The last weeks prior to an important race event are crucial. Use the wrong training strategy, and all the hard work is lost. Manage your training the right way and you’ll boost your performance by a few percent. In this use case, Benjamin Tilus, National Champion Coach and Founder of XLR8 Performance Lab, shares how to tailor your training prior to racing, based on athletes’ unique metabolic profile. Although he talks about running, his approach can be translated to all endurance sports.
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Challenging the status quo: pyramidal model
A very common way to prepare yourself for a big race event is the pyramidal training model: you start the training program with “base training” (long slow distance training) and slowly transition to shorter, high intensity training in the last weeks prior to race day.
This pyramidal training method, introduced by running coach Arthur Lydiard, is built on the idea that you should first increase your aerobic base, using “base miles” or aerobic training. Only once this fundament is finished, you can add building blocks (hence the pyramid). For instance by decreasing volume and increasing intensity, with tempo and threshold work. Eventually you can add short HIIT training.
*This pyramidal model from Arthur Lydiard should not be confused with the pyramid training model we wrote about earlier. In fact, they contradict each other. The pyramid of Arthur Lydiard (this article) describes a way to periodize towards a race: you first do base training for a couple of weeks, then switch to threshold training for a couple of weeks, etc. The pyramid training model we talked about in another article describes how to (constantly) distribute training intensities in your training program.
If you’re eager to dive deeper into the polarized and pyramidal training methods, then we have indispensable resources for you.
Download our comprehensive E-Book, titled ‘Mistakes You Need To Avoid When Using A Training Method | INSCYD X AZUM’, provides expert strategies, insights from elite coaches, and practical tips.
You can also watch our insightful webinar that delves deeper into the three-zone and five-zone models, polarized and pyramidal training methods.
Although this pyramid makes sense at first, not in the least because it visually looks like a strong structure, we found that it doesn’t work for all types of athletes. Some coaches even experimented with inverting the pyramid into a reverse pyramid training strategy, starting with low volume high intensity training, and slowly moving to high volume low intensity training.
In this use case article, I will show you how we used a totally new and revolutionary approach that led to the US National title. I will call this approach the “hourglass” model. But before we dive into the theory and application of this model, let me first share exactly how we prepared for this win.
Spoiler: none of the race prep models is a one-size-fits-all, it depends on the type of athlete.
Example: US National title
A 17-year old female runner in our group won the US High School National title in the 12th fastest high school time in US history. Her 16:04 for 5000 meters (03:13 min:sec/km | 5.2 m/s) is a new facility record by a high school runner at the historic Hayward Field in Eugene, OR.
If you want to run your best 5k ever, Ben shares secrets on how to train for and run a 5k, suitable for both beginners and pros.
Learn more about why the best running coaches look beyond VO2max – by also measuring VLamax – in Ben Tilus’ article: WHY THE BEST TRACK AND FIELD RUNNING COACHES LOOK BEYOND VO2MAX
During races, you notice this aerobic profile when you look at her pace: she basically runs a 3000m (PR: 9:25) at the same pace as an 800m (PR: 2:18).
This metabolic profile was ideal for her big goal: the US High School National 5000m.
However, 4 weeks prior to this race, she also wanted to go for a state record in a 1-mile race (1609m), which is a totally different effort. For this 1-mile race, she needed to increase her anaerobic power (VLamax).
So, after completing a 10-week phase of high volume/low anaerobic training, we spent 6 weeks focused on increasing VLamax, doing interval training with 20-45s intervals. According to the pyramid race preparation model, this type of training should only take place in the weeks prior to the big event (5k). Due to her race calendar, we did it in the middle of her mesocycle (20-week build-up). Because her metabolic profile does not allow her to handle high volumes of this type of training, her overall training volume was also reduced.
These interval training workouts increased her VLamax from 0.27 mmol/l/s (very low) to 0.47 mmol/l/s (medium), which is an increase of +74%. It also increased her maximum lactate concentration (tolerance) by 50%. As a result, she ran a 1-mile PR in 4:43, over 10 sec faster than she was running with her lower anaerobic power earlier in the season. She used this profile to also win the state 1500 and 3000 meter titles in record times.
Increasing VLamax (anaerobic power)
End of week 6
1-mile race: personal record
Aerobic training, only microdosing intervals
End of week 10
5k race: National title
Table 1: the 10-week plan leading up to the 5000m National title
With only 4 weeks left before the important 5k race, we immediately switched back to her normal training regimen: plenty of aerobic zone 2 work (“sweetspot training”), with only a few intervals every now and then. See table 1 for an overview of the last 10 weeks before the 5k race.
If you would visualize the full preparation, it would look something like an hourglass.
During her 5k race she went through the 3k mark at 9:30, while her 3k PR is 9:25. This again shows her pure aerobic profile. Eventually, her race prep resulted in a historic 5k National title in 16:04. Apparently the hourglass model paid off!
Every athlete is unique, and so should be their training. As demonstrated in the hourglass model, understanding an athlete’s metabolic profile is the key to unlocking their full potential. If you’re a coach looking to elevate your athletes’ performance, it’s time to delve deeper into their physiology. INSCYD offers a revolutionary approach to understanding an athlete’s strengths and weaknesses, guiding tailored training programs for optimal results.
