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.

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.

What’s stopping you from starting?

How to Improve series – part 4

In part 4, we’re looking at Intensity otherwise known as “how fast to run”.

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!

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.