully in a race.

Maybe like me, you will share in the feeling that too many of your days involve simply fitting a run in instead of completing a session with a true purpose. Then again, I don’t earn my living with my legs, but rather based on what others can do with theirs, and most days simply getting out the door has to suffice for this coach.


About Drew Wartenburg

Director of Cross Country/Track & Field at UC Davis
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