I remember when I was in my twenties, and I knew absolutely nothing about how to train for running. I just thought you ran as fast as you could for 10-20 mins and assumed you’d get faster. Compared to now, there was a dearth of information on how to train although there were books on it; but anyone who was decent learned how to run by the osmosis of running with others at a club.
These days there’s more information, jargon and approaches to getting better than ever before. Although it wasn’t running, I remember meeting some rowers – which as another endurance sport mirrors running – and one of them talking about “going anaerobic” and “oxygen debt”. These phrases were about as technical as people got in those days and while “anaerobic” still gets bandied around; the concept of oxygen debt is one that’s rarely mentioned these days.
My understanding of going anaerobic back then was based on the idea that sprinters use anaerobic energy while distance runners use the aerobic system. It was one-or-another in my head and anaerobic equalled the breathlessness of sprinting. The truth is more complicated as both groups use varying degrees of aerobic and anaerobic energy in their events. This post isn’t going to break that down but it’s taken me some years to get closer to the truth about when we go anaerobic. The fact is any breathlessness, which can happen for an untrained runner at paces as slow as nine or ten minute miles involves anaerobic metabolism. You don’t have to be running at high speeds to go anaerobic.
When you read running books that mention anaerobic training there is much confusion as different authors define it differently. Again, I’m not going to dive too far into that debate other than to say some authors see it as what happens when you exceed V̇O2max. Others believe it is what happens when you exceed Lactate Threshold / Anaerobic Threshold (or whatever term they use to name the point where you begin to exhale harder and faster). Whereas I believe it starts much earlier than that, back at what may be called the Aerobic Threshold, but is confusingly also called the Lactate Threshold by some groups, and consequently I refer to as the First Threshold to try and avoid confusion. Even then I’m not entirely correct about when it happens – it’s simply a nice approximation.
What I can say with confidence is that going anaerobic happens any time your aerobic system is overwhelmed. If you’ve been sitting quietly on the sofa and suddenly jump up and run upstairs; your heart doesn’t have time to speed up to supply more oxygen so you have to go anaerobic to meet the demand. For a while you go into “oxygen debt” until the body is able to handle the exertion – which is partly about getting to the top of the stairs and stop the high intensity work; and partly because the heart races and you breath hard in response. Another example is the start of a run, you’ll be using anaerobic energy until the body can meet the demand; once you’re settled in every thing steadies up but if you come to a hill and start to get out of breath going up it – yep, you’ve gone anaerobic again.
All of this is simply background information setting up my next post on how the body responds to going anaerobic. It’s very easy to get bogged down in the detail, I’m trying to keep it simple but if you have questions please do ask in the Comments.
Sprinting into the finish of Lordshill 10K, I was overtaking other runners and feeling strong. Yet my Garmin only recorded a Best Pace of 4:45/mile, which while useful, is slower than Kipchoge runs a whole marathon. Looking at the races photos of my sprint finish, I began to see why and started to think about some form changes. Sadly I never got a copy of the photo so I can’t reveal its horrors but this one from the 2010 New Forest Marathon begins to hint at my lack of form. Here, I was only running at eight minute mile pace, not even trying to sprint. If I hadn’t mentioned it you might not see much wrong. But there’s issues, notice the heelstrike of the right foot.
Below is another picture I came across as I was reading through my backlog of Runner’s Worlds. It’s a happy photo, you can see the joy of the runners. I’m guessing they’re approaching the finish as they’re spaced out and smiling, not overwhelmed by already having run for two hours with many more miles left to do. But my eye wasn’t drawn to the runner’s joy, it’s another photo where heelstriking is visible. (This isn’t criticism of the ladies in the image, they’re simply demonstrating something which is common among runners, myself included, that can even be seen at the elite level).
But heel-striking isn’t the focus of this article. That’s because it isn’t caused by, or easily corrected by adjusting, how the foot lands. Heel-striking is simply a reaction to a chain of events. The foot is connected to the ankle, which connects to the shin, to the knee, to the thigh and on up to the hip and pelvis. This is where the problem is really occurring. The pelvis is rotating forward, thereby flinging the leg forward, so the only place the runners can land is on the heel.
It’s hard to see pelvic rotation because the hip and thigh muscles obscure it but there’s another way to identify it. Here’s a close up of the same picture with some lines added. You’ll see I’ve highlighted the shoulders because this is where the issue is obvious. Shoulders also rotate around the spine, which is the centre axis connecting the upper and lower bodies. Whatever happens in the lower half is mirrored in the top half, for example as you walk or run, your arms and legs swing in opposite time. Unless you consciously block it, or have your hands in your pockets, your arms always swing back and forth when moving.
When there’s excessive pelvic rotation you get excessive shoulder rotation. In the RW photo, the runners’ arms aren’t so much swinging as being turned. If you look back to my photo, you’ll see the opposite shoulder is coming around, emphasised by the arm moving towards the middle of the body. The disaster photo from 2017 of me sprinting, shows an even more pronounced rotation of the shoulders and hips. I would hazard to say my shoulders were 45 degrees to the square – but I’m trying to mask this by swinging my arms straight forward and back despite the turning! I really wish I had the photo to show you how bad it was.
