Renato Canova Marathon Training Philosophy

Renato Canova
Renato Canova

Renato Canova is an Italian coach.  In his long career, he has worked in Italy, Qatar, China, and Kenya.

His athletes have won many top international middle and long distance competitions. Moses Mosop, Wilson Kiprop, Abel Kirui, Wilson Kipsang, Geoffrey Kirui, and Florence Kiplagat are some of the many athletes he has coached.

He talked about his marathon training philosophy in Valencia, Spain in 2017. Following are the four periods in his training cycle:

  1. Transition Period
  2. General Period
  3. Fundamental Period
  4. Specific Period

Let’s take a look at these in detail with the example workouts:

1. Transition Period: 4 weeks after the marathon

The transition period comes after finishing a goal race – typically a marathon. It focuses mainly on recovery, which is not just resting and waiting. Canova says that when we complete a marathon, we lose some of our strength. And the first goal of this period is to rebuild it.

Here is what we do in this period:

  • Easy run lasting no longer than 1 hour. Focus on recovery.
  • Muscle strengthening. General strength training.
  • Running Technique. Short hill sprints.

2. General Period: 4 weeks

Training General Resistance

We start to run longer, build strength, endurance and ability to recruit faster fibers.

Long run at even pace:

  • 2 sessions per week at 75% of MP. Duration of 1:30 to 2:00.
  • 2 sessions per week at 80% of MP. Duration of 1:20 to 1:40.
  • 1 session per week at 87% of MP. Duration of 1:00-1:20.
  • 5 sessions per week of regeneration. Duration of :45 to 1:00.

These are a lot of sessions. And Canova says that’s because he starts with athletes who generally run twice a day. They do about 13 sessions per week. And because there is nothing of very high intensity yet, they need only one session each day to recover.

Long run with variations of speed (Fartlek)

  • 1 session per week. Duration of 1:00 to 1:20.
  • Example: 20’ warm up + mixed variations:
    • 3 x 3’ at MP with 2’ at 80% MP plus
    • 5 x 2’ at MP with 2’ at 80% MP plus
    • 20 x 1’ at 105% MP with 1’ at 80% MP

This is one workout. After the tests (the hard portions of the fartlek), you shouldn’t jog. By running the recovery portions of fartlek, faster (as described above); you’ll be able to clear the lactate in a short time.

Long continuous run uphill

  • 1 session per week.
  • 10-12km. 3-4% gradient. 90% of max effort.
  • Goal: To increase strength endurance and mental resistance.

Long continuous run in progression of speed

  • 1 session per week.
  • 12-16km. Start at 80% of MP and increase speed to 100% of MP.
  • During the last 2 weeks of General Period try to run the last 2km at max personal speed

Training Strength Endurance

  • 1 session every 2 weeks, alternated with circuits on the hill.
  • Example: 4-6 x circuits. 6 minutes rest between the circuits.
    • 30s of skipping, 50m of bounding, 30s of heel to butt kicks, 30s of jumping with neutral feet, 30s of Sagittal splits, 10 squat jumps. 400m at MP in between.

Canova calls these modifier circuits. He says that marathoners don’t need high strength. They need strength endurance. And these circuits help with this.

There can be many types of modifier circuits. They can be done on a hill or on a track. The above example is for the track. So one set of the circuit is 2400 meters plus the exercises. It’s quite demanding and that’s why there is a rest of 6 minutes between the sets.

Below is a hill circuit example that his athletes perform in Iten, Kenya. He says it’s only possible because they have a track that is at the top of a hill.

  • 3 x 600 or 800 or 1k at marathon pace with 1-minute recovery
  • 6 x 60m sprints max speed uphill
  • And they repeat this for about 5 times

3. Fundamental Period: 6 weeks

Training General Resistance

  • Long Run at even pace, 80% of MP (marathon pace). Lasting 2:00-3:00.
  • Goal is to improve the adaptation of the body structure and to get used to time on feet. Training doesn’t have to have a direct influence on the performance, but it is fundamental to training for the marathon.

Canova calls this type of training “duration”. It helps your body to adapt to long distances. And also prepares you mentally. Duration training is not run at a high effort level. So it doesn’t directly influence your performance but prepares your body for the more specific training.

Training Aerobic Resistance

  • Long continuous run at even pace, at 85-87% of MP. Anywhere from 1:30-2:00
  • Goal is to improve the utilization of fatty acids and biomechanic efficiency with increased fatigue. This is the link between General and Specific.

