I often wonder if there are multiple training paths to success, or if there is indeed one best training path that makes a given runner the very best he or she can be. Since Olympic athletes in the same race all have different coaches and therefore don’t train exactly the same way, there are at least a couple of conclusions that can be drawn: (1) there are multiple ways to train to succeed, or (2) there really is a best way, but very few runners, coaches, and scientists know what it is, and the talent of the athletes is the real driver of their success, whether they are Olympians or good recreational runners.

I believe the second conclusion is the right one.   

There are many ways to make chicken parmigiana, but there is a way that will make chicken parmigiana taste the best—by adding the precise amount of the right ingredients at the right times during the cooking process. Cooking involves chemistry—the way flavors interact with one another, how the heating process activates the flavor and the nutrients in the ingredients, and so on.  

Training a runner also involves chemistry and is even more complicated than cooking because of biological adaptation. How do we know the precise combination of workout ingredients that will lead a runner to a physiological peak? How do we know what the best order of those workouts are? How do we know when in the training plan to do them? How do we know how much of a given type of workout to do? How do we know the right time to do another workout after doing a workout on Tuesday? How do we know what that workout on Tuesday (and then the next one, and the next one) should be?

These are hard questions for science to answer. The questions keep me up at night, because the scientist, coach, and runner in me wants to know the precise combination of workouts that make a runner reach his or her genetic potential. Some coaches try to answer them through years of trial and error. But most coaches and runners don’t pay attention to how they’re cooking the chicken parmigiana.   

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