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A Survey of Four Unconventional Running Programs Inspired by Thomas Schwartz, M.S

I have been fortunate over the past several years to run under the tutelage of Coach Tom Schwartz (aka, Tinman). Although he's a brilliant exercise scientist with enormous understanding of the research literature, one of his greatest strengths is creating unconventional solutions to solve real world problems in runners. In fact, it may be his command of exercise science that gives him this ability to work outside the normal mold. In this post, I will discuss four unconventional training programs that he has utilized over the years with great success.

A few key points regarding unconventionality. First, before jumping to a novel program, consider ways that you can improve your current program. Modification of a few details (i.e., pacing, number of repeats in an interval workout, recovery interval length) can make an enormous difference without having to discard a program completely. Second, although these unconventional programs might seem to fly in the face of traditional training plans, the principles behind each of these programs is sound. These alternative programs simply manipulate the relevant variables in different ways than traditional methods. Unconventional does not mean improvisational.

Three Day Cycle, five miles per day:
The Three Day Cycle is one of my favorite creative solutions to the "no time to train" conundrum. Tinman developed this plan while working long hours in a military medical facility. He actually set PR’s at 1500m and 5000m as a post-collegiate runner while on this program.

The cycle is as follows:
Day 1, easy.
Day 2, easy tempo run or progression run. (Sample workout: 1 mile build, 3 miles at 5k pace + 60 seconds per mile, one mile cooldown)
Day 3, Critical Velocity intervals or fartlek. (Sample workout: one mile easy, 5 x 800m at 10k pace with 90 seconds rest, one mile cooldown with 6 x 20 second surges )

What to watch for: Avoid taking days off (it wouldn't be a three day cycle anymore) because there is a training effect from having an interval day and a tempo day back-to-back. Many people try to make up for low mileage with raising the intensity beyond sustainable levels, but a better way to make up for lost mileage is through density. Density in this context refers to moderately hard workouts in controlled volumes packed closely together. Additionally, it requires self discipline to keep Day 2 under control; otherwise you'll end up working too hard in Day 3 or won't be able to hit CV pace. Finally, it should be noted that Tinman supplemented this program with lunchtime basketball at work, which helped enhance overall athleticism.

Bunching (aka, Weekend Warrior Program)
Many people try to pull off a Weekend Warrior Program, but few are successful. The real key is not simply the weekend workouts but instead the consistency of completing mid-week easy runs four days per week and one quality workout, preferably on Wednesday. Tinman refers to the back-to-back key sessions on the weekend as "Bunching." The easy runs on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday are what sustain the program by facilitating tissue repair after a hard weekend of training and by preparing the legs for the next weekend. A moderate Wednesday workout will keep you in touch with fast running so that you don't go a full week between quality runs.

During the weekends, you can do a quality interval workout or tempo run on Saturday and do a relaxing long run on Sunday. Alternatively, advanced runners might do a modest interval run on Saturday and a tempo run on Sunday, while covering decent mileage each day. If you strike the right balance of high density training without going overboard (that is, manageable doses of intensity that you can achieve on back to back days), bunching can build functional aerobic robustness. It also helps to think about the weekend as one long day separated by a night of sleep.

What to watch for: Being a "warrior" on the weekend doesn't mean be stupid. Gauge your ability to handle the weekend segments by how you feel on Monday and Tuesday. If you do go overboard, resist the urge to take days off during the week. Learn your lesson for future planning but be sure to lace 'em up for at least a few miles each day. Most weekend warrior programs fail because runners neglect the easy runs and their one modest quality run during the week.

All-moderate, no interval program
Tinman has stimulated some great discussion over the years on this topic. Despite all the science and field application of interval training, some runners' bodies flat out don't agree with intervals. In The Runzone circles, the poster child for the all-moderate program is Tinman's old friend  Mike. The all-moderate program is just what it sounds like....every run is at a moderate pace in that dreaded "gray zone" or "no-man's land", other than perhaps one tempo run or race per week. The all-moderate approach certainly would not be my first choice (or even second or third) choice for programming, but there is enough anecdotal evidence to give this approach legitimacy.

What to watch for: It's easy to wear yourself down if your definition of "moderate" is too close to "tempo" in practice. The all-moderate approach requires a keen sense of your own condition. If a moderate day becomes a "hard" day that requires an "easy" day immediately after, by default you have gone to a hard/easy approach surrounded by moderate runs instead of easy runs (which may cause its own set of problems) Nevertheless, if you find that the all-moderate approach suits your body and your personality, don't be afraid to think outside the box!

Two Big Days Marathon Program
Most traditional programs include two quality workouts during the week with a long run on the weekend for a total of three "key" days. However, recovery can be a challenge for some runners in a traditional week. At least once during a week you'll have only one day of recovery between key days. Further, getting "up" mentally and physically more than twice per week can be a challenge, especially for those who work full time jobs and have other non-training commitments Monday through Friday.

One solution to these issues is to combine the long run with one of the quality runs to create a "Big" weekend session. Although it makes for demanding workouts, many runners perform better with slightly harder sessions bracketed with more easy days in between, as opposed to a three key-day-per-week setup during which a runner is never more than 48 hours from the most recent quality session.

What to watch for: Having two or three days between each "Big" day provides a margin of safety that is both physically and mentally suitable for many runners. Additionally, many age-group marathoners have difficulty recovering from the harder long runs needed to specifically prepare for the event. They'll often overdo things with a blind adherence to the traditional three key days schedule. Alternatively, they'll neglect the specific harder long sessions as a way to preserve themselves for the demands of three key days. Neither result is optimal, which is why it is sometimes effective to get rid of one quality day during the week and combine that day with the long run day on the weekend to arrive at the Two Big Days schedule.

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