If you are a runner, you know the scene. You and your friends make it back to the parking lot, look down at your watch and it says 8.96 miles. Inevitably someone starts doing mini circles around the car until that number flips over to 9.00. It’s crazy, illogical, and makes little sense.

I’ve done it.

Will those last few circles at 15-minute mile pace actually do anything? Of course not. Nevermind the fact that our GPS watches have a measurement error where 8.96 might actually be 9.06 miles in reality. Yet, we still do it.

Suffice to say, as runners we are obsessed with distance. It’s ingrained in our minds that the volume of training is of the utmost importance. After all, we calculate it and circle it at the end of every week in our training log.

In a recent talk on training, famed Italian coach Renato Canova asks a question, “I am a crazy coach and I have two athletes. One is African and one is European or American. I tell them your training tomorrow is running 20km in 1-hour. Averaging 3minutes per km. Both of them are unable to do (this)…What are they to do?”

With both athletes set up to fail, as they are unable to complete the workout, what do they do? In this hypothetical scenario, Canova details that the American would look at the workout and say, okay I have to get in 20km, So I’m going to run 20km at the hardest effort that he can. So he completes 20km at 3:20 per kilometer pace.

The African, on the other hand, focuses on the pace. The intensity of the effort is of paramount importance. He runs the correct (3:00 per kilometer) pace until he no longer can. Maybe he makes it 14km or 16km. It doesn’t matter. As Canova states, the African thinks “when I finish the fuel, I stop.”

What this hypothetical scenario does is illustrate the difference in mindsets between the two runners. For one, volume or distance is paramount. For the other, the intensity is what matters. And these two different mindsets shape how each group sees training.

The African is about extending the quality. If he or she can last a little bit longer at the desired quality, then it is progress. From talking with athletes who I’ve had train over in Kenya and Ethiopia, you see this quite frequently. A group of runners might jump in the workout with a world-class runner. The “no-name” athlete will try to run with the Pro for as long as he can that day.

On the other hand, in Western culture, think back to when you are assigned a workout. The emphasis is on FINISHING the workout. If it’s 5x1mile at 5:00 pace, then five-mile repeats will be completed, even if you slow to 5:20 on the last one. That’s the norm. We put the emphasis on the volume.

Our lens of how we view training is set by cultural norms. Ideas and concepts turn into rules of training that become cemented into our minds thanks to a combination of traditional and mindsets.

This isn’t to say that East Africans don’t run a lot (they do) or that Americans or Europeans don’t run fast (they do), but it’s about how our viewpoint shifts what we assign value to. Because we value volume, it becomes the goal. Whether that’s in completing our workout, circling parking lots to “complete” our run, dictating training (“go run 9 miles easy”), or in the famous “How many miles per week do you run?” It even infiltrates our training periodization models, which often favor an achievement of a certain volume before intensity is increased or considered.

Of course, there are subtleties in this dichotomy and it is not either/or but a spectrum. But for athletes and coaches, it’s important to understand our bias and how our lens frames how we see and interact with training. Not that we should completely eliminate it, but that thinking of training in a different way allows us to have another tool in the toolbox for changing the stimulus in training.

Or perhaps, it gets you to stop and think the next time you are doing mini loops around the car in the parking lot, “Is this really accomplishing anything?”

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The East African vs. American Mindset to Running: Volume or Quality

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