Why is this important?
There is a perception our society in general but more specifically our sport that success is something you are born to. That the few lucky ones have the gift and simply need to show up and do the same work as the rest of us and they will run like wild horses. The reason for this is simple we have all gone out and run with a group, be it a middle school, high school, college or club team and we have all seen someone in that group improve much faster and to much greater levels than the rest of the group and ourselves particularly. So obviously there was something about them that was special that equaled success. Well yes and no.
I believe if there is one important lesson that I have learned over all others it is that this success is not because that person is inherently a better runner than the rest of the group but because they are for one reason or another better suited to that specific training plan. It may be they have a different athletic background that makes them more likely to succeed under this type of training or that the training is better suited to their physical make up. This doesn't even mean this is the best training for them. It means simply that they perform better in that system than others do.
Put another way I read a study once that said that individuals with the genetic make up to make it to an Olympic level were 1/100 individuals. They were outliers for sure. Thing is Olympians are 1/1,000,000.
So what separated out the 1 Olympian from the 10,000 others who had the genetic gifts needed?
Training! This does not mean that if you are not a 1/100 individual and you train right you will be an Olympian what it means is that if you train right you can beat 99% of everyone else out there and you can massively exceed your current expectations.
There are many ways to train and many details to be attended to and what follows is not meant to be a comprehensive plan in anyway. Instead it is just a few of the MOST IMPORTANT keystones I have learned over the last 20 years. I have learned many the hard way through trial and error, through failure and success but I have learned a few the easy way, from reading in books or on the web just like you are doing now so it seems only fair that I return the favor and try to help someone else take the more direct path to success as others helped me.
#1 Always have process goals as well as performance goals
A huge part of training success is tied up in making sure your training is really building towards the performance you want. A lot of things can cause us to not hit a performance goal or to massively exceed it and yet they may not all be a sign that our process was correct or incorrect. For example I might train very well for a certain race with the goal of running a certain time. I may be physically, mentally and emotionally ready for that time. But on race day there are 40mph winds ripping across the track and I fall short of my goal time. Does this mean my season was a failure? Does this mean I should scrap all the training I have done in this cycle because the performance did not meet my set goal? No of course not. It is my position that the process goals come first. The reason is simple too many things we cannot control can impact performance goals, not the least of which is we tend to set unrealistic performance goals, but very few things we cannot control effect our process goals. Also if you set and achieve good process goals you will see performance success sooner or later. If you are hitting your process goals and consistently not achieving performance success than your process goals need to be changed or your process needs to be changed.
#2 Train all the Systems
Your body is not a simple machine. It does not have one speed or one energy system. You have your alatic system for short bursts, your aerobic system for nearly everything, your muscular system to power your actions, your anaerobic system to wring out the last potential of your system when your aerobic system has been found wanting. During EVERY week of training you should be training EVERY one of these systems. In differing amounts depending on your goals and where your training is at the moment. But if at the end of a given week you can't answer yes when asked if you sprinted, ran easily, ran hard, ran quickly but not hard, ran/exercised explosively, then you need to view that week as lacking. There are dozens of ways to approach these problems but too often runners who consider themselves seriously are doing a lot of running but they are not TRAINING. Learning the difference is one of the most important things you can do for yourself.