A good way to see why this is a problem is to imagine yourself riding a bike along the road. If you begin to wobble the handlebars then the front wheel wobbles. You end up zigzagging in danger of falling off, continuously understeering and oversteering to try and keep stable. When you keep the handlebars steady your bike travels effortlessly straight. It’s the same issue for the runner. Keep over-rotating the pelvis and you’re constantly fighting to run in a straight line. No longer do the muscles which are most efficient do the work, but lots of auxiliary muscles have to compensate which is both energy costly and puts you at risk of injury.
If you compare this to any world-class sprinter you’ll see their shoulders and hips stay relatively square. Of course some rotation has to happen, we’re simply interested in avoiding excessive rotation. Here’s a video of a sprinter doing 26+ mph on a treadmill. Helpfully, the university researchers have put reflective dots on the sprinter’s body which allow us to see the rotation of the upper and lower bodies. Or rather the lack of it.
We can see there isn’t much rotation occurring in the hips. I’d estimate one hands width, so maybe 3-4 inches. The dot under the armpit is moving more but we never see the shoulder on the far side coming into view. The stability of the hips is reflected in minimal shoulder turn. And if you look at the footstrike while the leg comes out in front, as the foot strikes the treadmill it’s flat – no heelstrike in sight.
If you see sprinters head on, you’ll see their arms and legs are moving straight backwards and forwards. Coaches actually teach sprinters not to let their arms cross the centreline of the body which happens when the shoulders turn.
Improving your form
I don’t focus very much on running technique, certainly not like when I played other sports. But I have been working on reducing my hip and shoulder rotation because it’s a cure-all for a bunch of problems. If you reduce rotation you raise cadence, reduce heelstrike, power your running with your glutes and reduce quad involvement which can lead to lower back pain.
Here are some ideas and things to try that I’ve found helpful over the years.
Try running with one hand on your hip and feel how it affects you. The hand on hip forces the shoulders to stop rotating and the other arm then has to swing. Do it for thirty seconds then change over. This exercise isn’t intended to be used to rework your form i.e. don’t go run for an hour with one hand on a hip (for one thing you’ll look silly); it’s to give you an understanding of what the proper form feels like and which muscles should be working.
The problem of excessive rotation is often down to not stabilising the core and not using the glute muscles to power the running. I get runners doing exercises at my sessions in Poole Park when time allows. I recommend Planks and especially Side Planks for core stability. For glutes, try Glute Bridges progressing to the Single Leg version. Also Single Leg Deadlifts. You can find examples of these exercises on the web and Youtube if you can’t make my session.
Once strengthened you need to ensure the glutes are being activated when you run. Here are simple exercises to do before running, perhaps while waiting for your GPS watch to lock in or a friend to arrive:
Stand with one foot out in front, the other underneath you. Then push up on to the toes of the rear foot to rock forward onto the front foot. Relax back down before doing it again four times then switch legs.
Imagine pushing a shopping trolley in front of you which doesn’t allow your legs to swing forward while walking. Forward motion has to be powered by pushing away behind. Walk twenty yards then break into a jog and try to keep the same feeling.
Standing against a wall, walk away from it by pushing against it with the back of your leg and heel. Do five push offs with each leg..
Walking up the stairs at the office or home, push up off the lower foot to fully straighten the leg. Barely lift the other leg onto the next step. Practice every time you use stairs.
In all these exercises the leg that is behind the body does the work, the one in front remains ‘quiet’. Your aim is avoid using the quads to power the exercise. Again, I incorporate this activation work into coached sessions during warm-ups.
Integrating the two – my journey
Last Easter I started an exercise program to rebuild the strength and power I’d lost while focused on building endurance. One of the exercises I did was “Bounding”. Very long loping strides where you hang in the air (like a triple jumper) aiming to cover distance rather than go quickly. Pushing off with each bound, it became obvious if there’s over-rotation going on because you start to zigzag down the road. I started to find myself pushing with the glutes and maintaining hip stability.
In the summer, I started a new core stability programme and the work I did on side planks helped with minimising rotation. I’d always been strong in the core but when combined with improved running form the two things began to work together. I came home from one of my Sunday long runs and found the oblique muscles either side of my core were aching because they’d been stabilising me for the first time ever. You can run for years with bad form and never know it!
But still I wasn’t sorted. As I’ve moved in to 800m training with its emphasis on shorter 200m efforts, I began to notice my right hip was rotating forwards. I had to work on keeping my hips squared and getting the glutes to fire.
I know I’ve still work to do on this. It’s slowly coming together. Form change is difficult and tends to be a series of plateaus then improvements as you find something that helps you move to the next level. I started trying to improve my cadence back in 2013 and I’m still working on it. The recent form changes for getting glutes to fire have been a stepping stone for that. No doubt I will be looking again at photos in five years’ time and still finding fault.
