Workouts are helping runners, and coach, improve

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By Paul Oppenheim

Running Columnist

Last year I "volunteered" (after some arm twisting by club members) to lead the Oak Park Runners Club's Wednesday evening speed workouts on the Concordia track. A fellow club member obtained a workout schedule from a real coach, so I had an outline to guide me. Still, I didn't really know what I was doing, though I had done track workouts for years under real coaches. A few of the runners began calling me "Coach," but I suspected they were being sarcastic.

Then last fall I took a two-day coaching seminar put on by the Road Runners Club of America (which also required separate CPR training and a first aid course). And presto, I was an officially certified running coach with an ornamental piece of paper to prove it.

Since I had liberally modified the drafted workouts during last year's track sessions, I figured I was now experienced enough (and certified) to prepare this year's workout plan. I also did quite a bit of reading and talking to others with far more experience.

Coaching a group of adults of all ages, paces and racing goals is probably significantly different from, say, a high school coach whose kids are all young and preparing for the same races. For example, what kind of workouts do I schedule for runners who are running 5Ks during the summer, and doing, say 10Ks and maybe half-marathons in the fall? And how about those marathon junkies who are doing longer mileage — should they run longer repetitions than the lower-mileage racers?

Looking back at my own experience and based on what I read about other adult group workouts, I knew that speed work is beneficial for all runners, regardless of race distances. So I drafted a mix of shorter and longer track workouts, with nothing shorter than 400 meters (one lap). I've seen discussions of the benefits of 200- and 100-meter repeats, but since our runners aren't kids, I thought the risk of muscle pulls from the shorter stuff wasn't worth the risk.

So we're doing a variety of workouts, from 400-meter repetitions up to a mix of 1600- and 3200-meter repeats. The goal is to get used to faster paces, and pushing hard on tired legs. I stress that the last exercise of the evening should be the fastest, and to hammer the last 100 meters of the final lap — finishing strongly, even though tired.

The three basic elements of a running program are long, slow runs to build endurance and cardiovascular fitness, tempo runs at a medium/hard pace for shorter distances, and speed workouts to develop faster leg turnover and better efficiency. And with the Concordia track closed for re-surfacing, we've temporarily shifted our workouts to Riverside-Brookfield High School.

But is it doing any good? I certainly hope so, and some runners have been setting new personal bests. But the real test will be this fall when the weather is cooler and the more competitive races are held. In my experience, those weeks of track workouts and hot weather mileage usually paid off when the weather got cooler. We'll see.

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