Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Book Review: Run Less, Run Faster

Run Less, Run Faster by Bill Pierce, Scott Murr, and Ray Moss

The Run Less, Run Faster concept burst onto the running scene (well, "burst" might be a bit of an overstatement, but whaevs) through an article in Runner's World describing Bill Pierce, Scott Murr, and Ray Moss's FIRST (Furman (University) Institute of Running and Science Technology... acronyms are fun!) training program, which promised to improve your race times dramatically with only 3 days of running per week. The Run Faster book expanded on the article, and argued that you could get faster with a smaller time commitment. I have been using this program as I train for the Walt Disney World Half Marathon this January, and as I'll explain below, the authors are half right: you certain can (and will) get faster following this program, but there really isn't less of a time commitment to do it.

Unlike the two other books I have reviewed so far (Marathoning for Mortals and Marathon: The Ultimate Training Guide), Run Less, Run Faster is more for an established runner. It has a short section for New Runners, but the majority of the book is focused on more advanced training techniques (not advanced for really serious runners, mind you, but certainly advanced for the average jogger). In short, Marathoning for Mortals and Marathon: The Ultimate Training Guide are more for beginning runners who are wondering "Can I run a full marathon?" Run Less, Run Faster is for a runner who wants to start actually "training" and improve their speed.

That being said, Run Less, Run Faster is totally accessible to the average runner. The concepts are generally explained well, and each chapter has a FAQ style Question and Answer section that will address most peoples' questions. I have read a couple other "training" books, and this one was probably the easiest to follow. But, what really sets Run Less apart from other running books is the training program, so I'll focus my review on them.

"So," you may be asking, "how can these yahoos promise faster running on just three running days a week?! How can they claim that I can do just as well in a race with less training?"

That is a very valid question... and there are really two answers. The first answer is that the Run Less, Run Faster program puts all its emphasis on what the authors call "The Three Quality Runs" that make up your three weekly runs(a speed/track workout, a tempo run, and a long run. Each workout is intended to have a specific physiological result that, when combined, increase your overall speed and endurance over the course of a training program (more on the "Three Quality Runs" below).

The second answer is: they cheated. Although you only run three days per week with the Run Less program, you still exercise five or six days per week. The extra two or three workouts per week aren't running workouts, however, they are cardio cross-training workouts (e.g., swimming, biking, rowing, etc.) . In other words,
if you follow this program, you still work out the same amount as just about every other training program out there, you just have a little bit of variety.

The "Three Quality Runs"

The core of the Run Less, Run Faster program are the "Three Quality Runs." This is broken down as a speed workout (track intervals) that improves strength, leg speed, and economy, a tempo run to increase stamina (technically to increase your lactate threshold), and a long run to increase endurance. The Run Less program designates specific paces for each and every type of run that you do.

The track interval workouts range from short intervals (400m) to relatively long speed intervals (up to 3200 m), with a little bit of everything in between. A typical track workout may comprise a set of intervals (e.g., 12x400 m), or it might comprise a "ladder" (400m, 600m, 800m, 1200m, 800 m, 600m, 400m) and every week is different. For example, for my half marathon program, the workout two weeks ago was a 5x1000 m set, last week was a 3 x 1600 m set, this week was a 10x400 m set, and next week is a 3x2000 m monster of a workout. The "working" distance of each track workout tends to add up to about 5000 m (about 3 miles), although they can be as low as 2.5 miles (the Half Marathon Program Week 14's 10x400 m workout) and as high as 4.5 miles (Week 11's 3x(2x1200 m)). The nice thing about the track repeats is that every week is different, so there is a lot of variety.

For the tempo runs, there are actually three different kinds of "tempo" workouts with three different paces associated with them: a "short tempo" run (which is just a bit slower than a 5K race pace), a "Mid Tempo" run (roughtly halfway between a 5K pace and a Half Marathon race pace, or right around a slow 10K race pace), and a "Long Tempo" run (which is just a bit faster than Half Marathon pace). For the Half Marathon program, most of the tempo runs are Mid-Tempo runs of between 4 and 6 miles (most likely so that you get used to running an extended distance at a relatively fast pace), but with some short tempo runs thrown in (usually between 2 and 3 miles) at the beginning, and one or two long tempo runs (5 or 6 miles) whenever doing a distance for the first time (e.g., first 5-mile tempo run was a long tempo, as was the first 6 miler). The breakdown of tempo runs is different for other distances, e.g., with the shorter races (5K and 10K) having much more short tempo runs, and marathon training having more long tempo runs and even a few "tempo" runs at marathon race pace. Tempo runs have become my favorite kind of workout, because I feel like they do the most to improve my overall speed over long distances.