A Final Thought
You often see people carrying drinks bottles. I believe it’s something that causes runners to engage in shoulder rotation. After all, if you carry a cup of tea or glass of wine through to the living room, you try to keep it as level as possible, you don’t want to spill any. A correct armswing will cause the bottle to shake up and down and the liquid in it to slosh around putting strain on the arm and shoulder muscles. I don’t know what the answer is for those who want to carry a drinks bottle, personally I’ve never found a need for them even on the longest of runs. My encouragement would be to learn to trust your body can handle running without needing to take a drink. Obviously in hotter, more humid condition this may be unavoidable.
The standard approach to marathon training has always been to build up the distance to the “20-mile run” three weeks before race day and then taper. Runners of the 1980s talked about doing the 20-mile run six times before a marathon to get the legs used to the distance but it was always about building up to the distance.
But a few years ago, I came across the idea that the Kenyans start out with running short distances at the pace they want to run their marathon and then extend the distance. I discovered this around the same time I was reading the Hansons Marathon Method which sets out ever-longer “Tempo runs” at marathon pace. These two approaches of the traditional Western build-up vs the Kenyan build-long have names in the sprint world – Long-to-short and Short-to-long respectively.
When I began running, I started out with a sort of Short-to-long approach. I went out the door at high speed and tried to hold onto it for as long as possible. Of course fatigue quickly kicked in and I gradually slowed down. This is the Short-to-long approach at its simplest – start at a particular speed and build up the distance for which you can hold it. I’m currently using this approach with my 800m training – I began with strides of 10-20secs to get my legs used to running at speed. Then it was 200m efforts at a particular pace, subsequently progressing onto 400m then 600m efforts at the same pace.
The alternative approach of Long-to-short is one where you get used to running longer intervals at a slow speed and then gradually quicken them up. As I documented in my post about Roger Bannister, in the six months preceding his iconic moment he began running 440yd intervals at 1min06 then reduced the time by a second per month until he could run them at 56 seconds e.g. 1:06, 1:05, 1:04.
In his “The Science of Running” book, Steve Magness refers to “Top down” and “Bottom up” approaches which are the distance running equivalents of Long-to-short and Short-to-long. Below are his suggested set of workouts for the 5K parkrun distance. On the left you can see the distance is long intervals of a mile or 1km which begin at threshold pace and quicken to 10K and 5K pace as the weeks go by. On the right, everything is run at 5K pace from the beginning but starts with short intervals of 400m and lengthens out.
Top Down (Long-to-short)
Bottom Up (Short-to-long)
6 x 1-mile at threshold with 1-2 min rest
3 sets of (4x400m) at 5K pace with 30sec rest, 5-mins between sets
5 x 1-mile at 10K pace with 2-3 min rest
3 sets of (3x600m) at 5K pace with 40sec rest, 5-mins between sets
3 x 1-mile at 10K pace 2 x 1000m at 5K with 3 min rest
2 sets of (3x800m) at 5K pace with 45sec rest, 5-mins between sets
1 x 1-mile at 10K pace 1 x 1-mile at 5K 2 x 1000m at 5K with 3 min rest
2 sets of (1000, 800, 700m) at 5K pace with 45sec rest, 5-min between sets
3 x 1-mile at 5K pace with 3 min rest
5x1000m at 5K pace with 60-75sec rest
Of course these are general outlines of the approach. The truth is you still do a bit of each as you progress through your running career. Eliud Kipchoge didn’t start out sprinting as a small boy at his marathon pace of 4:40/mile and keeping lengthening it out until he could run a sub-2 marathon. He did some faster running in shorter races (his mile time is 3:50) and he did lots of general runs at slower paces to build support for what he eventually achieved.
The second truth is that neither approach is “The Way” to train. Some runners will adapt better using a Short-to-Long approach, others using a Long-to-Short. I’ve met a number of guys who were natural marathoners and benefitted hugely from the traditional Western approach to marathon training. They went out each week, covered big distances and pushed a little harder. I, myself, on the other hand have always struggled to run big distances but find the shorter stuff easier and so tag on distance when I have a longer race coming up.
Whichever way you currently approach your training, think about your preferred style and then have a think about the alternative and whether applying it might get you better results.
A quick recap. Back in the parts on Frequency and Duration I recognised you can make quick gains off relatively little training. But once this stalls, you have to get more sophisticated and increase frequency and duration. My suggestion is to aim to run five times each week for 4-5 hours.
Once you up your frequency, there’s no way you can do all your runs at higher intensities and be able to stick to the schedule for more than a month or two. Eventually you wear yourself down and start taking days off or even getting injured. Some of the runs have to be done at very easy, comfortable paces to allow you to get back out the next day.
Research has shown elite runners do 80% of their running at easier paces with only 20% of their time spent on hard intervals or effort sessions. This is often referred to as 80-20 running or polarised training. Unfortunately the majority of amateurs are closer to 30-70 running with the vast majority of their runs being harder efforts and if you’re only interested in shorter events like the 1,500m or mile you may be able to get away with this. Modern training methods have shown that the longer the event, the more mileage you need to do to reach your best.
