A comprehensive overview of Canova-style percentage-based training for runners

Percentage-based training is a mathematical approach to planning workouts for runners. Percentage-based methods are used by many top international coaches, most notably Renato Canova, to train runners at distances from 800m to the marathon. 

I could write a whole book about percentage-based training for runners (in fact, maybe I will someday), but the goal of this post is to give a clear, comprehensive, and readable overview of percentage-based training as a system—a set of principles that can be used to guide training decisions.

To this end, we’re going to focus on the concepts and rationale behind the percentage-based training method, as opposed to exact training calendars. This post does include an appendix with recommended workouts for every event from 800m to the marathon (even the 3k!), but event-specific full training calendars will be a project for another day.

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How much glycogen is stored in a runner’s liver?

Carbohydrate-rich foods in the shape of a liver in the style of a scientific illustration

Liver glycogen is a major source of carbohydrates for your muscles to burn when you’re running. The glycogen molecule is just a big long chain of glucose molecules which is optimized for long-term storage.

When your body needs carbs during a run during a run, your liver can break down glycogen into glucose, shuttle it into the bloodstream, and send it to your active muscles to be burned for energy.

Stored glycogen in your liver is particularly important for running the marathon and ultra distance races, since the glycogen that's locally in your muscles isn’t sufficient to get you to the finish line. But exactly how much glycogen do you store in your liver? And can training increase this amount?

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Review and summary of Marathon Training - A Scientific Approach by Renato Canova

Photo of the book Marathon Training - A Scientific Approach by Renato Canova and Enrico Arcelli

How do the best marathon runners in the world train? While you might catch a workout or two on Instagram or hear rumors about epic training weeks on message boards, there’s precious little information on the systematic approaches that elite coaches use with top marathon runners–and even less information on the science that backs up these approaches for designing marathon training programs.

One exception to this general rule has been the Italian coach Renato Canova, arguably the greatest living running coach and the topic of several of my previous posts on Running Writings. Canova freely discusses his training philosophy and posts example workouts or even full training schedules for the athletes he has worked with, which include Olympic and World Championships medallists.

In 1999, Canova even co-authored a book on the science of marathon training—however, there’s a bit of a catch: this book was printed through the IAAF (now World Athletics), not a traditional publishing company or printing press. As a result, Canova’s book is extraordinarily rare. I had heard of this book probably a decade ago, but in the intervening years I couldn't find any substantive information on its contents. Until now.

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Elite Marathoning with Renato Canova: The Training of Moses Mosop and Abel Kirui

Renato Canova-coached athlete Moses Mosop winning the Chicago Marathon

Renato Canova is a widely-renown coach of some of the most elite middle and long-distance athletes in the world.  His runners routinely medal at World Championship and Olympic races and place highly at major marathons. 

Unlike many other elite coaches, Renato Canova has no reservations about sharing his training philosophy and the workouts of his athletes.  2011 was a banner year for Canova, as several of his runners won medals at the 2011 world championships, including Abel Kirui, a young runner who won his second marathon World Championship. 

Additionally, Moses Mosop, a long-time Canova runner with sub-27 10k credentials, made his debut marathon in an earthshaking 2:03:06 for second place at the Boston Marathon, then later smashed the 25k and 30k world records at the Prefontaine Classic meet in Eugene, Oregon. 

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