There are many ways to run. Slow, steady, long and easy, short and sharp, up or down hills, around a track or along a forest trail run. Each type has its own unique benefits, and whether it has a place in your program is dependent on your goals and experience. Read on to find out which are the key sessions for you.
Steady-state runs or ‘steady runs’ are what most of us instinctively do, putting in the miles at a comfortable pace well below our maximum capacity. Steady running isn’t so challenging that it leaves you fatigued, so you can do more of it, helping to build your overall volume of training. It improves cardiovascular fitness, burns calories and helps your muscles, tendons and other connective tissues to adapt to the forces of running, reducing injury risk.
The key thing about a steady run is that the pace feels comfortable. You should be able to hold a conversation as you run, albeit a slightly breathless one. If you are new to running, all your runs should be steady or easy runs. Only when you’ve been running consistently for a few weeks and can go continuously for 30 to 40 minutes should you start stepping outside the steady run ‘comfort zone’.
Easy runs or ‘recovery’ runs should be slower than steady runs. Runners often do their easy runs too hard, and their hard runs too easy, so training is all of the similar intensity. Far more benefit can be gained from having a mix of easy, moderate and hard. The main purpose of a recovery run is to add some mileage without too much overload, the pace needs to be pretty effortless and the runs shouldn’t be too long. Otherwise, rather than assisting with recovery and adaptation, they’ll create additional stress. There is some evidence that a gentle recovery run can hasten recovery more than complete rest, so it’s wise to schedule them following tougher runs.
You might think that long runs are only for those gearing up for marathons but every runner can benefit from a regular long run.
The benefits of long runs are the same as for steady runs, but multiplied, due to the increased duration. You don’t have to do a long run every week, once a fortnight is already more if you’re not marathon training and the term ‘long’ is relative. To determine your starting point, I recommend adding ten minutes to your current longest run. Do not increase the distance of this run by more than either ten minutes or one mile at a time. Adding some walk breaks to this longer session can extend your ‘time on feet’ without overdoing things.
Long runs, steady runs, and easy runs all address the ‘T’ of the FIT acronym. What about the ‘I’? The following sessions will increase the intensity of your training in some way. Don’t go overboard, even elite distance runners, who might log 200km plus per week, only do a small number of these sessions. The majority will be easy and steady runs, the ‘bread and butter’.
If you are running three times a week or fewer, one high-intensity session is enough. I recommend starting with fartlek or lactate threshold training. If you run four or more times a week, then you could aim for two hard sessions. If your long run exceeds two hours, I recommend counting it as one of them because the duration becomes the challenge.
Lactate threshold training
Lactate threshold (LT) is one of the key attributes of a fit runner. The LT is the point when lactic acid in the muscles increases sharply because it cannot be cleared as quickly as it is produced. Training at an intensity around the LT is the best way to improve your threshold, so you can sustain your pace without contending with the negatives of crossing the LT. What’s the right effort level? LT tends to equate to around 85% of your maximum heart rate or the speed you could maintain in race conditions for up to an hour (this could be your 10km pace or slightly slower). It’s often described as a ‘comfortably hard’ pace or ‘controlled discomfort’ but its not, as people mistakenly believe, an all-out speed session. I use threshold training as the introduction to faster work for newbies who are ready to progress. Its also the key speed session to improve pace in events lasting 30 minutes or longer and even up to a marathon.
There are two ways to do threshold training. The standard is to run for 15 to 45 minutes at a sustained pace (after a warm-up, you maintain your threshold pace or effort level for the duration of the run). This is often called a tempo run. If that sounds daunting or if you think your session might be pretty short if you have to work continuously, then try threshold intervals. Here, you work at the same pace but break the session into intervals (no shorter than five minutes, no longer than 15 minutes), divided by short rests. Take one-minute recovery for every five minutes of running. This might enable you to do more overall than one continuous effort. For example, four repetitions of five minutes with one-minute recovery jog (20 minutes at threshold pace) compared to 15 minutes in a single effort. An extra five minutes!