#3 The key to running great is to run fast AND relaxed
My number 1 pet peeve with how most of us Americans train is that we have tied fast and hard together like they are the same thing when it comes to running. This is the biggest mistake you can make. The world record for 5000m is 12:37 seconds that is 60.5 per 400m. Almost exactly 15mph. This is very fast. In the closing stages of the race Kenenisa Bekele was working very hard when he set it but for the vast majority of that run he was NOT WORKING HARD! Our bodies learn what we teach them and if you are constantly teaching your body to run HARD in workouts then you expect it to float along easily with great control in races at a quick pace you are setting yourself up for failure. You must train to run fast and relaxed. This may mean strides, or tempo running or progressions or float intervals or alternations. In fact it should mean all of those but none of them will work if you don't understand and embrace the idea that you need to be focusing on running fast and RELAXED at the same time. This doesn't mean you should never hurt. Far from it. It does mean you need to learn to only hurt when you need to. A real life example during my senior year in HS I regularly did 8x400m repeats. Early in the year when I started I ran this session and averaged just over 70s per 400. That is two miles of work in 9:20. At that point I had run 2 miles in around 10:02 seconds. By the end of the year I had improved the 8x400m workout to averaging just over 60s per 400m, 8:00 for two miles work. An incredible improvement of 1:20 for two miles work. In the same time frame I improved my 2 mile race time down to 9:47 seconds. There was no doubt I was fitter but I had improved only 15 seconds in what mattered to me and in workouts which were not my goal, not my focus I had improved by eight times as much. The training I was doing was VERY HARD. The training I was doing did a GREAT job of improving my body and my abilities but I WAS NOT IMPROVING IN THE WAY I WANTED TO! Years later I would run a 5k early in a season at 14:30 seconds and around the same time I would run 12x400m in 67 seconds. At the end of the season I ran 6x800m in 2:13 only a small improvement on my early season workout, at least at first glance, but I ran 13:56 for 5000m. I was improving where I wanted to improve. Where it mattered.
#4 Train Specifically
My final main focus is that you should always be training specifically. Each workout should have goal that it is to accomplish. For the fast majority of your workouts this goal is small and in many ways it will seem a long way from your overall goal. They are each but a drop in the proverbial bucket. Still you must make sure they are putting water in the right bucket. You are not going to do one workout and go from running 16:00 for 5k to running 15:00 for 5k. What you can do is look at what you need to be able to do to run 5k in 15:00 and say what type of workouts would a 15:00 5k runner need to do. What physical skills would a runner at that level need to possess and then look at those workouts and see at what level you can perform them. Invariably the 16:00 5k runner will be able to perform some of those things and not be able to perform others. First you set out to build the physical characteristics of a 15:00 5k runner. A 5000 run in 15:00 is 72 seconds per 400m. A 16:00 runner can certainly do 5000m of work at that pace if provided enough rests, be that 12x400 with 200jogs or 4x200 with 200 jogs you will be able to do that work. The big challenge will be teaching your body to do the work without the rests. How? Your workouts should target the areas of fitness you need to eliminate the rests first. In this case the aerobic endurance to be able to send enough oxygen via the blood to the muscles to maintain that speed longer and the muscular efficiency to run that speed in a more relaxed fashion. So early on you should be doing lots of strides and short reps at faster than 5k pace with full recovery. At the same time you should be improving your latic threshold through tempo runs, alternations and the like. When you reach a point where you can do basic speed work and tempo runs like a 15:00 5k runner would then you must set out to build your race. Do a fairly easy 5k specific workout 12x400m with 200m jogs. The pace should be exactly your goal pace. Every week or two you should repeat this workout but always improve it towards your goal. Remember your goal is not to run 12x400m faster than 72 per 400. Your goal is to run 72per 400 for 5000m without any rests. So each week your reps should be getting longer and your rests should be staying the same, getting faster or getting shorter. If you follow this pattern eventually you can't help but hit your goal. For me I know when I can run 6x800m with a steady 200 jog rest I am ready to hit that pace in a race. I have a friend who is better at workouts and he needs to be able to do 3xmile at 5k pace with 200m jog to be ready to hit that time in a race. Point is if you keep lengthening the rep and shortening the rest eventually you have to get to 1x5000m at goal 5000m pace. In comparison if you just keep improving your 400's repeat speed in your 12x400m with 200 jog there is no guarantee that you will race faster over 5000m. Logically if you do get down to 12x400 in 60 or 55 or 50 you will see some improvement in your 5k time but there is no way to assure it is the improvement you want. You want SPECIFIC things in your running. You need to train SPECIFICALLY for them.