How to Improve series – part 2

In part 2, we’re looking at Frequency otherwise known as “how often to run”. Part 1 is linked here.

Most runners are uncommitted to training unless there’s a marathon on the horizon. Many are able to achieve decent times by only running occasionally or sporadically. For years I was one of those runners. I’d enter races, train as much as possible in the month or two leading up to it and then clock a time many runners would be happy with. I’d run three or four times per week and quickly be running 5K in 21-22 mins even though some weeks I barely ran at all. There was no schedule or regularity to what I did and I ran when I felt like it. As I gave up playing other sports I began to earmark certain days to run but there was still no plan like I’m going to explain in this series. It was a hodgepodge of running when and how I wanted.

Parkrun gave me a reason to commit and over three months I built up to running six times per week. But my natural curiosity led me to explore different training systems – one of which is the FIRST system – an acronym for Furman Institute of Running and Scientific Training. The marketing slogan is “Run Less, Run Faster” and promises runners they can run a marathon on only three runs per week. While this headline sounds great, what’s lost in the detail is you also do an hour’s cross-training on two other days each week. So the reality is you’re training five times in a week! Admittedly when I tried their mix of speedwork on Tuesday, tempo run on Thursday and a long run at marathon pace on Sunday; I didn’t follow it to the letter – I added in an easy parkrun on Saturday and didn’t do a fifth session. Even so I found, while I always felt fresh and able to train fast, my running didn’t make much progress until I went back to my old routines and added more easy runs back in.

Elite runners train seven days per week, sometimes twice in a day, which is the ultimate in frequency but it’s not necessary for anyone other than an elite. You only build up to running that often over years of training and when your legs can handle it.

When you begin running you can get away with running hard two or three times each week to make progress. Your body’s natural mix of speed and endurance is brought out with these training sessions. If you’re particularly talented for endurance, you’ll be a man who is ripping round parkrun in under twenty minutes or a woman in under twenty-three on barely any training.

Whether you’re naturally talented or not, the progress eventually comes to a halt. You might occasionally knock a few seconds off your PB but have no real understanding of how it’s been achieved. And because the gains are hard to come by, people begin to believe they’ve reached their limits. Often people turn to new challenges like 10K or the marathon believing it’ll be hard to get any faster at parkrun.

The reality is there’s still lots of gains to be made simply by running more frequently. One of the flaws of only running three times per week is your legs always feel fresh – that’s what I experienced with the FIRST training. While it’s great to run feeling energetic it often means you aren’t working to improve your basic cruising speed. But when you start running four, five or even six times every week there are days when you have to go out on tired legs. These slower runs build the microscopic structures in the muscles that process oxygen and help improve your endurance. Slowly but surely your basic cruising speed improves.

Obviously how often you run comes down to your lifestyle, your desire and your priorities. I think a good balance is to aim for five times – three during the week with parkrun on Saturday and another run on Sunday. That leaves two days for recovery. If you can organise them as a block of three runs and a block of two that’s perfect, but five-in-a-row works equally well.

If you’re now feeling enthused to up your frequency then it’s okay to run six times every week, but it’s the maximum I recommend until you’ve established your training. I believe a rest day every week is a good safeguard for giving the body a chance to heal up from minor stresses or strains and to refuel. It also ensures that while you’re committed, running doesn’t become too all-consuming to the detriment of the rest of your life!

In the part 3 of this series I’ll talk about how long to run for – time or duration.

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