This is a bit shorter and faster run compared to the long run above.

Training Basic Aerobic Endurance

  • Long Continuous Run at even pace, from 87-93%. Lasting from 1:10 to 1:40.
  • Long Continuous run alternating medium distance reps (3-6km) at 93% of MP with short distances (1-2km) at 80% of MP for a total volume of 25-30km.
  • This is the link between General and Specific and leading into specific marathon speed endurance.

We’re still bridging the gap. If an athlete isn’t ready to handle the long continuous run then repeats at that pace with short rest help close that gap. We’re focusing on specificity and getting that volume in.

Training Special Aerobic Endurance

  • Long Continuous run at even pace, run at 93-100% of MP, lasting from 20km to 30km.
  • Long continuous run alternating medium distances (2-6km) at 98% of MP with short distances (1km) at 80% of MP for a total volume of 25-30km.

This is similar to specific marathon speed endurance in the specific period – but done at a lower intensity in the Fundamental Period.

Training Aerobic Power

Long continuous run at even pace. Run at 100% to 110% of MP. Lasting from 8k-20k. Examples:

  • 8-10km at 110% of MP
  • 15km at 105% of MP
  • HM race
  • 16km in progression (4k progressions of MP, 102%, 104%, 106%)

These short to medium distance sessions are at or above the goal marathon pace. Shorter races can be run to check fitness before moving to the Specific Period.

Long repeats on track (1k to 4k) at 105-110% of MP

  • 2x3k at 103% of MP + 3x2k @ 105% of MP + 4 x 1k @ 108% of MP. Recovery 3 minutes
  • 10 x 1600 at 105% with 2:30 recovery
  • 1k/2k/3k/4k/3k/2k/1k/ at 100% to 108% of MP

These track sessions are longer and faster with a bit longer recoveries.

Long run with variations of speed (Fartlek)

  • 20 x 1’ fast with 1’ at 80% MP + 20 x 30” fast with 30” easy.
  • 15 x 3’ fast with 1’ at 80% MP.
  • 2 x 6/5/4/3/2/1 min fast with 1’ easy with 5’ easy in between sets.

The tests are run by effort as there is no specific pace given. The focus is on being fast.

Training Strength Endurance

Long continuous uphill of 6-12km all at 90% of effort

  • 6km at 6-8%
  • 10k at 4-6%
  • 12k at 3-5%
  • 8km at 3-10% at progressive effort

Long hill repeats (500m to 2000m)

  • 10 x 500m at 95% of effort with 4-5 minutes recovery. 8-10% grade.
  • 5 x 1500m at 90% of effort with 6-8 minutes recovery. 5-6% grade.
  • 3 x 2k at 95% of effort with 10 minutes recovery. 3-5% grade.

Uphill circuits of 3’ to 6’

  • 4-6 repeats of circuit. 6-8’ in between. 4-7% grade.
  • 200m at 95% of effort. 50m skip. 300m at 90% effort. 50m bounding. 400m at 85% effort. 50m butt kicks. 450m uphill hard. Jog back down.

4. Specific Period: 10 weeks

Canova says that this period is the most important.

He gives an example to explain the difference between Specific and fundamental periods. He says that the previous period is about internal load. Internal load is your effort level during training. For example, an athlete is asked to run 10 x 1000m in 3 minutes with 2-minute recovery. He starts at the required pace but can’t run the later repeats at the same speed – for whatever reason (bad weather etc.). Canova says he should still complete the training as long as the effort level is the same.

This changes in the specific period. It’s not about internal load anymore, it’s about external load. Training becomes mathematic.

So if the same situation occurs, and the athlete can’t run at the required speed. He needs to stop as this training becomes useless. In this period, training should be performed in a mathematical way. This workout should be done later.

Below are the workouts:

Training Basic Aerobic Endurance

  • Long Continuous run at even pace. Run at 90% of MP. Duration of 1:45 to 2:20.
  • Once every 2 weeks
  • Goal is to maintain the efficiency and anaerobic threshold.

This long continuous run is used to keep up aerobic efficiency. It’s performed once in two weeks because It’s demanding as it’s near the race pace.

Training Specific Marathon Speed Endurance

  • Long continuous run at even pace. Run at 96-100% of MP. Duration is 25k to 40k.
  • Long continuous alternating medium distance repeats (2-6k) at 98-103% MP with short distance (1k) at 80% for a total volume of 23-34km.
  • Goal is to improve the ability to remove lactate from muscle fibers.

