Fast and furious

A decade ago I was simply someone who ran to keep myself active and occupied. The majority of my runs were completed quickly. Under half an hour. Occasionally I’d enter 10K races or half-marathons and put in more training to get ready but when I wasn’t racing, it was mostly short, fast runs.

As an eighteen-year-old, my first attempt to take up running was to go out of the door, run to the bottom of our road and then back as fast as I could. It was a 1½ mile round trip with a long uphill finish which, I think, took me around seventeen minutes. I tried to run every day but contented myself with doing six runs each week and kept up the regime for six weeks until other activities (like drinking, Christmas and training for the local Swimarathon charity event) distracted me.

In his book, Running to the Top, legendary coach Arthur Lydiard states:

“The stranger to jogging or running will follow his medical check by running easily out for, say, five minutes and then turning for home … That five minutes out-and-back routine should occupy a few days to accustom leg and arm and body muscles to the activity. The beginner can then start adding time on his/her feet … When you can do 15 minutes every day, at least every other day, step up to 30 minutes, followed by two days  at 15 minutes, another 30, another two 15s and so on.”

Now I’ve paraphrased and left out bits but what I find relevant is that he’s telling people to start out with ten minutes running and to get out doing it almost every day.

In my first job at Chase, when they opened an onsite gym I joined because it was a good deal at £6 per month! Other people recognised that too and its membership quickly grew to the point where they expanded the size of the gym by knocking down a wall and building into the restaurant. During busy periods we were limited for how long we could use the cardio equipment; so my treadmill runs were no further than fifteen minutes. More often than not, it was only as long as I could last running at full pelt. The machine would whir away at 9.5mph, I’d gasp for breath and push myself to hang in there for a nice round ten minutes. My best ever performance was putting the treadmill at full speed and running three miles in 18:10. Those extra ten seconds were spent getting it up to full speed.

Eventually I tried a 10K race which was a big step up and had me going out to do some overdistance training in the lead up but then it was back to short runs. If I was bored at home, with nothing decent to watch on TV, a quick run round the local streets was often a solution and I’d only be out for 20-25 minute.

It was a few more years before I started entering half marathons and to complete those I went through a period of doing longer runs from Bournemouth pier to Shore Road and back. But once my interest in those died down I was back to the 20-25 minute runs round the block.

Off this relatively low level of training I could run 10K in 47-48 minutes and half marathons in 1hr50. I was getting decent results off 10-20 miles per week.

All of this is counter to what I see among the modern influx of runners. Most of them have graduated from the Couch25K so have a mentality of goal-setting for distance. Once they can do 5K, they set their sights on 10Ks and then onto half marathons and marathons. There’s nothing wrong with this per se, to an extent I did it myself, but my earliest beginnings were to start with runs that simply lasted as long as I could run. If I ran round the streets, I ran a route I knew was only going to last twenty minutes or so.

There now seems to be a mindset that every run has to last the better part of an hour; the idea that anything less than a 6-8 mile run isn’t worth doing. This turns it into something that needs scheduling rather than being fitted into the day wherever it can.

No planning’s needed to nip out for fifteen minutes while dinner is cooking, twenty-five minutes during lunch hour, twenty minutes round the block in the morning before a shower. A quick run boosts fitness and keeps everything ticking over between more meaningful workouts, sessions and parkruns. It’s a lot easier to get out more frequently when the runs are short.

I’ve been as guilty as anyone of promoting this mentality. In my “How to Improve” series I say one of my running rules is to make runs last thirty minutes. But I’m beginning to rethink things. If you’re committed to improving then aiming for a minimum of thirty minutes is a good idea but I suspect most people are struggling to commit in the first place, and I suspect it’s because they don’t have the time or haven’t found enough joy in running.

One of the ways you find joy is by getting fast and clocking decent times. Another is by blasting out the door for ten minutes, hammering round the block and arriving home feeling reinvigorated. This sort of run triggers all sorts of positive hormones and changes in your fitness. Shorter runs equal less to dread, less to go wrong and less to plan. The hidden benefit is there’s also less recovery needed. I reckon the more you do them, the easier it becomes for running to become a habit and you to stay motivated. Secretly you’ll discover you’re building the fitness in the background that filters down into your longer races.

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