The long runs are very similar to the long runs in every other program, except that there is a set tempo that is probably faster than you are used to going during a long run. The long runs for the half marathon training are between 20 and 30 seconds per mile slower than Half Marathon pace (that is, your expected present Half Marathon pace, not necessarily your goal Half Marathon Pace), and I think the marathon-training long runs are similar (albeit a bit slower). This differs from previous training that I have done for long runs, where I would just try to pick a pace that I could maintain for a very long time. For my previous half marathon training, I just tried to keep my average pace at between 10 and 11 minutes per mile, whereas recently my prescribed Run Less pace has been about 9:30/mile.

One other thing about the long runs is that they tend to be longer than those for most training programs. For example, for the Half Marathon program, the longs runs *start* at 8 miles, and build to a maximum of 15 miles (even though the race is only 13.1 miles). The half marathon program includes 11 runs that are 10 miles or longer (including an 11-miler in Week 6, a 12-miler in Week 8, a 13-milers in Week 10, a 14-miler in Week 12, a 15-mier in Week 14, and a 12-miler in week 16). The nice thing about this large number of very long runs is that anything between 10 and 13 miles seems rather tame (which I suspect is the point), but it is still something that takes some getting used to. Similarly, the marathon program *starts* at 13 miles. The longest long runs for the marathon training program don't go over 20 miles (which I think is the standard for most marathon training programs), but it does require a total of FIVE 20-mile runs (that get faster each time) during the course of the 16-week program rather than just one or two for most marathon training programs (although I think for the latest edition of the book, they added a "Novice marathon" program that starts at a shorter long run distance and that only has one 20-mile run).

The set paces are really the key to the Run Faster system. Since you only run three times a week, the intensities or durations of the workouts are greater than that of other training programs. The theory seems to be since you are only running three times per week, your body can take a bit more pounding from running than it could if you were running 5 days a week, so the program steps up the intensities for each type of run.

"Plus2" Cross Training

Of course, you are far from maximizing your fitness potential on only three days of exercise per week (although, as I'll describe below, you'll still improve at this level), so the Run Less, Run Faster program describes itself as a "3plus2" system... that is three days of running and (at least) two days of cross-training every week. The two cross-training sessions are intended to continue building general fitness (e.g., cardiovascular base) on days that would, in a "run-only" program, be dedicated to "recovery runs," those incredibly-slow, incredibly plodding runs we've all done when we know if we run much faster, we're going to get injured, but when we just can't stop ourselves from running (also affectionately referred to by many runners as "junk miles").

The thought behind subscribing cross training (e.g., biking, swimming, or rowing) is that the cross-training workouts can be at a higher intensity than those junk-mile workouts without increasing the likelihood of injury. The author's also tout the "advantage" of having more variety in your training program, leading to less boredom. I think this last "advantage" depends on the person, since I find it hard to slog through any long training program without some level of boredom (even if I mix it up with biking or swimming workouts), and since there is bound to be some loss of transference between mode type (e.g., running vs. biking vs. swimming), any fitness gains you have from cross training won't all transfer to better running performance.

Training Programs

The real strength of Run Less, Run Faster are the very detailed and specific training programs. There is a program for beginners (I believe it is a "Beginner to 5K" type of program), a more advanced 5K training program, a 10K training program, a half-marathon training program, and a full marathon training program (and, as I noted above a "Novice Marathon" program that may only be in the second edition). Each program is very detailed, with each track interval (including rest periods), tempo run, and long run meticulously planned out throughout the program. One other cool thing they provided is an Appendix with a training program for each Boston Qualifying time (e.g., depending on age and gender), so that if you are actually fast enough to potentially qualify for the Boston Marathon, you can follow one of their BQ programs and hopefully reach your goal. Maybe some day I'll be able to utilize one of these tables (maybe when I'm 50?)