Simply calculated the 80-20 rule suggests if you’re going to run five days per week then four of them should be easy runs. In the article on intensity I discussed different ways to identify your easy-paced runs and whichever method you use, they have to feel genuinely easy, produce very little sweat, never get hard on breathing and your heart-rate should remain low if measured.
Most runners think training for speed is the way to get faster at distance running, but I suggest it’s about building your endurance to hang onto your speed. By this I mean, most runners could quickly train up to run at 5-minute mile pace for thirty seconds but few train to be able to hold onto that speed for a two hour marathon like Eliud Kipchoge. Building speed can be done quickly, endurance training takes years.
Where many runners fall down is to keep working at speed rather than endurance to get faster. They peak after a year or two of pushing runs hard, progress no further and believe they’ve reached their limit. The majority of amateurs only do 30% of their training at easy paces and training for speed is training time wasted which could be better used on aerobic development.
How YOU can train to improve
Begin by getting yourself running five times per week. Make one of those runs last 1½ hours – you might need to build up to this by adding five to ten minutes each week. If you’re doing all these runs at genuinely easy paces, I think you’ll be amazed by how easy it is to accumulate 4-5 hours’ worth of running. That it seems so easy may have you questioning what you’re getting out of these sessions and is a reason most people don’t stay with this training.
The first month is the hardest as the body gets used to doing more. It takes six weeks for the body to build each layer of fitness so it might take a while to start feeling comfortable. But within two months you should expect to feel better even if your times aren’t yet improving. What you’re doing in this period is preparing your body to go faster later.
I’ve often found within three to four weeks of starting this programme, my legs begin to perk up and are ready to run faster. Remember the 80-20 rule – you can afford to do one of your sessions faster. You could start to run a quicker parkrun or throw some speedwork in. Even just adding strides – picking up your pace for 10-20secs at 80-90% sprint – helps.
Progression isn’t always a straight line upwards. Day to day runs will fluctuate in pace and sometimes you might have a few days where the legs feel tired. I’ve often found this happens just before a notable improvement. Month on month you should see improvement in your general pace. If you don’t see progress, it’s almost certainly because you’re running your easy runs too fast, or more specifically not running them easy enough. When I struggle for progress going back to slower paces always solves all manner of ills.
There is a temptation once you get into this groove and things are progressing to do more speedwork or harder intensity sessions than one dose per week. Initially this will bring gains and you can quickly push the speed down by a minute per mile from two or three months of dedicated sessions and reduced easy running. There’s nothing wrong with this, as long as you acknowledge it’s for a limited time. But the experience of elite runners is they ‘go off the cliff’ with too much speedwork. Even if you don’t, you’ll find your progress stalls and maxes out at some point. And likely, because you’ve slipped into getting quick gains from speedwork, you’ll forget that it was the 80-20 running that got you there.
The bigger the gap between your race pace and initial easy pace, the longer you’re going to have to stay with this training before you see improvements in your race times. You’ve got to close that gap to create the headspace to run faster.
How I trained to get faster
When I first began working towards sub-20 parkrun; I’d been running sporadically from January through September. I’d accumulated less than 500 miles of training – roughly 10-15 miles per week – on the way to a parkrun PB of 20min42 and running a 5min55 mile. This was classic low frequency, low duration, high intensity running getting me to decent times and putting me up the front of Poole parkrun in its early days.
From October to December I started training regularly with only a fast parkrun every fortnight and keeping all my other runs easy. I logged 400 miles and within two months I was running forty-three minute 10Ks where I’d never broken forty-five minutes before and my parkrun was on the cusp of twenty minutes.
I then started to run hard three times each week and while I initially knocked another minute off my parkrun PB to get close to nineteen minutes; I spent the rest of the year running fast, feeling great but never quite improving. It was only when I went back to a block of endurance almost a year later that I turned up to parkrun one day and unexpectedly banged out a sub-19 with ease.
Let’s recap for the final time. All elite runners train daily – that’s frequency. The duration and amount of running they do increases as the race distance increases. Elite 800m runners do at least forty miles per week but as much as eighty if they’re also racing in the 1,500m. The best 5,000m runners in the world are closer to 100mpw while those doing the marathon can peak at 150mpw.
Extremely high mileages aren’t necessary for ordinary runners but they do need to get out and build their endurance through easy running. Using time to measure your runs is a way of seeing the mileage naturally increase as you improve. When the body gets fitter, you’ll automatically know when you can do more.
The training pattern of elite runners, who do 80% of their training at easy levels of effort, is the route to improving in the long term. When you run genuinely easy four times out of five times every week, you begin to enjoy your running not dread it. It starts getting easier to get out for every run and motivate yourself to do so. You might even begin to look forward to the faster sessions each week that are key to reaching your top speeds eventually.
At any time you can throw in more workouts but only for a period of up to three months. The experience of elite athletes shows this is the maximum amount of time they can peak before going off the cliff and having to rebuild their base. It’s good to come back to periods of easy running which might not entail any effortful runs.
