Deliberate Practice for Runners: a Method for Your Mileage

Des Linden flying
How many hours do you think Des practices? Photo by Kyle Gorjanc/SaltyRunning.com

I was on the Ohio Turnpike on my way back from Michigan and listening to the discussion of Anders Ericsson’s study of greatness on the FreakonomicsRadio podcast. You may know of Ericsson as the guy who discovered the “the 10,000 hour rule” which Malcolm Gladwell wrote about in his book Outliers. The theory is that to be the best at something we need to spend 10,000 hours practicing that thing. But there’s more to the story that just logging hours and hours doing the same thing over and over. 

Ericsson explains what makes some people amazing at what they do is that they don’t just practice that thing over and over, they do something called “deliberate practice.” The concept applies across the spectrum of skilled activities: from singing, to welding, to sports, like running. 

Ericsson says that deliberate practice is when you actually pick a target — something that you want to improve — and you find a training activity that would allow you to actually improve that particular aspect.” He explains that this type of practice is systematic and intentionally detailed. It is a type of practice that is hard and out of our comfort zones. This got me thinking about how much it sounds like competitive marathon training.

Running performance is most definitely skill-based, and our capability to improve it requires the type of discomfort and detail that Ericsson describes. We don’t get faster by running more; we train to get faster, and when we reach a point that regular back-of-the-magazine training plans don’t give us that kind of improvement, we have to up our game.

Nothing about this theory of deliberate practice should be new to anyone who trains hard. If you’ve read Salty Running or a book about marathon training, you’ve seen all  types of workouts and all sorts of theories of running performance. But if you want to train to be your best, you have to do more than put in the miles. You must:

Regularly leave your comfort zone.

Break your training down into pieces and master them.

Learn how to learn

***

I started by saying I was on the turnpike on my way back from Michigan. On this particular trip to Michigan, I drove 415 miles to go to my friend and Hansons-Brooks runner, Dani Miller’s Tuesday speed workout. (Yes, you read that right. I drove 415 miles to go to a Tuesday night run.) Dani is awesome, not just because she is the life of the Hansons-Brooks team, but because of how she got there.

She had, by elite standards, an unimpressive high school and college record. Dani started training like an elite by going to the Hansons-Brooks team practices and ran what they ran before she was ever on the team. She was pulled out of her comfort zone and into the world of 100 mile training weeks, extremely hard workouts, and training with teammates who were faster than her. She made it her goal to qualify for the 2016 Olympic Marathon Trials, which she did in Houston in 2015, which officially made her a member of the Hansons-Brooks team. 

Dani Miller running in the 2016 OTM
Dani Miller fulfilled one dream when she ran in the 2016 Olympic Trials Marathon. Photo by Kyle Gorjanc/SaltyRunning.com

This is a story we see in other elite athletes that broke into the elite field in their thirties or came into this sport as post-collegiate newbies. It is a story I can relate to. I was completely out of shape by the time I was 28. I got back on my bike, resumed running, and swam a bit. By the time I was 30, I was in pretty good athletic shape, but even at 150 miles on bike and 40 miles on foot a week, I wasn’t going to realize my running dreams.

My big improvement came when I more than I doubled my weekly running mileage, and then through a process of trial and error, I learned how to run workouts, put together a training week, and get the most out of my training. I learned how to learn to optimally train. I am one to hand-measure a tempo course or to pour over my training data on Strava. Salty often teases me about engineering my training. While my attention to detail to some might seem OCD, without realizing it, I have been doing the things that make up deliberate practice. I regularly leave my comfort zone, I work on the details, and I’ve learned how to learn. Perfecting my training and deliberately practicing running has helped me go from a 4+ hour marathoner to a 2:54 marathoner.

Here’s how you can employ deliberate practice to reach your running goals.

Get out of your comfort zone.

Shalane and Des don’t spend much time in their comfort zones. They push themselves to new heights in each training cycle and in workouts within those cycles. They are trying new training methods, race tactics, running new places, adding and refining physical therapy and other supplementals to their training. And that’s what you should do too. 

Master the details.

To race your best you must practice all the parts of racing. Practice mental focus at race pace. Practice race day logistics. Practice long runs without breaks and marathon miles like they were race day. Test and refine race day strategy not just the week before the race, but every single week during their training block. Work on all the race details you can, like finding the right breathing structure or the right cadence.

Learn how to learn

You learn from your training by continuously reevaluating your training plans and making adjustments. Does a particular workout always get the best of you? Maybe it’s too ambitious. Maybe you need an extra recovery day before you attempt it. Maybe you need more rest. You can experiment and find what works and doesn’t work for your running. Try slowing down the pace targets. Try doing it on Friday instead of Thursday. Try doing it with 50% more time for your rest intervals. Try to be objective about your training and whether it’s helping you achieve your goals or distracting you from them.

The point is that there isn’t a magic formula that will help you reach your goals, and optimal training doesn’t mean a certain weekly training volume, or a certain training plan. Instead, it means being very detailed while you leave your comfort zone and learn for yourself how to reach the next level.

Do you train deliberately? Did doing so lead to a big breakthrough for you?

I'm a subelite marathon runner, but I didn't come from a collegiate running background. Instead I'm trying to break into competitive running in my thirties. I write about chasing the dream of running with the elite girls and tell stories of adventures along the way. Watch me chase the next big thing.

Leave a Reply

6 comments

  1. Whatever you do, do it with intention. I really like this post and agree with Salty that it is thought provoking. For me my biggest improvements came from simply making a point to deliberately focus on 2-3 specific things in a training cycle that I wanted to improve upon. I tried to stay consistent with all other aspects but put the extra time and intention on those specific things.

  2. Hey, Jasmine!! Loved this– so freaking true, too. My getting faster the last 6 months has been entirely due to a coach helping me do this– moving outside my comfort zone and being deliberate with my runs. Great post!!

  3. I really enjoyed that podcast the other day when I was still in bed killing time. Highly recommend it. Super fascinating, especially the lady you used deliberate practice to go from a crappy singer to a decent one.

    But when I was reading this, I was thinking this is why Jack Daniels, et al write books with training plans and why people hire coaches, to create the optimal stress and rest cycles to help runners deliberately practice. Let the objective expert tell us when to push and when to hold back. I think you look to data for that and that’s where I tease you ;) I admire it! I just don’t have the time, energy, patience, or interest in parsing through it all and I’m not sure I’d really be able to do get much out of it if I did. I prefer to just slap my shoes on and do the workouts and be done with it. But the risk is that you listen to the wrong coach, read the wrong book for you, or, in your case, misinterpret the signals you see in the data or your day-to-day training. It’s hard to REALLY know why something works and doesn’t, sometimes. Sometimes it’s obvious, I’m sure.

    Great thought-provoking post!

    1. And yes…… even the pros have coaches. Even the psychologist singer woman in the podcast had a voice teacher. Your coach can’t read you mind and know how hard you are really running or how much lactate is in your muscles. Coaches don’t bypass the need to take the initiative to develop perception figure out what works for you.