Eliud Kipchoge is the greatest marathon runner ever to lace up a pair of carbon-fibre shoes (or ordinary running shoes, for that matter). Multiple big-city marathon wins, two Olympic Games gold medals, first man under two hours for the distance (albeit in a staged, non-eligible event), and the current 42.2km world record-holder. This is a marathon runner who knows how to train.
So when research came out recently that documented Kipchoge’s training, many readers were fascinated, searching painstakingly for the magic formula that makes him the greatest. What secrets might be uncovered and applied to our training to make us faster?
How does Eliud Kipchoge train?
First, there are no secrets. No magic formulas. Second, you’d be ill-advised to mimic the specific content of Kipchoge’s training, given that he’s running 200 to 220km a week – a volume few other humans could get away with. However, we can look behind Kipchoge’s numbers, and identify a couple of key principles that when applied to our training, may make us all better runners.
The first thing that jumps out is how relatively ‘boring’ Kipchoge’s training is. There is a monotony; an abundance of what we might describe as ‘staple’ runs – no bells or whistles, no fancy stuff; he just runs, and accumulates hours and hours of low-intensity training.
And consistency is key. We need to avoid the temptation of tinkering, and rather earn our physiological adaptations through disciplined repetition.
Such repetition goes hand in hand with the second key principle: don’t overdo it. Especially the intensity elements of training. Kipchoge racks up 13 sessions a week, two a day every day except for Sunday, when he takes the afternoon off. But of those 13, 10 are slow, easy runs – so slow that many club runners would be able to tag along; they range between 4:00 and 5:00 per kilometer.
Which is still quite lively, bearing in mind he’s doing this in Eldoret, at 2,000 meters above sea level. But compare that to his marathon pace of 2:55, and you’ll appreciate just how easy those runs are.
What this means is that Kipchoge gets better at running fast mostly by running slowly.
What are the benefits of running slowly?
There’s physiology behind this – low-intensity training, well within what we call the aerobic training zone, drives adaptations that make us better at endurance running, even when our goal is higher intensity.
The mistake many runners make when they’re aiming to improve is to push too hard too often, as well as not spending enough time in the easiest training zones.
Broadly and most simply, we can divide training into three zones. There is easy training, which is done in Zone 1. At the other end of the spectrum is Zone 3 training, which is what physiologists describe as ‘severe’; once you enter this zone, fatigue is inevitable – it’s a matter of time before the effort becomes too much, and you’re forced to slow down or stop. Think of how you feel during a 5km time trial, or hard intervals. That’s Zone 3.
In between these is Zone 2. This is what we’d call ‘heavy’, but it’s also manageable. You’ll feel like you’re working, and that if you picked up the pace slightly, you’d cross a threshold into Zone 3, where the proverbial bear will jump on your back. But you’re still in control, and you could speed up if you wanted to. You’ll often read about ‘threshold pace’ and ‘tempo runs’ – they fall into this middle zone. See ‘In The Zones’, below, for more on recommended training zones and how to know when you’re hitting each of them.
Why should we spend so little time training at high intensity?
The way elites train teaches us that in fact, we should spend relatively little time at high intensity. Kipchoge, for instance, spends 85% of his training in Zone 1, and only 15% across Zones 2 and 3. This is a pattern you’ll see in the schedules of almost all the top performers.
The trap that many of us fall into is to allow Zone 1 training to drift up into Zone 2. And I must emphasize, this happens quite easily – push a little hard on a hill, hold that effort over the top, and suddenly a session meant to be an easy recovery day in Zone 1 becomes a moderate day spent half in Zone 1 and half in Zone 2.
Or you’re finishing an easy 8km run, but you feel good; so, 3km from home, you lift the pace just a little, cranking it up progressively, until you finish at around your 10km pace. Over time these efforts accumulate, and your training takes on a 60/30/10 pattern rather than the 85/10/5 of Kipchoge and many other elites.
So what, you say. Well, the problem is that this compromises recovery. If we’re always edging into Zone 2, we get too few days of appropriate aerobic stress. And risk injury and burnout, and dilute our high-intensity efforts – those days when we actually want to push harder – because we’re that little bit fatigued from what was meant to be an easy recovery day, but instead became something tougher.
That’s why Kipchoge spends a lot of his time at a relatively pedestrian 4:30 to 5:00 per kay – it frees him up to really give his hard sessions a proper go. He does those only twice a week: a track session on a Tuesday, and an unstructured fartlek session on a Saturday. There’s a long run on Thursdays that builds to a fast finishing pace; but everything else is very, very easy.
How to train like Kipchoge
For practical reasons, we don’t need to completely match Kipchoge’s 85/10/5. Given that we run maybe 50km a week and he runs 200, we don’t suffer the same volume-related stress, so we can afford a little more than 15% higher-intensity training.
For instance, if you were to do two hard sessions (track, hills, 5km time trial) a week, you could quite easily log 10 to 15km in Zones 2 and 3, which would equate to about 20 to 30% of your training. That’s higher than Kipchoge’s numbers; but that’s okay, given our lower total overall running load. The key point is that we must have the discipline to keep that level there, without allowing too many of our easy runs to nudge up into Zone 2.
The moral of the story is a cliché, but it’s true: ‘Train to race – don’t race in training.’ So hold back when you can, in order to go faster when you want to!
How to work out your training zones
Identify your intensity, whether you’re the next Kipchoge or the first you.
Managing training intensity is all about understanding how to identify when you’re moving from a purely aerobic and management training zone into a zone close to your physiological thresholds, and then beyond this into severe exercise. Physiologists have very precise definitions for these boundaries, and various tests can be done and measurements taken to identify what yours are.
But such tests are beyond most people – and honestly, they’re unnecessary, given the range of possible training paces. So instead of being bogged down in the swamp of percentages of VO2 max, heart rates and lactate thresholds, here’s a far simpler way to manage your Kipchoge-like training:
If you’re able to hold a conversation in full sentences, without having to interrupt yourself every few words to take a breath, then you’re in Zone 1 – easy training.
If you can talk, but only in broken sentences, then you’re in that middle-threshold zone, Zone 2. (A rule of thumb to follow is ’10 syllables’ – if you can’t get those out before you need to breathe, then you’re no longer doing a Zone 1 run.)
And then there’s Zone 3, where talking is impossible – and who cares, because the point of Zone 3 is maximum effort. Save your conversations and stories for the finish!