Recovery is paramount to making progress. The easy sessions should allow you to both train yet paradoxically to recover from the harder sessions. One of the reasons training hard multiple times in a week doesn’t work is because there’s too much to recover from. This often begins to show up as aches and pains, or even injuries. Most runners interpret this as a sign of ageing or their body not being strong enough but really it’s a sign they’ve been doing too much, too soon, too hard. Easing up usually resolves aches and pains in a matter of weeks without the expense of going to a physio or other specialist.
It all seems too simple but it works. Most runners are too impatient believing in the old mantras of “you have to train fast to race fast” and “no pain, no gain”. Undoubtedly there are times when you should push yourself but following a good diet of easy-paced daily runs will make a world of difference for many runners without taking up huge levels of time or commitment.
There’s a certain breed of runner who believes the harder they work, the faster they’ll become. They see their body as a machine to be pushed to its limits in pursuit of their goals yet they can’t understand why their race times aren’t getting faster. What they don’t understand is the value of recovery – you only improve when the body adapts to the training. Do too much and the body can’t recover enough to get you through your next workout. String together months of depletion and you eventually end up in the pit of despair known as overtraining.
“You only improve when the body adapts to the training”
You might think only the truly committed, who run and exercise every day for hours, would be prone to this but my view is it can happen to anyone, even those who aren’t running much. Take the average first-time marathoner who follows a training plan which has two or three runs in the week, maybe includes intervals or hills, and has distance runs on Sunday beginning at ten miles and gradually getting longer. Being a slower runner they begin to spend 3-4 hours out every Sunday to achieve these long training runs and gradually their enthusiasm wanes. Many is the runner I’ve heard bemoaning that they’ve “got to go out and do an eighteen mile long run this coming weekend” and how they’ve “still got the twenty mile run to come” and how they “can’t wait for their marathon training to be over”. That loss of enthusiasm and tiredness is a clear sign they’re suffering with under-recovery. They even begin to drop the other runs in the week to make sure they can do the long runs – which is a way of giving themselves extra recovery. It can happen to anyone who doesn’t value the importance of recovery and balance their training.
Elite distance runners train for up to fourteen hours per week yet professional cyclists and swimmers train for thirty to forty. This difference is down to how the training affects them. With running, each step results in forces of up to 2½x body-weight hammering the muscular-skeletal system. Cycling and swimmers don’t have these forces tearing them down because the weight is born by the bike or water. While training for longer is key to endurance success, if an elite runner tried to do thirty hours every week they’d quickly become worn out and injured.
Yet there are ultrarunners training for many hours each week, but only because the majority is done at slow paces. Their goal is not speed, it’s huge distances. The faster you train, the more pounding your body is taking. While it’s not the only reason, sprinters barely cover any ground in training. Their sessions comprise less than five minutes’ worth of running yet take the better part of an hour to complete when warming up, warming down and breaks between exertions are included. Sprinters recognise the value of fully recovering to be able to give maximum effort on their next repetition. With distance running you’re not looking to be able to attain your top speed but you still have to respect the recovery process.
It’s said that training harder is no longer the limitation in endurance sports, it’s how to recover quicker. Growing up in the 1980s all the doping scandals of the day were athletes taking anabolic steroids. Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson was the first big name to fall but not the last. I always thought steroids were something that directly made the muscles bigger and stronger but after watching a documentary I discovered they aren’t. What they did was speed up the recovery process to allow him to train harder and this led to his muscles getting bigger, faster and more powerful.
Tyler Hamilton, the disgraced Tour de France cyclist who was part of Lance Armstrong’s team, stated in his biography that they used steroids for the same benefit. Although as a Tour rider he wasn’t interested in getting bigger muscles, he found himself struggling on the multi-day tours as the effects of riding day after day ground him down. Eventually the team doctor offered him a pill and having taken it, Hamilton found himself feeling fresh the next day and riding strongly again. His recovery had been speeded up.
To be clear, none of this is to suggest you should be looking to acquire illegal PEDs as you train for running, only to explain the importance of recovery and how it impacts training and performance.
The best legal method of aiding recovery is to do nothing. Kenyan runners, who train twice each day, sit around between sessions doing as little as possible. They’ll just sit or lie down during the day to pass the time. Of course few ordinary runners have this approach available to them amidst their busy lives. A more achievable method is to ensure you get a good night’s sleep. Paula Radcliffe said when she was at the peak of her marathon training she needed ten hours of sleep. Early nights and getting a lie-in at the weekend are a big part of this. When I’m training hard I find the occasional afternoon or evening nap is unavoidable especially when I’ve run early in the morning!
“Ensure you get a good night’s sleep”
The conclusion you might draw when told about the importance of recovery is that it means taking days off from running and resting completely. But in this series I’ve been talking about the need to get out frequently so, as runners, we need to think about active recovery. Those days where we go out for an easy jog to get blood flowing to the muscles and provide them with nutrients for rebuilding. Sometimes people cross-train for active recovery and that’s fine, it’s not quite as effective as running because it’s hitting different muscle groups but it’s better than nothing. The closer cross-training activity mirrors running the better.