If you’re interested in exploring the revolutionary “hourglass” model further, join our webinar with Benjamin Tilus. This session will delve deep into the nuances of tailoring training based on metabolic profiles, differentiating between aerobic and anaerobic athletes, and much more. Equip yourself with the knowledge to elevate your coaching and training methodologies.
Now before you copy paste this race preparation model, the success of it depends on the type of athlete. Here’s why:
Muscle fiber type distribution determines race preparation
In my experience, the type of athlete determines the race preparation.
Race preparation for aerobic athletes
Our example runner is a pure aerobic athlete. If we would implement the conventional pyramid model, she would peak her season focussing on something she’s not designed to be successful at: anaerobic interval training.
During these last weeks prior to a race, her training would target only a small percentage of her muscle fibers: fast twitch fibers, of which she doesn’t have many. Metaphorically speaking, she would be running on one leg. She would not feel good in training, potentially even hurt her aerobic base by overcooking her mitochondria with too intense training. Or worse: get sick.
That’s why an hourglass model suits aerobic profile athletes better. Now you might wonder: why add any anaerobic work at all?
- In our case the 1-mile race on the schedule made us do the anaerobic work. I think it was beneficial because it does make you train at race pace (or even a bit faster). You get used to a high running speed.
- The switch to anaerobic focus was also used as a short-term switch-up in training to stimulate improved economy at race pace, increase VO2 uptake at race pace, and to increase the ability to tolerate higher levels of maximum lactate concentration in the blood (her max concentration in testing went up by nearly 30%!).
You do have to make sure to give your aerobic athlete plenty of time to recover between those anaerobic intervals. Both during the workout (e.g. 20 minutes) and in between workouts. That is because the body of an aerobic profile athlete has few fast-twitch muscle fibers and they will quickly get overworked with the sudden increase in utilization. The athlete may even need up to a week to fully anaerobically recover from a hard/explosive interval session (they can still train aerobically during the recovery between sessions).
Race preparations for anaerobic athletes
For a more fast twitch (type II) dominant athlete, the conventional pyramid model could theoretically make more sense. At least the last few weeks. But for these athletes, doing a lot of aerobic work in the beginning of the program might not be effective.
Again, these anaerobic athletes would be “running on one leg” if they do long slow distance training. That is because they don’t have a lot of aerobic muscle fibers (slow twitch, type I). They are probably better off with threshold intervals as “aerobic training”.
Anaerobic profile runners would still use an hourglass model, but instead they would spend the “ends” of the hourglass focusing on anaerobic work to stimulate their high proportion of fast twitch fibers. So if they HAD to train for a 5k for some reason they would do more speed-based threshold intervals (more to come on this in a future article). Then in the “middle” of the hourglass they would do some VO2 Max training to engage the slow-twitch fibers, albeit with very limited volume and extensive recovery, similar to the middle of the hourglass for an aerobic profile athlete.
Stay up to date with more exclusive running tips from Ben:
Summary: how to prepare for your race
Instead of copy and pasting any race preparation, whether it’s the pyramidal method or the hourglass method, you should tailor it to the type of athlete you’re coaching.
In my experience, dedicating the final weeks to training sessions that suit the athlete’s metabolic profile works really well. For aerobic type I athletes, this means aerobic training, for anaerobic type II athletes, this means high intensity interval training.
If you want to run your best 5k ever, then make sure to check out 5k tips for beginners and pros!
Traditional models may not always yield the desired results. By understanding the unique metabolic profile of each athlete, coaches can craft training regimens that truly resonate with their physiological strengths and weaknesses.
Harness the power of INSCYD’s comprehensive athletic performance software, trusted by top teams and elite coaches worldwide. Dive deep into the metrics that matter and craft training programs that are as unique as the athletes you coach. Understand, analyze, and act with precision.
Also join our exclusive webinar to get a comprehensive understanding of the hourglass model and its application in race preparation. Benjamin Tilus will share insights from the journey that led to the US National title and how understanding metabolic profiles can redefine endurance training.
Overview of the results Ben Tilus and his runners achieved at their recent state championships:
- 48 state champions
- 30 runners-up
- 32 3rd place finishes
- 110 podium finishes (top 3 finishers)
- 235 overall medals (top 8 finishers)
Ben Tilus hosts a captivating episode of the XLR8 Performance Lab Podcast, featuring our INSCYD CEO, Sebastian Weber. Together, they delve deep into the world of data-driven training for runners. Learn how to move beyond traditional metrics like VO2 max and understand the nuances of collecting and analyzing running data. Whether you’re a seasoned runner or just embarking on your journey, this episode promises invaluable insights to help you harness data for optimal performance.
Coach Ben Tilus is an elite performance coach and data analyst who has helped runners of all distances achieve maximum results through individual testing and optimized training since starting coaching in 2008. In 2020 he founded XLR8 Performance Lab and began testing and assisting approximately one dozen athletes over the first 6 months of the business. Today he serves over 200 athletes, primarily working alongside high school athletes and their families to accomplish their goals! Learn more at xlr8-performancelab.com
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Join Benjamin Tilus, National Champion Coach and Founder of XLR8 Performance Lab, as he demystifies the art of race preparation with the revolutionary “hourglass” model.