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How To Get Better At Running

Raise your hand if you’ve thought or heard the following from your OCR brethren: “I just need to get my running up to snuff and I’ll be rocking and rolling.”

There’s a fundamental flaw in that approach and it is the fact that “running“ is not just one thing

Add to that the fact that running performance is also not determined by just one thing - running lots - and you need to break that overly broad goal down if you want to reap maximum benefit from your running programs.

Here are 3 very general questions you need to ask and answer in order to do that:

  1. Rank yourself in the 4 types of running you’re likely to encounter: flat, uphill, downhill, and technical. Which do you suck at the most?
  2. Are you a speed athlete lacking endurance, or an endurance athlete lacking speed?
  3. Are you limited by peripheral fatigue or central fatigue?

Once you’ve figured out the above, apply Dobos’ “Train Your Sucks for Sucks-ess” paradigm (patent pending). I’ve outlined it in broad strokes HERE.

I’ll now get into more detail about each of the three questions.

The Different Types of Running

I am willing to bet Matt’s mortgage that almost all of you have had the following experience. You are in a race and have been going back and forth with a competitor in an annoyingly predictable way. They’ll drop you as you wheeze your way up any climb, but then you’ll reel them in and blow by them as they tiptoe gingerly through technical sections.

Or you’ll crush the field on flat runnable sections and then watch them all effortlessly go by you on any downhill. These are all learning moments if you grasp them and use them to inform your training.

How To Figure Out How Your Running Abilities Stack Up

Set up and run 4 Time Trial courses with your running/training group: uphill, downhill, flat, and technical. They should ideally be roughly the same duration and not very long: less than 20 minutes. Once you have a bunch of times for everyone on the different courses, you can get useful information out of that raw data.

The first and easiest thing to do is to simply rank everyone in each of the TTs, not worrying about times, only placing. For many of you, there will likely be a pattern that emerges. For example top-5 uphill and flat, 10th on technical, and DFL (last)  on the downhill. Clearly, your priorities in training should be the reverse of that: downhill and technical over flat and uphill. Note that I am not saying to ignore your strengths completely, just to put the emphasis and focus on your weaknesses.

Depending on the group and/or your level of running, the above might not give you anything useful. Maybe you are bottom-3 or top-3 at everything. That’s where the second method comes in: calculate how far behind the top spot you are as a percentage of the winners’ times.

For example, if the top time was 10 minutes and you finished in 15, then you were 50% slower. If the top time was 10 minutes and you finished in 12, then you were only 20% slower. As with the first method, order your training priorities in reverse order of your percentages i.e. train the 50% slower skill more than the 20% slower one.

You can do this kind of assessment even if you don’t have a local group, using things like King Of the Mountain on Strava. If you can find KOM routes nearby that match the 4 types of running then you can at least get an idea of how you stack up with the local runners. It’s not as convenient or accurate as the first way, but it’ll get the job done.

In a similar vein, you could set up a training challenge with an online group you may be part of. Everyone agrees to run TTs on 4 courses set up within pre-defined parameters. For example, the uphill needs to be non-technical, 2 km long, have a net elevation gain of X, and with no more than Y elevation loss. You then all post your workout data and analyze as you would in the first method I outlined above.

If you want to get even more specific, then you can do all the TTs in both dry and wet conditions and see if anything changes significantly.

The Difference Between Endurance And Speed

I am going to introduce you to something called the VDOT running table. It’s a thing developed by running coach Jack Daniels (of 180 cadence infamy, not the booze) that is basically a mashup of your VO2 max and running economy. It’s typically used to identify your training zones based off a time trial or recent race performance. From that one datum, you can then see predicted estimates of your times at other distances.

What we are going to do is run 2 (or more) time trials at widely varying distances and see how you stack up in terms of speed vs endurance. Run a 1 mile TT and then in very similar conditions and terrain run something like a 15km TT. Each performance will give you a VDOT value, and they will likely be very different.

vdot table

Example: you run your mile in 5:02 for a VDOT value of 59, and then do your 15 km in 71:02 for a VDOT value of 44. You are speedy but your endurance is poor, so you can’t extend that speed into performances at longer distances/durations. The opposite scenario is also likely, with runners hitting 55 minutes for 15km but struggling to break 6:00 for the mile.

That information can inform your training focus going forward. Again, it is not to train speed or endurance exclusively but rather to emphasize the weak link and try to bring the two things into closer balance.

Central vs. Peripheral Fatigue

In addition to the speed-endurance balance, there is an internal division as well: central-peripheral. Is your cardiorespiratory system (central) the limiting factor or is the strength-endurance of your legs (peripheral) holding you back?

Here’s how you can tell: on hard runs, whether flat or uphill, are you sucking wind like crazy or are your legs turning into lactate noodle soup? Ideally, the two should be closely matched in terms of capacity, meaning that you will be able to experience the joys of full-body pain-cave workouts and races.

This disparity is most likely to show up after a break in training/racing, such as at the start of the racing season or after coming back from illness or injury. It’s the easiest one of the three to deal with, as it tends to self-correct if you keep doing workouts that tax the weakest system to the max. You can, of course, alter your training program a bit for a few weeks to balance things out more quickly. How do you actually do that? Well…

Stay Tuned

I realize that making you aware of new areas in which you likely suck may not strike you as earth-shatteringly useful. Fear not, as future articles will dig into each of these questions and give you tools to help you change your Sucks into Sucksess.

Same Bat-time! Same Bat-channel!

About the Author

Peter Dobos has his B.Sc in Human Kinetics, completed coursework for his M.SC in Biomechanics, and has extensive adventure racing and off-road multisport experience. 

He is affiliated with the Endurance Project and works with many elite OCR athletes. 

Peter can be contacted at

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