Of course the occasional rest day is fine, even necessary, to give the body extra time to adapt and refuel. If you’re training effectively and hard, taking a day off isn’t something to worry about. It’s better to be slight undertrained than under-recovered when you reach your next race.
My running used to have two speeds – all-out for twenty minutes, or go very slow for ten miles. Under my system of either run all-out or run slow my race progress was limited. There was no middle ground – it was either short and fast or long and slow. The problem is when I ran all-out on a Monday and Tuesday, I wouldn’t feel like training again until Thursday and then at the weekend I’d slog through a long run.
Once in a while I looked at training plans in Runners World and they labelled their training runs as Easy runs or Hard runs or Fast runs which didn’t make any sense to me. They were just words which I couldn’t associate to what I actually needed to do on a run. Or maybe I couldn’t be bothered to think too hard about it.
I don’t think any of this is unusual among runners. If you send someone out for a thirty minute run, they subconsciously know they can handle it so they go off quickly, run fairly hard until they start to pant, ease off enough to stop panting and then hold on until they arrive home. Many of the club runners I know have a different version of this where, because they’re in a large group, they go off quickly but stop every mile or so to wait for the slower runners (thereby giving themselves regular recovery breaks). Then when they restart they put the hammer down for the next section until they pause again. While there’s nothing wrong with the occasional faster session, if it happens every time you run, you eventually stop improving.
My first attempt to train at different intensities began with a heart-rate monitor bought in the early 1990s. It came with an instruction manual stating training at 60% of maximum heart-rate would burn fat, at 80% would build aerobic fitness and over 90% would be intense, maximal exercise. If I’m honest I don’t ever recall training to those values. Any run I did, my heart-rate immediately shot up into the 160s or 170s and as my mentality was to run as hard as I could last on the treadmill, my heart-rate usually ended up somewhere around a max of 190+. If anything, I was more fascinated in seeing how high I could push my heart-rate – or how low it would go at rest.
I’ve continued to own heart-rate monitors ever since yet still rarely train by percentage. I have however often used the numbers it spews out to see whether I’m getting fitter. I doubt there’s an elite runner who trains by heart-rate other than to ensure their recovery runs are slow enough. But like myself, many do wear them to get numbers for post-run analysis.
One thing I’ve gleaned from looking at the stats of faster runners is their easy runs are done at low heart-rates. I recently ran with a 2hr35 marathoner at his sedate pace of 8:40/mile pace and his average heart-rate was 110bpm, only reaching a maximum of 129bpm when we ran up a set of steps! These sort of heart-rates don’t come naturally but as a result of many hours of training.
While I’d rarely be without mine, it’s worth remembering heart-rate monitors only became commercially available in the 1970s and runners before that were running far better times than most of us can achieve today. They’re not as useful as the manufacturers would lead you to believe.
When I eventually decided to get serious at running my first improvement came from running more often. The next improvement came from running longer on those regular runs. But to be able to do this i.e. run regularly for longer periods of time, I couldn’t just charge off down the road and hope to hang on, I had to begin with lots of easy runs.
My initial method for running easy was to set out on my typical run and slow down to a pace that felt really slow. I had to swallow my ego, not care about what people would think and just trot along with a reduced stride. It’s a method I came back to as recently as 2017 and used with great success for rebuilding my aerobic fitness. Occasionally I slotted in a fast parkrun every couple of weeks and I stuck with the very easy runs for three months. This laid the base for my first sub-20 parkrun.
When I eventually decided I was ready to introduce workouts for a layer of speed, I discovered the Pace Calculators on Greg McMillan’s website. It was enormously satisfying to find out that if I was running a 19min20 parkrun, my easy run should be between 7:42-8:12 per mile while my speedwork should be between 1min23-27 for 400m. Suddenly I had something concrete to work with.
Working to pace is a system I used very successfully for my workouts and there’s really only one drawback. It assumes you’re running in good conditions. If you live in a hilly area or where it’s windy then you have to figure out how to adapt the pace. With easy runs the pace range is usually quite wide and you don’t have to hit the pace exactly, just be in the right neighbourhood.
When I first ran to pace I didn’t own a GPS watch but I knew roughly the distance of training runs, so I could calculate what pace I’d been running. Of course once I got a GPS watch it became even easier to assure myself of that. Over time though I began to get used to the feel of an easy run and barely needed to glance at my watch to know the pace. Not all runners can do this and it’s said the biggest mistake runners make is running their easy runs too fast.
The truth is easy running is more what you’d consider “too easy”. On a genuinely easy run, you should arrive home feeling like you haven’t done anything. I usually get back from my forty minute easy runs with a t-shirt that’s as dry as it was when I left home. Barely a drop of sweat on it. I’m doubtful many runners experience too easy because culturally we believe in hard work and the myth of no pain, no gain. It seems to make sense that to improve you have to work harder, that to run fast you have to train fast; but you really don’t (at least not too much).
