Training

Hitting a Plateau? ‘Crash Training’ May Be Your Way Out

The case for occasionally hitting training hard for two to three days—then recovering harder. Plus, 3 rules for crash training carefully.

Back in the 1970s, the British Milers’ Club, which included such superstars as Olympian Steve Ovett, conducted training programs in which experienced runners would do a three-day “camp” where they compressed most of their normal weekly volume into a three-day weekend. 

On the first day (a Friday), recalls British-born international coach Peter Thompson, now residing in Eugene, Ore., they would run two or three times. Then, on Saturday and Sunday they would run three times a day—a total of eight to nine workouts in a three-day weekend.

Afterward, they would take it very easy for the next four days. For the first two, they would do nothing but walking, swimming, and cycling. On the next two, they might add in easy 3-mile runs.

Harriers, Milers and Ultrarunners

It’s the type of thing that high school athletes might normally have done at the end of summer this year, in such programs as Oregon’s famed Steens Mountain High Altitude Running Camp, where since 1975, the best high school runners in the region have run sagebrush trails and powered up steep grades on a 9,773-foot mountain range in eastern Oregon. 

But fondly as some might remember such programs, developing high school runners isn’t what Thompson is talking about. 

The program he remembers was aimed at more experienced runners—specifically ones who’d been training for at least ten years, injury free. Mature runners, in other words, who felt that they’d plateaued, and were looking for a kick in the pants to help them move to the next level. “The massive stimulus of crash training triggers a greater adaptation response than normal,” he says. 

“Cyclists do it, swimmers do it, and, strange to say, even great Finnish runners of the past did it,” another British Coach, Frank Horwill, wrote in an undated post for the UK’s Serpentine Running Club. 

Horwill, who died in 2012, cofounded the British Miler’s Club in 1963, in the years leading up to an era in the mid 1970s and early 1980s when British milers ruled the world. 

“Harry Wilson, Steve Ovett’s coach, was a firm believer in crash-training weekends at Merthyr Mawr for the GB team…most of it on the murderously steep sand dunes,” Horwill added. 

British Olympian Steve Ovett competing here in the 1984 Olympic Games. Photo: Gilbert Lundt/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

Ben Rosario, head coach of Hoka’s Northern Arizona Elite program, notes that milers aren’t the only runners to have tried this. 

“This sort of crash training is also popular in the ultrarunning world,” he says. “Those athletes will often run back-to-back long runs on a weekend to simulate (on the second run) what they feel like in the second half of an ultra.”

Fitting Around the 9 to 5

He himself has never tried such a thing with his athletes. “Coaching professionals, at altitude, I prefer to space things out,” he says. “But that’s just how we do it. Sometimes, especially for amateurs, your training has to be fit around your work schedule, so I think for runners with a demanding Monday-Friday job, doing a ‘big’ weekend makes a lot of sense. Then you take Monday off and absorb all that work.” 

One such runner is former University of Portland 10K star Kellie Houser, who has been doing a lot of this for the past three years. “As a nurse providing inpatient care, I work 12+-hour days, often two or three in succession,” she says. 

In exchange, she often gets two to three days off in a row. That’s when she switches into training mode. 

“On my work days, I can get in about 4-6 miles,” she says, “usually at a fairly easy pace.” But on off-work days, she usually finds that she can get in a hard workout on one day, and a long run on the other — possibly even including “a fairly solid” tempo workout. “I like to think that my easier runs on work days keep me hungry to push when I have the time to do it,” she says.

This approach has let her to return to competitive running with a fresh perspective after several years of “rather unstructured” training — allowing her to average about 60 miles a week and returning to competition on the roads and local cross-country races. 

Her teammate (both from college and their present club) Theresa Hailey sometimes does something similar. 

In the summer before the 2020 U.S. Olympic Team Marathon Trials, where Hailey finished 77th, with a PR 2:42:49 on a tough, windy course, Hailey several times indulged in crash training. In part, it was because of her own job as an aerospace engineer, which often kept her pretty busy at the start of the week.

But she’d also discovered that when her job gave her time, it was possible to throw normal training rules out the window and hit the backcountry for long weekends that helped her “catapult” her fitness for the following racing season — especially if she ran them at the highest available altitude.

Hailey racing in the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials. Photo: Oiselle

Thompson notes that crash training is something that must be done sparingly. “True crash training would only be done a maximum of three times a year, and usually less,” he says.

Rosario agrees. “To me, it’s a risk/reward situation,” he says, noting that the risk is the risk of injury that comes from “piling on” work without the usual amounts of recovery.

2:10 marathoner Ryan Vail concurs. “I would be scared to try this approach now, as I near the end of my career,” he says, “but the idea does interest me.” Vail points to the idea of maximizing the stress/recovery/supercompensation cycle. 

“There does seem to be a benefit to loading up and then taking recovery very seriously for a couple of days — especially when people are also working and can’t consistently put in training seven days per week,” he says. He thinks that steady high mileage day after day, “can cause a slow burnout and doesn’t give your body proper resting periods to benefit from the hard workouts you’ve put in. Really going all in for a day or two and then allowing your body to soak up and maintain the strength built, by including true recovery days, could avoid that.”

Have Fun and Chill

Hailey notes that her own forays into crash training have been both infrequent and cautious — as well as being early in the training season. “There are always a few rules I set for myself,” she says.

Rule number one is to “just have fun” and “throw pace out the window. These runs are purely about the effort and enjoying the scenery.”

Rule number two is that each run is the “event” for the day. “The rest of the day I get to sit back, relax, and let my body recover. Soaking in a lake or a river is a must!”

Rule number three is even simpler: “Make sleep a priority.”

Typically, she adds, that when she and her husband Tom Fuchs do these runs, “we are in a camping setting, so all three of these rules are quite easy to execute.”

Unstated is that when you get home, you really do have to recover. 

“What I find really great about these kinds of weekends is we typically come out of them fresh and excited, versus feeling completely sore, with muscles that are trashed,” she says. “I’m not sure how that is possible, but I think the rules have something to do with it.”