This article, written by Kristin Barry, first appeared in the March/April 2015 edition of our magazine.
As a general concept, almost all runners are familiar with doubles, a primary run or workout followed by a secondary, shorter recovery run. The benefits of the second run are well-established and include: promoting recovery via increased blood flow, releasing human growth hormone, and decreasing muscular soreness. However, until recently special block or double workouts have received little attention and have been an idea foreign to even the most dedicated runners. At a recent race a few of the top finishers talked about their special block training, strenuous two-a-day workouts, and I wanted to learn more about the benefits (and risks) of training this way.
What is a Special Block Workout?
Attributed to Italian coach Renato Canova, a special block workout consists of two demanding workouts run within a single day. Canova’s athletes reportedly run a fast, continuous run in the morning (just slower than or at marathon pace) and then a short to medium length interval workout run faster than marathon pace in the afternoon. Tackling two separate workouts challenges the athletes physically and mentally. Each workout stresses a different system and the fatigue from the first workout pushes the athlete to run the second workout on tired legs. Combined with a warmup and a cool-down, the total volume for the day for these elite athletes often totals upwards of 30 miles. While volume of this magnitude does not make sense for most runners, the concept can be adapted for a healthy, non-injury prone runner looking to reach a new level.
Why Run a Special Block Workout?
Undertaking a short period of intense training like this, when coupled with adequate recovery, leads to a supercompensation effect and a resulting jump in fitness. Anecdotally, athletes talk about having breakthrough races and being able to transcend a plateau after completing special block workouts. Physiologically, overloading the body in this way forces adaptations that ultimately leave the athlete stronger and faster. However—and this is key—the added stress causes a response that renders the athlete stronger only by allowing adequate recovery. Without adequate recovery, this workout could push a runner toward overtraining or injury. It is critical to remember that supercompensation does not occur during the workout itself. Appropriate and ample recovery before and after the special block is what enables the leap in fitness. For non-injury prone runners willing to recovery appropriately, completion of the special block’s second workout provides not only a physical boost but a mental boost as well. The second workout simulates the latter part of a marathon where it becomes increasingly difficult to push and maintain goal pace. Nailing a session like this manifests self-confidence, a necessity for any runner.
When and How?
Canova’s athletes and most who use special block workouts run them only about once a month. Because they are extremely taxing endeavors, double workouts should be done sparingly. Recovery both before—yes before—and after the special block workout is a must. Adjust your schedule or you’ll get hurt. You should plan to run at least two shorter, easy days before a special block workout and at least three to four after it. It cannot be overstated that adequate rest before and after the special block workout is crucial. For those unable to diverge from their usual schedule, the special block is not for you. But for those willing to allow sufficient recovery, it could be a way to take your training and racing to the next level.
Kristin Barry runs for Dirigo RC and is a frequent contributor to Level Renner.
To read more from our March/April 2015 issue, click here.
To read from our current issue, click here.