It took me some years before I discovered what an easy run needed to feel like. It was no longer about holding back on pace, but ensuring I didn’t put in extra effort. These days, my focus is on my breathing to ensure it never gets too fast, too forceful or uncomfortable. Sometimes I run while breathing through my nose, always adjusting my speed to keep it feeling easy. That’s the thing – easy is a feeling, not a pace. On easy runs I never put in a big effort to get up a hill, to catch someone or finish fast. I just focus on feeling good from start to end.
“Easy is a feeling – not a pace”
Another way to keep easy runs easy is “conversational running”. You need to be able to run while holding up your end of a conversation in full sentences and without strain. There’s an obvious downside to the idea of ‘conversational running’ – it implies you need to run with someone. Of course you don’t have to, but you will look silly if you’re talking out loud to yourself! Seriously though, there’s no reason you can’t test your ability to talk in sentences when you’re out of earshot of the general public. Whether you run with someone or talk to yourself, you shouldn’t feel like you have to hang on to keep up your end of the conversation.
To summarise – getting the intensity for your runs correct is important to be able to run frequently for longer. There’s three main ways to identify intensity.
Using a heart-rate monitor is effective for slower runs.
Using pace calculators such as the ones on Greg McMillan or Jack Daniels’ website is very effective except when conditions are imperfect. But working to pace will get you at the correct speed and give you an understanding of the different intensities required and what they feel like.
As time goes on you can begin to run easy runs by feel using your breathing or conversation as a guide. Learning how effortless your easy runs should feel is one of the things that will help you elevate your running and make continued progress.
Whatever method you use, you’ll need a mix of intensities over the course of your training as I’ll explain in a future post. But first we’ll look at Recovery – the importance of doing nothing!
Talk to any serious runner and the conversation eventually gets round to how many miles they’re doing out each week. One of the big misconceptions among ‘unserious’ runners is the idea you only need to run lots of miles if you’re doing a marathon. This is understandable because everybody knows a marathon is a long way. It’s the only event I see where general runners are following a training plan otherwise most are simply running a couple of times in the week and turning up to parkrun. Yet an elite 5K runner typically trains between 90-110mpw; and a low-key competitor should be aiming for at least 20-30mpw.
But miles are not the only way to measure training. I like to measure mine by time. After all a thirty minute jog is thirty minutes regardless of whether you’re Mo Farah or someone at the back of the pack. While Mo may run double the distance, both runners are going to take about the same number of footsteps with their hearts pumping and lungs bellowing for the same time and therefore achieve the same physiological workout.
When you start to measure by time, you find the 100-mile week of an elite runner is ten hours training. They have a standard routine of running in the morning for 30-60 minutes and training again in the evening which gives them a combined total of around 1½ -2 hours. Of course ask your average parkrunner to train for ten hours in a week and they’ll only manage 50-60 miles – if they make it through the week. That’s why mileage is misleading because how far you run depends on how quickly you can do it.
But does an amateur need to train this much? Definitely not. At least not in the beginning. Think of the unfittest person you’ve ever met. They only need to run for 15 minutes to collapse exhausted and start triggering improvement. The reason elites run so much is because the fitter they get, the harder it is to find untapped fitness. It’s like having a fresh tube of toothpaste – you can squeeze it anywhere and toothpaste comes out. When it’s almost used up, you have to squeeze from the bottom to the top to get the last drop out.
The first step for any runner turning serious is being able to run regularly for 30-45 minutes. By definition, any parkrunner should be able to do this. With this level of fitness, you can start to apply some of the general guidelines below.
Rule 1 – Warm-up takes at least ten minutes
When I was at university our physiology lecturer, Ian Parker-Dodd, used to say it takes twelve minutes for the body to reach steady-state. I had no idea what he was talking about! But I remember at my first parkruns, when I ran without warming up, it took over a mile for my breathing to settle down. After I started running gentle fifteen minute warm-ups before parkrun, I found myself feeling comfortable from the beginning. That’s all the steady-state is, the point where the body’s fully warmed up and able to run at a decent pace without strain. Some people warm-up quicker than others. I find it takes closer to twenty minutes of a training run before my body is working at its best (but I’m towards the higher end). Everybody should expect the first ten minutes of a run to be about getting into the groove.
Rule 2 – Training runs should last at least thirty minutes
If the first 10-15 minutes are spent getting warm then you want to go at least another mile or two to start improving fitness. If your run only lasts twenty minutes total then it’s barely been worth the time spent changing clothes before the session, showering after and getting your kit washed. Get into the habit of making training runs last thirty minutes – it’s good practice on the days when your legs are tired as you get used to mentally pushing yourself through – and building your mental toughness will help at the end of races.
Exceptions – when you’re coming back from injury; recovering in the days after a race; or genuinely pushed for time (“it’s better to do something than nothing”).