My Thoughts on the Run Less, Run Faster Program

As I've mentioned above, I have been using this program to train for the Walt Disney World Half that I am running in January. Overall, I am very impressed with this program, and I would definitely recommend it to anyone who wants to elevate their running training and really strive for strong, fast running (particularly at longer distances like the Half Marathon or Marathon). The Half Marathon training program is longer (18 weeks) than any other I've seen anywhere, and it is a bit daunting starting your training program over four months before your race, but the progression is nice and slow, and I have really enjoyed the challenge of the program.

I have also definitely noticed a marked improvement in my speed as the program has progressed. When I signed up for the Disney Half Marathon, I hadn't really been running that regularly since I ran a 2 hour, 6 minute Half in October 2009 (and generally only 3 miles or so per run). Because of this lack of a base, my initial goal was a modest 2:15 Half (maybe 2:10 if my training went well). BUT, the training program has been going so well, I am now shooting for AT LEAST a PR in the Half, and I'm really hoping that I can break the two-hour barrier. The way my training has been going, I don't see any reason why I can't do just that (I even have a "dream" goal of 1:57... but I think that will be too ambitious). This increase in speed has come even though I have been less-than-perfect on following the "plus2" portion of the training (I think there have only been 1 or 2 weeks where I have gotten both cross-training workouts in, and there have been a few where I have failed to get either cross-training workout in).

So, all in all, I would recommend the Run Less, Run Faster program if (a) you have already run at least one or two races at the distance that you will be training for and you want to get a new PR; (b) you want to get some experience in some more "advanced" running workouts (track intervals or tempo runs); (c) you've had trouble with injuries using other "run-only" training programs, particularly if you have experienced the typical "runner's injuries" (e.g., plantar fasciitis, Illiotibial band (IB) syndrome (aka "runner's knee"), shin splints, achilles tendonitis, or stress fractures); or (d) you want a much more structured training program.

The Run Less program is really for people who are trying to improve their current performance in races they have already run. The Run Less training programs would also be fine for you if you are already an experience runner and this is your first time at a particular distance, but you are intrigued by adding track repeats and/or tempo runs to your repertoire. I do believe that the Run Less program would help with injury prevention, particularly for those people that tend to get repetitive stress injuries (this is one of the claims of the Run Less authors). Finally, if you're like me and don't want to have to take too much time out of your busy day to think up what kind of workout you want to do tomorrow, the regimentation of the programs is a nice touch.

I would not recommend the Run Less, Run Faster program if (a) you are very new to running; (b) you like a little bit of freedom in planning your training; or (c) you just can't fathom running only three days per week.

If you are a newbie, this program is just too advanced and intense, and you probably won't enjoy it. For you, it is better to just train for your distance using a "Beginner" training program designed to just get you to the finish line (I know that Hal Higdon and Jeff Galloway both have good Beginner training programs).

If you like flexibility, you will probably hate this program because it is very regimented, not only in specificying exactly what workouts to do, but also exactly the pace to do it at (sometimes within a range of only a few seconds per mile). For me, I really enjoyed not having to plan out anything more than my routes, but I know some people are much more of a free spirit.

Finally, it is definitely weird only running three days per week and it takes some getting used to. For me, my week broke down like this: Monday-Cross Train, Tuesday-Track Intervals, Wednesday-Cross Train, Thursday-Tempo Run, Friday-Rest, Saturday-Long Run, Sunday-Rest (or sometimes a Cross Train, but rare). It was definitely weird only running on Tuesday and Thursday during the week and only on Saturday on the weekend... but once I got used to it, I enjoyed the difficulty of the workouts and the good feeling I got after completing them. The cross training did introduce some variety and allowed me to try out exercise modes that I rarely if ever use (I hadn't been on a stationary bike or in the pool in years).


In short, I think the Run Less, Run Faster method is a great way to get faster. It may be a bit intense for more casual runners, but if you're trying to take your running to another level or you want to break through a pesky race time barrier, it is a great way to do that.

[Note: I still have about 4 and a half weeks left of this training program until my target race, so I will update this review after I have run the race so you can at least have the data point of exactly what result this program provided for me]

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