Lactate threshold training teaches your body to get comfortable working at a higher proportion of its maximum aerobic capacity. But interval training geared towards improving the maximum capacity itself, the V02 max. The higher your VO2 max, the faster you can run while maintaining aerobic energy production. To train VO2 max most effectively you need to run at, or close to, the pace that elicits your maximum (remember, VO2 max is a physiological measurement, not a pace). If you’ve already done a 5km, the pace you are aiming for is likely to be equal to or slightly faster than what you achieved, on average over that distance.
Thankfully, you only need to work in short bouts to reap the VO2 max-boosting benefits of interval training and you get nice long rests in between (that’s why it’s called ‘interval’ training). For each minute of effort, allow 30-60 seconds of recovery and the efforts should each last between one and five minutes.
While VO2 max training is useful for all runners, it’s of most benefit to people training for shorter distances, example 5 and 10km races. If you are training for longer distances, its the ‘icing on the cake’ and it’s not for beginners.
In true speed work, you are no longer working aerobically because the pace is too fast to supply sufficient oxygen. Your body has to rely on ‘anaerobic’ (without oxygen) energy production. Whereas easier-paced running mainly on ‘slow-twitch’ fibers in the muscles (those associated with prolonged, sub maximal contraction), maximal-paced running calls on ‘fast-twitch’ fibers too (the ones designed for short bursts of effort). This enhances muscle strength and power. It also improves technique, which should benefit more leisurely paced runs, and give you a ‘kick’ for that sprint to the finish.
The rule should be ‘little and not too often’ for speed work. It could be incorporated into another session by adding some fast ‘strides’ at the end when your muscles are warm and pliable, or a standalone session of short reps of a specific distance, like 200m, or time, such as 20 to 30 seconds. Allow yourself plenty of recovery between each rep, two to three times as long as the length of the effort.
Fartlek is a Swedish word meaning ‘speed play’, and playing with speed is exactly what this is. There’s no set schedule, but the idea is to mix hard running with easy jogging, usually on varied terrain. The intensity can be dictated by the terrain, steam up a hill and then jog until you catch your breath or sprint between every third lamp post or by your stopwatch.
Fartlek can be a great way to introduce beyond-the-comfort-zone running as it isn’t too structured. But it can be a bit vague for beginners, who aren’t sure how many efforts to put in or how fast to go. Plan your session In advance in terms of how many efforts to do and at what pace, and ensure you temper hard bouts with plenty of recovery time.
Hills are a great way of increasing cardiovascular effort while building muscular strength in the legs. A Greek Study found that 20% more muscle fibers were activated running uphill compared to flat ground. If you are a new runner, try to schedule the hills early in a run before you get tired, when technique more likely to be compromised.
While I’m a big fan of using hills to increase intensity and improve fitness, it’s important that you know what ‘type’ of hill session you are doing as you would know the purpose of any other session. You could incorporate hills into a fartlek run to add intensity or into your long run to replicate a forthcoming hilly race or you can use hills to work on your lactate threshold or VO2 max.
There are two main types of hill training:
In a traditional hill reps session, you run up the hill fast and jog/walk back down to recover. This is a great way to work on your VO2 max. Look for a hill that will take you between 45 seconds and three minutes to climb and don’t pick one of Everest-type gradient. On a treadmill, try a gradient of 4-6 percent. Don’t time your recoveries, simply take as long as you need to get back to the bottom.
In a continuous hills session (sometimes called Kenyan hills) you run up and down the hill at your lactate threshold effort level (there’s no jog down or rest at the bottom) for a given duration or number of reps. The uphill provides an additional cardiovascular challenge and builds leg strength, while the downhill is good for increasing leg turnover. A study has found that runners who trained up and hills increased cadence and speed more than just running uphill or on the flat. Aim to run at the same effort level you’d achieve running at threshold pace on the flat, the pace itself will be a little slower. I opt for shorter hills, so there are more ups and downs rather than one or two long climbs and descents, and I avoid hills that are too steep, which might negatively affect technique. Use a more generous ‘effort-to-recovery ratio’ than on flat ground to account for the added challenge of the hill, one-minute recovery for every four minutes of effort.