Rule 3 – Aim for runs to last forty minutes
One of the reasons time is a better measure than miles is because certain physiological phenomena take place that are true for everybody. How long it takes to warm-up is the first of these while another is the production of human growth hormone (HGH) peaking at the forty-minute mark. HGH helps you to build back stronger and faster and, while after forty minutes the body continues to produce it, the rate slows as time passes. If you can, extend thirty minute runs out to forty minutes to get more bang for your buck.
Rule 4 – Limit training runs to an hour
The one hour mark is another physiological limit because runners can only race at the lactate turnpoint for this long. While you’d rarely, if ever, train for an hour at this intensity; there is another reason for not training longer. The longer you run, the more you deplete your body’s fuel stores. Do that too often and you find yourself crawling along on the following days.
It’s okay to run for slightly longer, many of my runs come in between 55 mins to 1hr10. But I found when I tried training for over 1hr20 on back-to-back days it got the better of me. Good training is about getting out regularly and consistently to build on previous sessions. Don’t push the upper limit too much.
Exception – the weekly long run where you’re deliberately running for 1½ – 2½ hours to recruit more muscle, build extra aerobic fitness and adapt the body to hold more glycogen (carbs).
Rule 5 – Listen to your body
In many ways this is the most important rule but you need to have been running for a while to understand the language it talks. For beginners every run can be challenging and they may have to push through what they perceive as painful but equally it may be time to scale back. Only experience can teach which is which. Generally it’s better to err on the side of caution and stay healthy to get out again the next day. Experienced runners face a different challenge – adapting their routines to their current fitness level. Once you have a good base of miles it’s easy to ignore aches or pains or look to a physio to resolve them. But sometimes the answer is to ease off. For example, at one time I was running every day for an hour. Eventually I realised it wasn’t helping me so I dropped all my recovery runs back to forty minutes and within a few weeks found I was sleeping better, had fewer aches and pains and more energy for my key workouts.
To summarise – let your body warm up gently from the beginning of runs. Aim for runs to last thirty minutes to make them worthwhile and ideally forty minutes. Depending on your time available and where your route takes you, it’s okay to push out to an hour of running and even go a little beyond. The beauty of running by time is that as you get faster, your total mileage automatically increases with no more time taken out of your day.
I found I could hit a sub-20 parkrun time on 4-5 hours of training so that’s a good benchmark to aim for initially. In the last part of this series, I suggested aiming to run five times per week. If you run three times for forty minutes in the week, thirty minutes on Saturday at parkrun and a long run on a Sunday of 1½ hours you’ll be hitting the four hour total. It’s easy to add five minutes here and there to get a little extra training done!
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.
I wrote this series of posts while parkrun was cancelled due to Covid19 on what you can do to improve your running and set yourself up for a PB. It begins by looking at the four factors to consider when constructing a training plan.
I only became a serious runner as I was approaching forty, but there were a few times before that when I focused on running. When I was eighteen, my sister wanted to go out running so I went with her. She promptly gave up and moved to London while I stuck with it for the next six weeks.
I didn’t have a training plan or a goal, all I did was run to the bottom of our road and back. I’d stand at the back door, start the timer on my Casio digital watch and sprint off as fast as I could. We lived on a hill so I got an extra boost with running downhill and, while it eased off, it was downhill all the way to the bottom of the road. Once there I’d turned right and come back up another road that seemed fairly flat. Of course by now I was huffing and puffing away, gasping for breath but the worst was yet to come. The final section was two steep uphills with a short flat section inbetween. The flat gave enough time to slightly recover from the first uphill, push up the second and arrive home gasping for breath at our backdoor. Plotting the route now I find it was 2.6km with 30-metres of fall and rise. I kept no logs but I recall running this route in seventeen minutes. That seems a bit slow as it’s six minutes per km but given that I wasn’t that fit at the time I can believe it may be correct. The only thing I had going for me was a will to push myself to the limit and give it my all.
I decided I was going to try and run every night of the week but I also gave myself an out – I’d accept running six days out of seven. That’s a pretty smart way to train because while you’re setting yourself a standard, you’re also accepting you don’t have to be perfect and it’s ok to miss the odd session here and there. I trained like this for six weeks and then I got invited to do a charity swimming event so I started going swimming regularly and forgot about the running.
This first foray into running certainly wasn’t the best way to train but it ticks the box on two of the factors that go into making a training plan.
I was running regularly – six days per week.
I was accumulating mileage as a result of running regularly. It may only have been about ten miles per week and totalled 1 ½ hours but it was a beginning.
Where it failed was on the third factor – intensity. Had I slowed some of these runs down I would have been able to run further and longer and I would have been able to build up.
The fourth factor is recovery. You only get faster if you recover from the training you’ve done. Being eighteen years old I was still young enough to cope with running all-out for fifteen minute, six times per week. The day off each week was likely enough to get me through but I could certainly have been smarter in the balance of my training.
It’s the interaction of these four factors that get you FITteR
Frequency – how often you run
Intensity – how fast you run
Time – how long you run
Recovery – allowing your body to recover and adapt
In part two, I’ll talk in more detail about Frequency of training and how often you should aim to run.