How to Improve series – part 6

In this final part, we’re looking at how to bring everything altogether for a running system geared towards long-term improvement and getting FITteR.


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.

Steve Way is a local phenomenon who took up running in 2006 in his thirties and ran a 3hr07 marathon off a few weeks of training as an overweight 16-stone smoker! There’s no doubt he was naturally talented for endurance running. A year later he decided to train properly for the 2008 London Marathon and proceeded to clock 2hr35. When I first met him in 2011-12, he was coming to Poole parkrun as our course record holder (15min13) and was about to run his third consecutive 2hr19 marathon in London. Most runners would have been very happy with that but after starting to train for 100km races, he ran 2hr15 in London and qualified to represent England at the 2014 Commonwealth Games. He’d taken seven years of committed training to go from a 2hr35 marathon to 2hr15.

Of course few runners have the natural talent of Steve to be close to a three hour marathon on their first attempt but his story shows if you’re interested in becoming the best runner you can, there are many years of training and success ahead of you.

Steve was lucky in the respect that because his body is so geared towards endurance, he never considered trying to be a speedster. That’s where many runners fall down because they 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. Remember the majority of amateurs only do 30% of their training at easy paces.

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.

What’s stopping you from starting?

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.

How to Improve series – part 1

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.