So you want to improve your running times, but don’t quite know how to go about it?
Running can be a confusing sport when starting out. I would highly recommend finding an experienced coach when you do so.
But it is important to understand the basics of a structured running program. I will not talk much about structure here itself. That is a topic for another article. How you structure your overall training is a very individual thing and will depend on both your current fitness level and your specific goals. Again a good coach can help a lot here.
Here I explore the fundamental training types, the “building blocks” if you will of distance running training.
The long run
The staple diet of the long distance runner, the long run is essential for developing your stamina. It works your aerobic system, aerobic meaning “with oxygen”. The goal of aerobic exercise is to improve oxygen consumption by the body or how good your body converts oxygen into energy. The long run is an essential training run for all but the most speed-oriented sprinters and some would say even sprinters could benefit from one or two long runs each week. (Good luck getting them to do it!)
Depending on your level of fitness about 60-80% (but not all) of your overall training should be long slow running.
Ok, intervals are where training starts to become more complicated, and much harder.
I would not recommend you start interval training until you have a strong aerobic foundation behind you (which you can achieved through long runs).
Intervals consist or relatively short repetitions of distances with a period of rest between efforts. Common interval distances are: 200m, 400m, 800m, 1000m, but can be as short as 50m and as long as 3k. Interval training is usually done on a 400m running track, but this is certainly not a hard-and-fast rule. An interval session can be done on any surface, road, grass, track or forest trail.
Unlike the long run, interval training works both your aerobic and anerobic systems to different degree depending on the repetition distance and the recovery time length.
You typically work more of your anaerobic (without oxygen) energy systems when the repetition distance is less than 800m and you are running fast and more of your aerobic system is worked when the distance is over 800m or you are running at a more controlled pace.
Anaerobic means “without oxygen” and occurs when you are running so fast, your muscles can no longer produce enough energy through the aerobic energy system. When this happens, different energy systems in your body kick in and you’re said to be running “anaerobically”
The goal of (fast) intervals is to adapt your body to the higher demands and your leg muscles to faster turnover. Over time this will make you a much faster runner. Even if your focus is primarily on very long distance events such as marathons, intervals an important part of any serious endurance runner’s program.
This is one is often met with scorn when suggested. If there’s one certainty in life (besides death and taxes of course) it’s that runners despise hills. But like all forms of training, hills are an acquired skill and really aren’t that bad once you get used to it.
A rather obvious benefit of hill workouts is that they make you better at running hills! An advantage in hilly courses.
But they also have the advantage of making you quicker over a level surface. In hill running, the athlete is using their body weight as resistance to push against, so the driving muscles have to push harder, improving leg-muscle strength.
Hills, when done at the right level and with the right consistency will strengthen your tendons and ligaments over time and reduce the chance of injury. Hill training can also be considered an alternative to working your leg muscles in a gym and because you are performing the act of running and will quite naturally give you a much more event-specific form of workout!
Hills can be incorporated into both intervals and your long run. Generally the same principals that apply to intervals apply to hills. Hill repetitions can be both aerobic or anaerobic (typically they’re somewhere in the middle), but unlike interval the goal of hills is to work leg strength rather than out-and-out leg speed.
The classic tempo runs involves a 15 minute warm-up, followed by at least 20 minutes at around your 10k pace (it should feel challenging, but manageable), followed by a 15 minute cool-down. This pace should be close to what is called your lactate threshold, where your aerobic system meets your anaerobic one.
Often tempo runs can be done in conjunction with a long run. The goal is for your body to “learn” race economy – running at a fast pace for relatively long periods of time. Over time, tempo runs will increase your lactate threshold, a good thing, as it will allow you to hold a fast pace for longer periods.
Fartlek is Swedish for “speed play’. It consists of erratic bursts of speed followed by aerobic recovery periods. It is essentially a random interval session, but instead of full rest in between repetitions, aerobic exercise is used at about the pace of a long run.
The goal of fartlek is to work aerobic and anaerobic systems interchangeably which trains the body to handle changes in pace. Fartlek is idea for preparing the athlete for sudden changes in pace in race conditions.
This kind of session is great for groups of runners, where each member takes a turn at setting the training. The beauty of a fartlek session is it can be as easy or as hard as you want to make it and is one of many fun exercise ideas for making your training more enjoyable and less monotonous.
Strangely not many runners think of racing as a form of training, but it is and is perhaps even the best form of training out there. For nothing prepares you for the stress of racing than well… racing. Racing is where you get to combine all the other forms of training against other runners in a competitive environment. No other form of training quite compares.
In fact I’d go so far as to say if you do no other form of training, simply competing in one race each week will improve your fitness and performances immensely. While I certainly don’t recommend this “program” I consider this form of training head-and-shoulders above the rest in terms of effectiveness.
So there are the basic training types for the long distance runner. All of the types of training listed here except for the long run should be started only after you have done adequate warm-up exercises (a 10-20 minute jog) and stretching. This is because warming up and stretching before a high intensity workout will reduce your chance of an injury significantly. The long run is different because it is at a lower intensity, so the risk of injury is low throughout the run.