Lessons From An Olympian

Alan Culpepper has accomplished what many of us mere mortal runners would love to do: he has run very fast at a variety of distances for a very long period of time.

In 1996 Culpepper was the NCAA 5K National Champion. He is a two-time Olympian—in the 10-K and marathon—and had two top-five finishes at the Boston Marathon. Culpepper was a seven-time USA National Champion in Track and Cross Country. His personal records include a 3:55 in the mile, 13:25 for the 5-K, 27:33 in the 10-K, and a 2:09 marathon.

In his new book, Run Like a Champion: An Olympian’s Approach for Every Runner (VeloPress, 2015), Culpepper—who co-wrote the book with Brian Metzler—shares the rules that helped him achieve that consistency, and duplicate top performances year after year.

“When you’re an elite, there’s a kind of seamless flow between your life and your work, and what you’re doing day to day and how it relates to your goals,” says Culpepper, a Boulder-based father of four who also coaches runners through Culpepper Coaching.

“There are patterns within that which lead to success. And I wanted to boil that down for people who aren’t living the life of a pro athlete.”

Here are some lessons from Culpepper that you can use to keep seeing continuous improvement in your running life:

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Run With Purpose

Each workout is designed to target a specific physiological response. Easy runs help build your cardiovascular base; track workouts help develop fast turnover and speed while long runs help you develop endurance. But too many runners just wing it when they hit the road each day, and miss the benefits that each of these workouts is designed to provide, says Culpepper. “There’s a mentality that if you feel good, you should take advantage of it, and if you feel bad you should bag the day,” says Culpepper. “But every day has a purpose.”

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Build Your Base

We’re conditioned to 10-week half-marathon training cycles and 16-week marathon training plans. But sometimes, it pays to take a longer approach. Depending on your current level of fitness, and your goals, it often may be wiser to sign up for a goal race farther out - say 20 weeks out instead of 10 weeks - so that you have the time to start building a base before the more intense and focused part of training begins, says Culpepper. “I know that for some people it’s unrealistic,” he says. “But it really can make the difference if you’ve been stuck and really plateaued or started to slow down.” Why is the base so important? “That’s your foundation,” he says. “And if you can get that foundation stronger, when you add in the workouts you’re really starting at a higher level.”

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Volume Matters

In recent years, with so many people coming into the sport, and a proliferation of injuries, there’s been a de-emphasis on building running volume and a focus on the three-workout week, with a long run, and a few fast workouts. “But that’s just not the way it works,” says Culpepper. “You really are better off doing no [structured speed] workouts, and doing a consistently higher volume of miles more consistently and more days per week. You’re going to get fitter by doing that, rather than doing two workouts, and nothing the other days.” While the idea of reducing volume to prevent overuse injuries may be valid, “the key is to find the balance,” says Culpepper. “You can’t finesse your way to a great performance. You have to put in the work. That’s just part of the deal.”

Don’t Force It

Too many runners hit the road, or start training for a race with the mentality that they’re going to force themselves through it. Many runners hop into popular races and distances, like marathons and half-marathons, before really thinking through whether the training required and the race distances themselves suits their needs, goals, lifestyle, temperament and their work and family commitments. “You’ve got to think more strategically and be more logical about deciding whether this is what you’re supposed to do,” he says. “I’ve seen a lot of people struggle and make it more complex than it needs to be. Be in tune with how you’re wired, and what makes sense for you emotionally and mentally. Trust your instinct."

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Don’t Give Up

Often times, runners accept the age-related changes as a foregone conclusion and give up on strength and speed, and resign themselves to longer, slower slogs, says Culpepper. They slow down, and move into longer distances. They give up on speed work, form, and strength work. “That just perpetuates the problem,” he says. “You’re already losing muscle mass and responsiveness.” If you stop trying to work on it, it’s only going to accelerate that process. Keep up the speed work and the strengthening work. Try to set new goals for your age group. “Redefine your goals,” says Culpepper. “You may not set a new personal best, but you don’t have to resign yourself to a personal worst either. You can still set new goals and new challenges that are age appropriate that will benefit your longer races as well.”

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