You can't cram for fitness. No, but you can set a new goal for yourself.
I ran track in junior high school, high school and college. I started running in junior high because that was the rule in our house: sports or a job. I didn't particularly like it, I wasn't very good at it, and I didn't exactly have the best experience with it. Yet, I ran because I was supposed to.
Did I mention I wasn't very good at it?
So, the way that distance runners are trained to run faster when I was running was to have them run speed workouts in addition to distance workouts. The theory being the distance running gives the runners an aerobic "base" and the speed workouts make them faster.
That theory may be all well and good, sure, but I'm not convinced it really works. Sure, the times for a runner's races over a season might drop, but they don't drop dramatically, maybe 10% faster for the longer distances, less for the shortest distances.
However, it's not particularly easy to make dramatic improvements without some SERIOUS work for two simple reasons:
1. The runner's mind doesn't believe she can run that fast.
2. The runner's body hasn't learned to move that fast.
The way I was trained was along the lines of "practice makes perfect." I'm arguing for "perfect practice makes perfect," and opting to train differently for an arbitrary goal I have set for myself.
I'd like to run a 6:30 mile.
Well, actually make that a 6:30 1600m time, which is about 9.3 meters (about 30 feet) short of an actual mile. I say 1600m because I really don't want to bother trying to figure out where the 1500m race starts on a 400m track. I might change my mind later, because a 6:30 1600m is a fast time. Kris clocks 6:00 miles in his race training pace, and I struggle to keep up with him for more than 300m.
Now, I recognize this is a fairly arbitrary goal. It's nominally a minute and a half faster than I've ever run a mile, an 18% drop in time from my lifetime personal best. So, why 6:30?
When I asked Lisa Timmins her best mile time, years and years ago, she told me it was around 5:30. I don't recall if her race was a 1500m race or a 1609m race (a significant difference really, if you're going for a goal). Lisa is an amazing athlete (just ask her what her best Boston Marathon time was), and 5:30 sounds incredibly intimidating. So, for my goal time, I arbitrarily added a minute to Lisa's best time. Given the speed I'll be running, yeah, I can believe Lisa would finish 3/4 of a lap in front of me in a mile race. She is that good.
I'll be training at a 6:00 pace
For this experiment, I have decided to try a new training approach.
Instead of training long(-ish) distances and run speed workouts, I'm going to run faster than my desired target race pace for as long as I can, then stop. I'm going to train my arms and legs to move the speed I want them to move. Since I'm not training to be faster than someone, and not training at all to go faster-faster-faster-as-fast-as-humanly-possible-to-go, I can try this new training plan, see if it works. If I were on a team, where I needed to win races, scoring points for my school, then I'd doubt this would fly, since you always want someone to run as fast as possible. Since I'm trying for a specific time, I can play around with this different training technique.
So, for 4-5 days a week, I'm going to go out and run 50 meters a number of times at an 11 second pace. Sure, that's 0.25 seconds faster than my target pace, but I'm sure the time it takes for me to check my watch for my pace will cover than quarter second.
For reference, 11 seconds for a 50m run is, by the way, incredibly slow, close to half the speed of my all-out top-speed 50m pace.
Initially, the plan is to run these 50m runs at the 11 second pace, then rest for a minute, until I can't run that pace any longer. While I'm not in the best of shape, I don't know how well this initial training will go. I don't know if I'll manage 3 runs or 30 before I can't keep up the pace. The minute rest is also arbitrary, I might change that to rest until my heart rate drops to 120 beats per minute.
Once a week or so, I'm going to run as far as I can go at this race pace, until I can't maintain that pace at all. I'll set my watch to beep every 5.6 seconds to let me know when I should have run 25 yards, giving me fairly quick feedback on my pace and how well I'm maintaining it.
As the distance I can maintain the 6:00 pace increases, I'll increase the training distance, from 50m to 100m to 150m and 200m. I figure eventually I'll be running 90 second 400m, which is so dog slow, I swear. However, a 3:00 800m sounds FABULOUS to me, since it's only 1 second slower than my lifetime personal best for 800m. Oooooooo, that would be so awesome, since I could probably go for broke and push out a faster time for that ONE run I cared about.
What do I have to look forward to?
So, there are some serious disadvantages to trying out this new training technique, and I'm sure I'll think of more. The ones that come to mind at the moment include:
1. I'm two decades out from my fastest 400m time. I'm not exactly in the prime part of my physical life. This training is going to take serious effort.
2. My knee being sort and nominally injured means I'll be able to run only as far as it allows When it says stop, I'll need to stop, and not start up again until it resets.
3. The speed I train at is the speed I'll run. If I wanted to run a 5:30 1500m, I'd have to start the training process over again, relearning the new speed.
4. Since the training is slower than my sprint speed, I risk losing top speed. I'm not overly worried about this issue, since I'll still be playing ultimate and working out at Velocity.
Advantages I have now
1. I'm stronger mentally than I was when I'm running at school. I recognize that I choose to run these runs. In school, I ran because I was supposed to, here I'm running because I want to try this new training, and that choice makes me stronger.
2. The training is an experiment. Experiments don't always work. If I fail, I may still achieve a respectable 800m time.
3. I'll still be in better shape after the experiment than I would be without it.
I need to figure out how to track my progress. Right now, I think I'll just decide at the end of each training session if I should increase the time or number of runs. I'm also thinking that completing 10 reps of my training distance at pace is sufficient to increase the training distance. I might need to increase the number of how-far-can-I-go tries to more than once a week, too.
I'm very excited about this plan.