Other examples:

  • 4 x 5km at MP alternated with 1k at 80% MP
  • 7/6/5/4/3/2 km repeats with 98% to 103% MP with 1k at 80% MP
  • 4 x 6km as (4k at MP, 1k @ 95% MP, 1k @ 110% MP) with 1k at 70% MP

Side Note: Canova has posted a ton of information about his training methods on letsrun forum. In one of those threads, he classified his training types into the following 4 categories:

  1. Regeneration: For better and faster recovery
  2. Fundamental: For creating the aerobic base for putting in higher-intensity training
  3. Special: Directly supports the Specific Training
  4. Specific: Has direct influence on the performance

Based on these, the training periods were called – Introductive Period, Fundamental Period, Special Period and Specific Period. If you read about these, you’ll find they are quite similar to the ones he explained in his 2017 talk.

Here are a few more interesting things about his training:

Canova’s Special Blocks

Special blocks can help athletes train more. For example, if an athlete can run 30 kilometers max on a particular day, he can reach 50 or more using special blocks. The first portion of the workout is performed in the morning and the second in the afternoon. The time between these allows the athlete to recover well.

It is important to be well recovered and not fatigued before performing special blocks.

Examples:

Special block of Volume:

  • 10km at 90% of MP + 20 km at MP in the morning.
  • And then the same workout in the afternoon.

Mixed Special Block:

  • 10 km at 90% of MP + 10 km at 102% of MP in the morning.
  • 10 km at 90% of MP + 12 x 1000m at 105% with 1’30” recovery in the afternoon.

Between the two sessions, the athlete eats only vegetables and drinks water – without filling his tank with carbohydrates. The goal is to teach the body to use all the resources for lasting at marathon pace.

Marathon Mileage

Mileage without thinking about the “speed of the mileage” is useless.

Big volume alone doesn’t improve the performance of top-level athletes. They need quality. In order to produce quality, we need to use big modulation between high intensity and recovery.

Specific quality work for a marathon are paces closer to the marathon pace (about 10%). So too slow runs, no matter how long, don’t directly influence performance.

Many years ago some athletes were running 300km a week. A Japanese runner used to run 480km. Two times during the preparation, the Japanese runners used to run a 100km run – calling it mentalization. This volume destroyed their bodies. As a result, they didn’t last more than 2 years.

Today’s top athletes run a maximum of 200km in a week. Mostly around 170 and 180. They improve by increasing the volume of intensity, not the volume.

To illustrate his point, Canova gives an example (only an example) of a runner starting at 18. This is how the percentage of general and specific training would change – over the span of many years:

18 years : 60 miles (80% general + 20% specific)
19 years : 70 miles (80% + 20%)
20 years : 80 miles (80% + 20%)
21 years : 100 miles (75% + 25%)
22 years : 120 miles (75% + 25%)
23 years : 140 miles (75% + 25%)
24 years : 140 miles (70% + 30%)
25 years : 150 miles (70% + 30%)
26 years : 150 miles (65% + 35%)
27 years : 150 miles (60% + 40%)
28 years : 160 miles (60% + 40%)
29 years : 150 miles (55% + 45%)
30 years : 140 miles (50% + 50%)
32 years : 120 miles (40% + 60%)
35 years : 80 miles (20% + 80%)

Easy Pace (Regeneration)

Canova’s easy pace doesn’t mean running too slow. Running too slow results in – (i) long ground contact time, (ii) losing muscular tension, and (iii) increase in the eccentric contraction – when absorbing the ground impact.

That’s why top-level athletes feel more comfortable running a little bit faster.

Also, if your normal pace during training is between 85 to 90 percent of your maximal intensity, it’s not difficult to move to 100 from there.

But if you are at 60% at all times, moving from 60 to 100 is very difficult.

Individualization

Canova puts a big emphasis on individualization.

He says that the athletes don’t follow a training plan. But the training plan follows the athletes. This means the program must change according to what the athlete needs at the moment.

There are training principles for an event. But there isn’t one ultimate plan that will work for every athlete.

He says that the principle of individualization of training is the winning principle when we speak about top athletes.

Useful Links:

Renato Canova talk at Valencia, Spain

If you want to dig deeper, I recommend searching for Canova’s posts and comments on letsrun.com. Unfortunately, there is no way to find his posts in an organized manner. It’s very difficult but totally worth it. You can start with something like this on Google:

“Renato Canova” site:letsrun.com

All the best!

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The Arthur Lydiard Training Principles

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