One of the most common questions people ask me is, how do they improve their running?
There are a number of ways people wish to improve:
- They may wish to focus on a PB for their next race
- They may want to progress to a new distance safely, and without injury
- They may seek to improve their running technique
- They may be returning to running after injury or a long time out, e.g. after an operation or having a baby
- They may simply want some motivation to run more consistently
Whilst every plan I build for an individual is unique, they do all contain the same building blocks. Depending on a person’s goal, some plans may include more focused speedwork if we are seeking to improve their speed; others may include more easy running if we are building up to a new distance, for example.
Quite often, terminology such as tempo runs and strides can confuse people, so I thought I would include a simple guide to the types of runs you would normally find in a training plan.
Easy runs are just that; easy. I subscribe to the method of training that advises we do most of our running at a very low intensity, so that we have plenty of energy and enthusiasm when we do our higher intensity training, such as intervals and tempo runs. Many runners fall into the trap of making most of their running slightly too hard, which can lead at best to fatigue, and at worst to overtraining and, ultimately, injury. Easy runs are not to be confused with ‘junk miles’. Easy runs have a very specific purpose of helping you build mileage without wearing you out, by strengthening slow twitch muscle fibres, strengthening connective tissue, strengthening your heart, increasing the amount of fuel stored within each muscle fibre, and improving your body’s ability to run more efficiently. If anything, junk miles are those runs which are done at slightly too high an intensity, but not fast enough for you to gain any real benefits from. Easy runs should be done at a conversational pace – if you can’t chat on an easy run, you’re running too fast, and are potentially sabotaging your training.
Long slow runs (LSR)
This point leads me naturally onto the LSR – the long, slow run. The key to this session is in the word slow. I see a lot of people training for marathons, proudly doing their longest runs at marathon pace. STOP. If you are running your long runs at your race pace, where are you going to find the energy to repeat that on the day? The purpose of a long run is to build mileage at a low intensity, not to tire yourself out. The run is hard enough without you trying to run it at a pace that is too uncomfortable. Slow down, let your body adapt to long running (which it usually does after around 90 minutes), and save the marathon pace work for your tempo runs.
Tempo runs are possibly the most misunderstood running session, and for good reason, because there are many different kinds of tempo runs. The purpose of a tempo run is to help you to build your speed and endurance by running at a higher intensity for longer. Tempo runs will be found in any training plan from 5k to marathon, but will vary in length and intensity depending on your goal and your individual fitness. A tempo run isn’t a ‘race pace’ run, it’s a part of a run, that’s done at an intensity where you find it difficult to hold a conversation, but slower than your race pace – you might be able to say 3 or 4 words if somebody asked you a question during a tempo effort. While easy runs are done at a conversational, or aerobic, pace, tempo runs are run above what is known as your aerobic threshold (you might have also heard these called threshold runs). You will find breathing more laboured above your natural aerobic pace, so by doing short intervals, and eventually longer periods of running, at this faster pace, you are training your body to be able to sustain this faster pace for longer as your aerobic threshold gradually gets higher and higher. If you choose a tempo pace that is too hard on any particular day, you will overload your system which can result in burnout. This is why you will often see tempo runs split into 5 or 10 minute blocks with a 2-3 minute jogging recovery in between each rep. Tempo running also recruits some intermediate fast-twitch muscle fibres, which which help your body adapt to become stronger, and more capable of running at a faster pace for longer. I wouldn’t recommend including more than one tempo run a week, or you’ll be lacking in energy for the rest of your training.
Interval runs are usually shorter, harder repetitions at a faster pace, with an interval of rest between each effort, sometimes a recovery jog, sometimes a static rest, depending on the effort. Repetitions will usually be short, anything from 20 seconds to a few minutes, at a pace usually faster than your race pace, around what is known as your lactate threshold, which is when you start to feel that uncomfortable burn in your body. These types of runs are designed to make your body feel uncomfortable and get used to recovering quicker, so that you can run faster, for longer. Their purpose is to strenthen your heart by encouraging it to work harder to send more oxygen to your muscles, and to improve leg speed by recruiting fast-twitch muscle fibres. The key to these workouts is in the recovery period, rather than the rep itself, which is where all the magic begins to happen, which is why they are usually referred to as interval runs (the interval being the rest period).
Fartlek is a Swedish word which means ‘speed play’ and involves varying your pace throughout a run. You might, for example, sprint between lamp-posts, or do a 10 second hard run every time you see a red car. Essentially, you set the rules on a fartlek run, and their purpose is to add a little variety into your training so you don’t get stuck at the same pace.
Strides are short intervals of around 10 seconds designed to help you improve your technique and cadence (the number of steps you take per minute). Usually these form part of your warm up, or you might finish an easy run with these if you’re tapering towards a race, for example. Do these on a flat surface or on nice even grass, and jog for an equivalent distance between each one.
Hill repetitions fall under interval training because they usually involve an effort UP a hill, followed by a recovery walk or easy run down to the bottom. When choosing a hill to run up and down, it’s important not to make it too steep. You should be able to run up to the top without needing to stop. Why are hills important? Hills increase the volume of muscle fibres you recruit while running, especially those important fast-twitch and intermediate fast-twitch fibres that are important to running faster, thereby encouraging them to strengthen as they recover, making you a stronger runner. Hills also encourage good running form – you naturally lean into a hill as you combat gravity, and you’ll use your arms more effectively to power you forward. Think of hill training as the most natural form of resistance training you can do; your body will adapt to produce more force to power you up the hill. Running uphill is also less impactful on your joints, so if you are new to speedwork, think about starting with some hill reps first rather than rushing straight into sprint intervals.
Technique drills are something that runners often ignore, but their purpose is to strengthen the muscles involved in your running stride to increase your range of motion and fine-tune your movements so that you have a more efficient stride. By incorporating drills into your routine regularly, you will strengthen your muscles and your muscle memory so that you naturally begin to run more efficiently. Many runners worry about technique, and whether their running form is correct. The key thing is not to force an idealised running form upon yourself which doesn’t come naturally, but rather to work consistently at strengthening all your muscles so that you naturally run in the most efficient way for your body. Work with a good coach to ensure you are doing drills correctly, so as not to injure yourself.
Recovery is the most underrated part of a training plan, but is the most important building block in the process. I always plan rest days into my athletes’ training schedules as a session in itself. Remember how intervals (the rest period) are the most important part of a repetition run? So is a rest day an important part of your training. You don’t get better at running by only running; you get better at running by the adaptations that can only occur while you are resting in between the running. The muscle fibres which are naturally damaged during hard runs such as interval training, hill runs, tempo runs and long runs have chance to repair and recover so they are stronger for your next run – this is why I will always schedule an easy run or a rest day after a tough workout. What about recovery runs, do I recommend them? Sometimes. It depends on the session we are recovering from, and on the person. If my athlete is able to go out and do a short, easy run, then yes. If my athlete is likely to run too hard the next day, I will always schedule a rest day for them instead. Recovery runs the day after a long run, for example, if we are building mileage, are useful to prevent stiffness, but a walk will also achieve the same aim.
It is important to build variety into your week. Doing something other than running helps you to use alternative muscles to those we work so hard when we’re running, so is also vital to build strength overall and avoid injury. Choose your cross training activities wisely – popular ones are cycling, swimming, HIIT, yoga, pilates, walking, climbing, strength and conditioning. High impact activities such as football can be useful for your agility and fitness, but also beware of injuries in these sorts of sports if you’re getting closer to a big running event.
There is so much more that can go into building a training plan, but if you have some elements of all of these, and you combine them wisely, you will certainly see progress in your running.