Kelly Liljeblad, of OnTrack Coaching, is a former elite marathon runner. She has over a decade of experience racing at the elite level. Her personal bests include a 2:32 marathon, 1:12 half marathon and 32 minute 10k. Over the course of her career, Kelly has trained with world class athletes and under the guidance of world renowned coaches, including Greg McMillan, Jack Daniels, and Brad Hudson. OnTrack is extremely fortunate to have a coach of this caliber. In this article, Kelly explains how she transformed Meghan Lout from a 3:51 marathon to an elite 2:52 marathon runner. Read about their journey and plans as they set their sights on the 2016 Olympic Marathon Trials.
One of the biggest challenges to training a high performance athlete is preventing injury and burnout.
Meghan contacted me in 2010. She had a few years of running experience but never followed a progressive plan. Her results were average, yet her mind-set, passion for running, and strong work ethic revealed great potential. Our goals were to help Meghan evolve into a mentally and physically strong athlete while avoiding injury.
Our first step was to get together and discuss her long term plan. I asked Meghan where she wanted to be with her running 3 years from now. We discussed what she needed to do to get there. We broke down her long-term goal into short-term process and performance goals.
Her performance goals were to improve her 10K and half marathon times. Meghan had a tremendous amount of endurance. She could run forever. She had some solid marathon results, yet her 10K and half marathon time needed improvement. To develop Meghan into a strong marathon runner we needed to improve her leg speed and threshold.
We then set process goals. We came up with goals that would help us achieve our performance goals. Our process goals were to remain healthy, employ proper recovery techniques and adjust her training to elicit a higher threshold. Having concrete goals motivated Meghan to work hard, focus on all the details, and overcome setbacks more easily. Goal-setting provided us with a vision. We built one year at a time, while keeping our eye on the prize: getting an Olympic Trials Qualifier.
Developing a Training Plan
As I started to develop a training plan for Meghan. I looked over her running history, her strengths, her weaknesses, her physiological make-up and developed a plan specifically for Meghan. Her previous training was highly unstructured. She held onto a decent base year to year, but there was no progression, and her fitness had plateaued. I shifted the focus from aerobic conditioning to strength, leg speed and running efficiency. Some of the adjustments we made included:
Long Run: To develop her strength, I shortened Meghan’s long runs and included more medium long runs at or just above goal marathon race pace. It’s not always just about time on your feet. It’s about being able to dial into marathon race pace and hold it. We also included fast finish long runs. I learned this workout from Gabriele Rosa, a world renowned marathon coach, while training with the National team in Lake Tahoe. Meghan would run the first 8-10 miles at her normal long run pace and then progress in speed over the last 4-8 miles. This is a very tough workout yet very effective in developing stamina. To avoid injury and over-training, we cycled hilly, aerobic long runs with fast finish long runs and marathon paced long runs throughout her training plan.
Hill Sprints: While living in Boulder, I had the privilege of training with elite running coach Brad Hudson. A key session in our weekly training regimen was a series of hill sprints. I included this session in Meghan’s plan. In the second half of her run, she would perform 10-15 second maximum-intensity steep hill sprints. Not many marathon runners would consider this type of workout, yet the workout has significant training benefits. The purpose was to strengthen her running muscles, thereby making her less injury prone and improving her stride efficiency.
VO2 Max Intervals: Like most runners, Meghan previously ran mostly in the “grey zone” - not easy, but not hard enough to elicit a training benefit. We injected high intensity intervals into her training plan to improve her VO2 max, the maximum rate at which your body can use oxygen when performing a specific sport. The higher your VO2 max, the longer or faster you can run. A key VO2 max session for Meghan was 6-8×800’s, all at best effort with equal recovery periods. VO2 max intervals are very taxing and require adequate recovery time, so I had to strategically place them in her training plan.
AlterG: To help Meghan maintain a high workload and remain injury free, I had her do frequent recovery runs on our AlterG, anti-gravity treadmill.
In addition to Meghan’s training adjustments, I also put a big emphasis on her mental preparation. She had very little experience with the mental component of racing. I taught Meghan the importance of mental preparation, visualization and confidence. I taught her how to be a fierce competitor. One of the biggest challenges to training a high performance athlete is preventing injury and burnout. I encouraged Meghan to be diligent with her recovery, nutrition, and overall health.
I didn’t pack all her free time with training. We worked together to develop a training plan with a workload she could maintain while getting in adequate recovery: keeping up with her functional strength training program, getting 8 hours of sleep a night, allowing time for a weekly massage, and a bit of a social life too! Essentially, we maximized the hours Meghan had to train.
Meghan’s hard work, patience, and commitment to the plan is paying off. After one year of working with me, she went on to run a 2:52 marathon at Hartford and set a personal best in the 10K and half marathon. Our goals for the spring are to continue to work on her performance goals: getting her 10k and half time down even further. Despite her passion for marathon racing, I convinced Meghan to skip a spring marathon to focus her energy on developing the leg speed she will need to run a fast marathon. Once her half marathon time is where we need it to be, we will move forward with the plan and begin full on marathon training. Her improved leg speed and threshold will no doubt carry her to a new marathon personal best.
I am extremely excited to be working with Meghan. Her progress has been remarkable. Her new PB’s are the result of specific goal-setting, progressive training, focused recovery, and the development of mental training skills. We still have a way to go yet so much to look forward to. Onwards and upwards!