When you take up running, almost any run, regardless of pace or distance, will help you to improve because it challenges your existing fitness. But that’s less true as you get fitter. Many runners do the same runs, week after week, with no specific goal in mind. There are two main problems with this, which will limit your improvement. Firstly, if you run at the same speed over the same distance on every run, there is no element of progression. Secondly, there is no variety in the type of challenge being placed upon the body.
If you want to continue to get fitter and faster (even if that doesn’t mean going anywhere near a race), there comes a time when you need to structure your training.
Moving the Goalposts . Set New Goals After Achieving It.
Let’s imagine your staple run is a 3 mile (5km) steady jog. When you first tackled this, it was probably quite a test for your heart, lungs, joints and muscles, causing them to adapt and strengthen. A few weeks or months on, now that you are fitter, that 5km jog no longer poses a challenge. Without that stimulus, your fitness gains will soon plateau or even decline (its called ‘reversibility’).
To continue making gains, you have to slowly but surely increase the stress or ‘training load’ you place upon the body. Sport scientists call this ‘progressive overload’. If you add too little stress. you don’t trigger any adaptations, so you don’t get fitter but add too much, and you risk ending up injured or exhausted. The secret is getting the training load right and increasing it at the appropriate rate.
Which is Better Quality or Quantity?
Runners can get very hung up on distance, but progressive overload doesn’t have to mean clocking up more miles you need to strike the right balance of quantity and quality. That brings us to the other problem, lack of variety. Running at different effort levels and on varying terrain yields different physiological and neuromuscular benefits. Run long and slow, and you’ll improve your cardiovascular endurance, boost your ability to use fat as fuel and burn lots of calories, as well as strengthening your muscles and connective tissues. But a short, sharp run will improve your VO2 max (the amount of oxygen your body can extract from the air and utilize in the muscles), raise lactate threshold and enhance your technique. Throw in some hill climbs and you’ll get more muscle fibers working, boosting power and making flat running feel easier, as well as improving running economy. You get the picture!
A good way to remember the options for increasing your training load is the acronym FIT frequency, intensity and time. These make up your ‘training volume’. But which one should you focus on? There’s no single factor that is better in terms of progression. A good training program will play with all three elements will be shaped by what you want to achieve.
‘F’ stands for frequency – How often are you going to run?
One of the biggest benefits of running more frequently is that it allows you to inject more variety, as well as increasing your overall volume. Only introduce one additional session at a time, however stick with this new weekly total for a few weeks before considering adding another extra session.
‘I’ stands for intensity – How hard are you going to run?
Increasing the intensity of some of your running is of great benefit if you want to improve your speed over a given distance, but wait until you can run at a steady pace for 30 to 40 minutes before introducing tougher sessions. Bear in mind using hills or more demanding terrain can raise intensity without increasing pace.
‘T’ stands for time – How long or far are you going to run for!
This is the key variable for beginners to focus on. Increased duration should always precede increased intensity. Adding minutes or miles to your runs is a great way of raising your training volume and building up to longer races like half marathons and marathons.
Striking a Balance in Your Types of Training
When you want to increase your training load, pick one element at a time. Don’t try to increase the number of times you run, your pace and distance all at once. That’s not progressive. Bear in mind that there’s a pay-off between intensity and time. The harder you run, the shorter the session (or could be broken down into short bouts of effort, as in ‘Interval Training’).
A common rule of thumb is to increase weekly mileage or minutes by no more than 10 percent at a time. This works fine when your mileage is low, but it can ramp things up rather quickly if you are docking up 25 miles a week or more. A more conservative option is to increase your volume by the number of sessions you run per week in miles every third week. If you run four times a week, you would increase your weekly mileage by four miles every third week, for example.
Post Marathon Recovery. The Importance of Rest.
Whichever method you choose, you can’t keep on increasing your weekly mileage indefinitely. Those physiological and biomechanical adaptations that occur as a result of progressive overload take place when you are at rest (primarily during sleep), not while you’re out running. That is why it’s so important to build recovery into your training. One of the best ways of doing this is by following the ‘hard-easy rule’. This means structuring your training so that you don’t do two hard sessions in a row, it will lower your chances of getting injured and ensure you don’t end every week feeling exhausted.
I also recommend taking recovery weeks occasionally, where you scale mileage and intensity right down. Try reducing your training volume every three to five weeks, depending on your experience, goals and how you are feeling. This will keep you physically and mentally fresher.
You Must Be Specific to Your Goals
Just as psychologists tell us that our goals need to be specific (I want to finish a 10km without walking as opposed to ‘I want to get fit’, which is too vague), sport scientists talk about ‘specificity’ in terms of training. This means that if you want swim the open sea for Ironman, you should practice your front crawl, if you want to cycle for Ironman, get on your bike.
But specificity applies within a sport too. If you want to run a fast road 10km, your training will be very different from training for a hilly cross-country event. That’s because the adaptations from training are very specific to that type of training. The perfect example? A group of orienteers (runners who have to navigate cross country to reach specific points) and a group of track runners with equal levels of fitness were assessed running on rough terrain with steep hills. The orienteers used less energy to cover the terrain because they’d tackled this sort of ground almost every day in their training, whereas the track runners stuck to the roads and athletics track. Although both groups were accomplished runners, the exact fitness gains they had achieved were related directly to their mode of training.