The principles of training by Jack Daniels

Why anyone should read about training principles? Because they are the foundation of any training program and because they are not all as intuitive and understandable as some people might think they are.

Why Jack Daniels? Well, a good number of coaches has written about principles of training, but I particularly like how Jack Daniels has put it straight and simple, without any philosophy or mystery in his Daniels’ Running Formula – probably the best known (and in my opinion the best) book in the world written about long distance running.

Ok, so what are we talking about? What are those principles in general?

Simply speaking, the principles of running describe basic laws that govern our bodies and how they react to repeated stress of consecutive workouts. The principles of training tell us how to build training plans in order to take the full advantage of the work done, and to avoid overtraining and injuries. We don’t discuss here technical principles like warmup, cooldown, usage of certain workout types and the like, but about fundamental principles concerning the influence of training on runners.

The training principles:

1) Stress reaction

This is pretty obvious, but it need to be said – our bodies react (adjust) to stress that is being applied through workout, and the rest of our life on a daily basis (both positive, like workout, rest, sleep, regeneration, food, and negative, like alcohol, drugs etc)

As we are talking about training, Daniels distinguishes two types of stress reactions:

  • Acute reaction, that you get after each particular stress, like climbing stairs, getting up from a seat, running to catch a bus. In such case the reaction would probably consist of a risen blood pressure, faster heart-beat, increased ventilation, muscle discomfort. You get those reactions each time you do a given activity;
  • Training effect, which results from adaptation of the body to repeated stress. As the body adjusts to training that is being applied to it, it is getting stronger and the acute reactions to a particular level of stress are getting weaker. Those adaptations make your body more robust and able to withstand more stress.

2) Specificity (of training)

This principle means that muscles stressed are muscles that adapt, in other words, when you train long distance running, you become a better long distance runner, but not a better jumper or a better bodybuilder…  If you want to get better in a given activity, you must train this activity. Some training that is beneficial to a given activity is also detrimental to another, so one must be careful when choosing cross-training supplemental activities.

3) Specificity of overtraining (overstress)

As more stress leads to more adaptation, too much stress leads to overstress. In that case a given body part does not get tougher but weakens or even breaks down. In any sport the main goal of training is to improve, and you don’t improve during training – you improve during rest and recovery process through super compensation process. That is why the key point in executing any program is to listen to your body and react if a given stress is too strong and does not leave enough time for body to adapt to it before the next stress of the same or similar kind.

4) Training response

According to the principle of training response, a given stress (certain amount of workload at certain intensity with certain recovery repeated with certain frequency  – e.g. 5x1km with 1min breaks done two times/week ) will rise an athlete’s fitness to a certain level. If you want to achieve greater level of fitness you should increase one of the variables of training: either time spent on training, intensity of training or frequency of workouts, or limit rest – if training is done in intervals. According to coach Daniels, it is not a good idea to change more than one of those variables at once.

5) Personal limits

This principle is pretty much self-explanatory. Everyone has limits in ability to improve. Those limits may not be absolute, but in a given season a given athlete may not be able to improve over a certain limit. Sometimes a harder training may not result in improvement, but rather in overtraining. That is why listening to own body reactions is so important. According to Daniels runners should train according to their level of fitness “proved during races” and not according to an imaginary level that they desire.

6) Diminishing returns

This principle causes often frustration among amateur runners. It states that the more you train the less you improve. Let’s say that you run 20 miles per week and you are at a certain level of fitness. If you increase your mileage to 40 miles per week your fitness might improve by 40%, if you then increase your mileage further by 20 miles and reach 60 miles per week, you will not gain another 40%, but rather 25%. The closer you are to your personal limit, the more effort it takes to improve. In another words, it is a lot easier for a long distance runner to improve from 4h marathon to 3:30h, than later from 2:30h to 2:15h.

7) Accelerating setbacks

When considering setbacks, the curve is opposite to the diminishing returns pattern. The more you train (the greater the stress is) the greater is the chance of getting injured or losing interest in training. Every athlete should consider those two curves and honestly assess where he is at a given moment. It is usually not advisable for an amateur to increase stress just to gain 2% of fitness and risking 30% more chances of injury. It is probably otherwise, if you are a 2:04 marathoner trying to shave off one minute 🙂

The chart below shows the relation between changes in fitness level and risk of injury under increasing training stress.


8) Maintenance

The last of the Jack Daniels’s principles is the maintenance principle, which states that it is easier to maintain a given level of fitness that it was to achieve it at the first place. This is why it is possible to tapper before races without losing almost any of the fitness gained through training. This principle also leads to very important conclusion about legitimacy of training phases that stress certain abilities, while neglecting (maintaining) others. Bearing in mind this principle you can see how this can be beneficial and how it can provide athletes with the possibility of achieving greater levels of fitness, than it would be possible if training all abilities at once.

 In consecutive editions of his book Jack Daniels changed the number of principles and did some mixing among them, but the content itself has not changed.

The execution of those Training principles requires some experience and self-consciousness, but once learnt and understood they have the potential of saving the day and making difficult decisions somewhat easier. So, if you have some problems with your training plans or their execution, try to revise the principles of training – maybe they will help you to resolve your problems.

Article based on the book by Jack Daniels, PhD Daniels’ Running Formula, First, Second and Third editions, Human Kinetics

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