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The law of relative percentages and running performance
If you've followed any of our blog posts, you'll already know that we are advocates of faster running in winter, rather than lots of long and slow miles. Our ethos is simple, you have to be a fast runner to perform well over any distance, whether that's a 5k or a 50 mile ultra race. This is something that many people struggle to understand and as hey progress to marathon and ultra distance races, they tend to focus on longer/slower running, believing that endurance is key and it's more important to 'keep going' rather than running fast.
What is the law of relative percentages?
Most people understand relative percentages in it's simplest form. If I ask you to go for a long run and work at 50% of maximum, you would read that as 'running very easy'. If I tell you to run at 95% of maximum, you'd guess that's pretty hard. The wiser ones among you will ask 50% of what? 50% of maximum heart rate? 50% of VO2 maximum? 50% of maximal effort? My answer is... it doesn't really matter for now, most people will interpret that 50% of maximum will be pretty easy and you'd be right.
What percentage of maximum would you expect to run for a marathon? Don't ask % of maximum what.... just answer the question and give me a figure. What percentage of maximum would you run for a marathon? What seems a reasonable answer to that question? I'll bet most people would say 75-85%. That seems about right... 50% seems way too easy and 95-100% is way too high, who runs at 95-100% for a full marathon!!??
This is a really important point to understand. Elite runners are not ahead of you because they are running at 100% of maximum, whereas you are only running at 70% of maximum. NOBODY can run at 100% of maximum for a marathon, it's impossible! You can't run flat out for 26.2 miles.
Here's the truth, most runners are all running within that 75-85% of maximum for the marathon distance. Yes, if you're better trained you will be closer to 85% and if you're less trained you will be closer to the 75%, but the simple thing to grasp here is that most people are running at the SAME RELATIVE INTENSITY.
Ok, so if you're running at 75% of maximum and 2000 other people are running at 75% of maximum, then you'll all cross the line together right? If we're all running at 75% of maximum, how come people are finishing an hour ahead of you or an hour behind you?
What's your maximum?
If you have a big maximum, then 75% of a big figure is significantly more than 75% of a small figure. If your engine at maximum can propel you at the speed of sound, then even when it's operating at 75%, you're still going pretty quick. By comparison, if your engine when working at maximum results in a slow jog, then when it's working at 75%, the pace will be even slower.
Let's make this simple...
If you can run 5 minute miles for 5k, then 6 minute miles for a marathon would feel very comfortable.
If you can run 8 minutes miles for 5k, then you'd slow to 9/9:30 for a marathon to feel comfortable.
We're all running at similar percentages of our maximum capability, the thing which separates us is our maximum capability.
What about longer races?
Yes, in longer races, we do rely more on endurance rather than speed, but the same rules still apply. If you want to break 3:30 for a marathon and you're aiming to run 8 minute miles, then if you can't hold 7 minute miles or quicker for 5k, your chances are slim (not impossible). It's just common sense, you can't run a marathon at 95% of maximum.
What if you're racing an ultra? Surely speed is pointless? The same rules will apply. You'll probably run an ultra at 50-60% of maximum (depending on the distance), but your pace is still dictated by your maximum.
Can I just run fast stuff then?
Given what I've written above, then we may as well get rid of endurance training and just do hard / short / fast stuff if we're training for marathons and ultra distance races then? No... clearly not. You can't run a marathon and expect to survive without mileage in your legs and that applies even more so for ultra distance.
This is quite simple, your maximum will determine your pace for the event. When you set off on your marathon, like everyone else, you'll settle into a pace which feels comfortable and sustainable for 26 miles... it'll most likely be 75-85% of your maximum. Your maximum determines the speed and pace of your marathon. If you haven't done the required distance / mileage, when you get to 18 miles, you'll be so badly broken that you'll start to falter and the wheels will come off in dramatic fashion. The mileage / distance / endurance training will determine whether you can 'keep going' at marathon pace to the finish line.
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