A 526-word summary: The complete training cycle for road, trail & ultra running

Recently I have posted two excellent interviews with running coach David Roche:

They’re long and rich, but not quick reads. To maximize their value, you might actually have to read them more than once.

So for those just wanting an executive summary, I asked David this question:

In the two interviews we addressed most aspects of the physical training cycle. The goal of the entire process is to prepare your body to perform its best on race day. Could you concisely describe what that entails, by essentially summarizing the distinct elements of the training cycle and what each contributes to peak performance?

The personal factor

Oh man a concise unified theory of training! First, let me get ready…

David puts on his glasses, goes to the whiteboard, and draws a big smiley face.

At its core, any endurance activity requires long-term consistency — at least 10 years to reach full potential for many people. That duration likely has to do with aerobic development and muscle fiber conversion, among other things.

The only way to have the requisite consistency is to love the process. This is the overarching requirement. As a coach, my main goal is to support a love of life and the role that training has in it. Without a long-term commitment, the minutiae of training philosophy is meaningless.

Now, with my usual touchy-feely BS out of the way, onto the minutiae.

Objective & context

Running relies heavily on biomechanical movement patterns that determine running economy, or the energy needed to maintain a given pace. In that way, it is like swimming — cardiovascular ability is meaningless without a musculo-skeletal and neurological system that can use it. Those movement patterns are so important in swimming that almost all swim training starts as sprints, like the classic 100 meter repeats, which reinforce good form.

With running, you can’t train with similar levels of intensity due to the impact forces. (For readers who really want to dig deep, search Igloi training for a philosophy from the 1950s that created Olympic champs using a swimming-like training philosophy.)

Meanwhile, in bike training, movement patterns (i.e. pedal stroke) are less important. Power output is really what matters. Power is determined by cardiovascular ability mixed with specific strength. So bike training involves long, grinding intervals year-round, like 2 x 20 minutes with 5 minutes recovery. Again, most runners can’t train like that due to impact forces. (Although, some coaches have had success with resilient athletes by bringing bike-style workouts to trails.)

The million-dollar question at the root of my training philosophy is this:

  • How can we reinforce the biomechanical and neurological factors that allow a runner to go fast at different levels of exertion, like VO2 max, lactate threshold, and aerobic threshold, and
  • How can we make that speed sustainable for the race distance?

Block 1

We do that by first improving running economy and aerobic base through:

  • Fast strides, and
  • As many miles as an athlete can sustain healthily.

Typical strider workout:

Weekly mileage from February, below. So far in 2017 I have averaged 81 miles per week, or about 11.5 miles per day.

High volume weeks in February, to build a base of endurance.

Block 2

Then, using this enhanced economy, we incorporate short intervals to go faster at VO2 (9-15 minute pace) and Critical Velocity (35-40 minute pace), along with focused long runs to begin preparing for event-specific demands.

Blended VO2 and CV workout:

Early long run with short marathon-specific effort:

Block 3

Finally, we cap it off with some lactate threshold work (60 minute pace) and increased emphasis on the long run, which is the most specific training session for events over half marathon.

Lactate threshold work:

Hard long run:

The taper

In the final weeks before race day, or the biggest race of the season, we fine-tune and freshen up.

Big picture

There is blending along the way, and it varies for each individual.

The core theme of the training cycle is to learn to run faster, and then learn to run faster for longer. In ultras, there is an added step: learning to run faster for a really, really long way.

Rinse, repeat, improve each cycle, and a person can start as a relatively unremarkable runner, and become something extraordinary. The end goal is to work smart enough and happy enough for a long enough time for people to say that your well-earned breakthroughs are just talent.

Posted in on April 8, 2017
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  1. Brian on April 9, 2017 at 1:10 pm

    Thanks for sharing all your work with David Roche. Love these articles. Looking forward to reading your pre-race and post-race write ups, as well.

  2. David on April 12, 2017 at 6:54 pm

    Andrew, sorry for the confusion in posting my question on the wrong post. This is the context I was trying to ask about “minute pace”:

    we incorporate short intervals to go faster at VO2 (9-15 minute pace) and Critical Velocity (35-40 minute pace)”.

    Good luck on Monday!

    • Andrew Skurka on April 13, 2017 at 10:33 am

      Oh, I see. It’s a reference to the *duration* for which a certain pace could be kept. VO2 pace can be kept for 9-15 minutes; CV pace for 35-40 minutes; marathon pace for 2.5 hours, etc.

      Each category of pace works different body systems. VO2, for example, hits anaerobic systems. While Lactate Threshold (which is about hour pace I think) is right on the cusp between aerobic/anaerobic.

      • David on April 14, 2017 at 5:41 am

        Ah, thanks, understood.

  3. Scott on April 23, 2017 at 8:35 am

    Totally dig it, Andrew – thanks for your blog posts with David.

    Can you comment on how you think how David’s approach works – or doesn’t – with MAF heart rate based training?

    Great work at Boston – loved seeing your performance after having an idea of your training.

    • Andrew Skurka on April 23, 2017 at 9:02 am

      MAF has never come up between us, but I think there is some shared beliefs between them. Maffetone seems to have a greater focus on metabolic efficiency; David is more focused on fast performances. But David knows the importance of metabolic efficiency in training. For example, he is insistent that easy days be easy (most of mine have HR’s in mid- or high-130’s, which is well below my MAF number of 149). And some of his long run workouts (e.g. 24 with 16 at marathon pace) were specifically designed to delay a glycogen bonk on race day.

  4. Ben on April 30, 2017 at 7:04 pm

    The Strava links aren’t working for me on mobile. I’ve given direct links (with workout stats) below. Thanks!

    Block 1 Typical strider workout
    Easy (13.3 mi) with 12 x 20sec striders on 40sec recovery

    Block 2 Blended VO2 (9-15min pace) and Critical Velocity (35-40min pace)
    14.9mi, 15 x 2-min (@5-5:30/mi) with 1-min running rest || 7.5 mi @ 5:51 pace & 161 bpm avg

    Early long run with short marathon-specific effort:
    20-mi Long Run with 6 @ MP (5:53, 158bpm) // 6:21 avg, 148 bpm

    Block 3
    Lactate threshold (60min pace)
    30-min @ 5:26 + 3 x 5-min at 5:08 avg
    30 min @ 5:26 pace (166 bpm, 125/250 vert up/down)
    5-min rest
    3 x 5-min efforts on flats @ 5:07 (161 bpm), 5:14 (162 bpm), and 5:03 (164 bpm)
    2-min rest between efforts

    Hard long run:
    16 @ MP || 5:49 pace, 157 bpm, 500′ +/-

  5. Derick on March 24, 2019 at 8:40 am

    Andrew and David, thank you for sharing this. It is excellent reading. About how many weeks should each of these blocks last? Let’s say for a 24 hour race. I’d stick around to hear your answer, but I have to go by David’s book now. Thank you very much.

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