Book Review: Training Essentials for Ultrarunning by Jason Koop

Discussion in 'Product Reviews' started by Jaqa, Mar 28, 2017.

  1. Jaqa

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    Sep 9, 2015
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    Here is my short book review of Training Essentials for Ultrarunning by Jason Koop and a longer review of the effect on me.

    While more geared to ultrarunning, the book has solid principals for shorter distances and I used it for marathon training.

    Jason Koop writes in an easy to read style, slightly marred by excessive anecdotes but these are highlighted inserts so can be skipped on a second reading. He is a sports scientist and coach, having worked with some top names in the USA ultrarunning scene.

    I like to think that he is at the next wave of distance running where speed is becoming very important rather than sheer endurance. The main principals of his approach is the following:-

    1. To run fast, you have to run faster
    2. Do your weakest part of running first in the training program, and your strongest last.
    3. Do your hardest sessions first in the training block, when you are fresh, to get the most benefit.
    4. Be specific in each block in what part of your physiological being you are training.
    5. Train for your event in terms of inclines and terrain.

    What this means in practice for the average long distance runner is that most of us are weak in top speed. Our VO2 Max is just above lactic acid threshold, which is just above our sustainable pace. So to lift our race pace (sustainable pace) we have to lift our lactic acid threshold and to lift that, we have to lift our VO2 Max.

    So, we start by lifting our VO2 Max first (block #1). This involved for me a 2x 4 week block following the usual wave model except the hardest session are the beginning of the week and at the beginning of each 4 week cycle. This meant 2 or 3 track or hill sessions a week with each "sprint" between 1 - 3 minutes and total time at intensity not exceeding 24 minutes. Average sessions looked like 8x3min, 10x2min or 15x1min. Recovery between sets was equal to the time taken for that set. Intensity was maximum effort. There was no pacing, or thinking about the next set. Obviously the speed for 1 minute was faster than 3 minutes but by the end of each set you should be totally stuffed. It does take some time to work up to the ability to kill yourself on a 1 minute set as muscles and nerves need to develop but it is much faster than you think, like 2 weeks. With warm up and cool down and running gently between sets (OK, more like shuffling!) each session is about 75-90 minutes. If you can do back to back sessions, try them. Recovery runs on the days between hard days are vital and I really have learnt how to run slow and to keep them to 50 minutes maximum. If I went to harder on recovery days I could not do the next work out day properly and often felt nauseous.

    Each cycle was 3 weeks on and the 4th week gentle with maybe some short high intensity work but just enough to keep the legs fresh. I learnt to take the easy weeks easy as the first 2 easy weeks I went out and did too many "fun" runs as this program does not allow that many of those 10-15km steady state, "spinning away" runs that most runners usually do every day.

    On the weekend was the usual long run which I adapted to my distance, a full marathon, with increasing distances over the 3 weeks and gentle on the 4th week. For me it was approximately 25, 30, 35 km's and then an easy 20km's. This follows throughout the whole 6 month block for me.

    Limit running throughout block to 6 running days a week. One day total rest.

    Block #2 was Tempos. Same 2 to 3 sessions as above except now each set was between 8 to 20 minutes and no more than 60 minutes at intensity, with rest half the time of the set. So sessions looked like 3x20min, 4x10min, 5x8min. The intensity for tempo is more difficult to gauge than just sheer max effort. Luckily Jason Koop uses a perceived effort scale which is much easier to follow than some algorithmic heart rate or pace matrix, because some days you just feel different. Tempo was defined at the effort just below where your breathing gets short and rapid, so if you felt that you backed off slightly. It was pretty easy to find that point after a couple of sessions and your body recognized the effort required even if you felt weaker or stronger that day.

    The same as block #1 for recovery runs, days off, long runs etc. As well as hardest sessions first in the week and first in each 4 week cycle.

    Block #3, which I have not got to yet, works sustainable running speed which is between 1 and 4 hour runs at your desired race pace, 3 to 4 per week. The rest the same as above. I can't comment much here as I have done it yet but am looking forward to it.

    So after 3+ months of doing this, I have seen a 12% increase in speed across all distances from 1 min to a full marathon. It has been very hard but at the same time very rewarding as progress has been fast and I have surprised myself on an almost weekly basis at the results, sometimes it was not how fast but how long at very low pulse rates I could go.

    I kept the training program so simple that it was never written down like the usual programs I have done. One thing I really enjoyed was there is no training program given in the book, rather it is about training principles and concepts and how to design your own program. I used a 4 week cycle but might change that for block #1 to a harder shorter 3 week cycle next time.

    In terms of cross training, it was difficult as the sessions are truly hard, but on hard days I tried to do strength training in the afternoon (I run early mornings) using body weight exercises. Mostly under 10 rep things like pull-ups, pistol squats, dips, Nordic/Russian curls and lots of plank. Recovery run days I would try for a swim for 30-60 minutes. Block #2, tempos, really knock you sideways, be prepared for some big dips in energy.

    The book also goes into great length about nutrition, energy pathways, how your muscles work at different speeds and inclines, strategies for racing etc etc. All very good stuff! From previous knowledge it seems this part is very up-to-date with best practice but obviously nutrition can be very contentious so go with what works for you.

    My single best thing from the book, besides getting faster and stronger obviously, was I knew why I was doing each and every run, even the recovery runs. There was clear purpose and when I did not follow the guidelines and just ran, I usually paid the price later in the week. And, not being so rigid, I did not feel bad when I could not finish a session. Make no mistake, the sessions are hard but if you follow the principals it is never to the point of breaking your body and getting injured, which did not happen to me once, but I have never felt so relieved to get to a rest day or week, and then never so happy to get stuck into a hard hill session again.

    Definitely the best training running book I have read.

    (Edit: The assumption is that you are fit before starting. I had just come off a 5 month marathon training program with the marathon in December)
    Barefoot TJ likes this.

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