February 28, 2020

Training tips for runners: how to train like the pros

Over the years, Jenelle Deatherage has adjusted her running routine to fit her life — from her college years winning Big Ten Conference championships with her teammates on University of Wisconsin cross country and track teams to her time running professionally with a contract with Reebok to her current life stage of balancing recreational running with a full-time job and two young children.

“I retired from running professionally but then picked up marathoning for fun and to better relate to my patients,” said Deatherage, a physical therapist with the UW Health Sports Medicine Runners Clinic.

Even though running is no longer her full-time gig, 42-year-old Deatherage still maintains her edge as an elite runner, and she recently traveled to Atlanta to compete in the 2020 Olympic marathon trials. She shares these tips on how to train like a pro.

How to train like a professional runner

Step it up. “I think the biggest difference is volume and intensity. A professional marathoner will run upwards of 120 miles a week, whereas more recreational marathoners will run 40 to 50 miles a week,” said Deatherage, who averages about 80 miles a week herself. But beware of falling into the “weekend warrior” trap: pros know it’s best to train consistently and build up gradually.

Take time to recover. “Professional runners take days off just like recreational runners do, and they arguably do a better job of it because you can’t reach that level without taking care of yourself,” she said. While Deatherage doesn’t have as much time to recover as she did during her pre-kid, professional running days, she still tries to take a day off from running every two weeks, especially after her longer runs. “Make sure you’re taking recovery days between your hard days,” she said.

Listen to your body when you have an injury. “The pros are surrounded by people who are keeping an eye on them: they have a trainer, a PT, a physician, a coach, who all keep tabs on them so if they have a little injury that creeps up, they’re more likely to take care of it right away as opposed to letting it linger,” she said. “People are sometimes hesitant to treat an injury, but getting into see a professional sooner rather than later is not only better for treating that injury, but also for tackling any underlying issues that might be causing problems.”

Tap into the power of your mind. “There’s such a mental component to distance running,” Deatherage said. “At the professional level, you might work with a sports psychologist to work on imagery and other sports psychology tools, but there are things you can do on your own. I like to imagine race day when I’m in the middle of my training. I imagine myself in the middle or at the end of the race so that when I get to the starting line, I’ve already been there in my head. It takes away the anxiety a bit.”

Maintain a healthy lifestyle. “At the pro level, you have luxury of having more time so you can get 10 hours of sleep and cook healthy meals,” she said. “At the recreational level, you’re often doing the cost-benefit analysis: Do I get out of bed and go for this run or do I sleep? Sometimes those extra miles are going to backfire on you and you’re getting to get sick and be out for a week — sometimes it’s better to skip the run and get the extra sleep.”

Vary your workout. When you’re limited on time, it’s tempting to just stick with the runs you love, but you’ll do better if you balance your runs with strength training. “The strengthening is important, especially for the aging athlete, when we start to see changes in the running gait because of loss of muscle,” she said. “If you’re weighing getting in 45 miles a week versus 55 miles, it might be better to do 45 with a good dynamic warm-up, and get in three good days of strengthening and a good night’s sleep.”

Get some professional help. It’s never too late to achieve your personal best. If you’re looking for other tips to step up your running game, consider the UW Health Sports Medicine Runners Clinic for a personalized evaluation of your running gait and routine. “The cool thing about our Runners Clinic is you don’t have to be a high-level athlete to benefit from it, but at the same time, you’re getting the highest level of care as a runner,” she said.