One of the beauties of running is that it’s not a technique sport. You don’t have to spend years honing a forehand, jump shot or putting stroke to become a good, competent runner. Nor is it an advantage to be 6-5 or be able to run 100 meters in 11 seconds. Skill sets are simply not as important in distance running. That’s why just about anyone can become proficient at running by doing the proper training.
That means gradually building up your strength, aerobic endurance and mental tenacity through miles and miles of running. But that doesn’t mean running the same workout on the same course at the same speed day after day. That’s boring and ineffective.
To inject variety into your training and build a strong foundation, you need to do several basic types of workouts that—when combined together—will develop speed, endurance, strength and allow you adequate recovery time. By doing different types of workouts, you teach your body different lessons and become a more well-rounded, fluent runner. A mixture of workouts is the quickest, safest path to improvement.
Although the specifics of a training program should be tailored to the needs of the individual, every runner should build a firm foundation and then continually strive to reinforce this foundation with greater workloads of each component.
The essential building blocks that should form the core of a well-rounded training program are:
- Easy runs (for recovery)
- Hills (for strength)
- Speed (for speed and pace)
- Fartlek (for speed, pace and tempo)
- Long runs (for endurance and mental strength)
Nearly every runner does some variation of these workouts on a regular basis. Not necessarily every week, but often enough to get significant strength, speed and endurance gains. Each one of these building blocks are designed to improve some facet of your running and the more consistently you do them, the better a runner you will become.
— Easy runs would seem like the least important piece of this training puzzle, but actually, it’s the most important. Easy (or recovery) runs make up the bulk of your training and bridge the gap between harder runs. Your body needs a chance to recover from the harder stuff and easy runs at a slow, conversational pace afford you that chance. You should never follow a hard day –i.e., one of the essential building blocks—with another hard day. Whenever you do a fartlek workout or a speed day or long run, it should always be followed with an easy, relaxed day of running. Or, a cross-training day. Doing too many hard workouts in a week, month or training cycle will lead to an injury.
— Hill training is at the core of any runner’s training program because of the strength and mental tenacity that it builds. There are as many different ways to run hills as there are hills. You can do repeats up steep hills (walking the downhill portions) or simply incorporate several major hills into a normal training run. Or do a short run with several tough climbs. Or a long run with gradual ascents. You are only limited by your imagination.
When running hills, gradually increase the size (and steepness) of the hills, the number you run and the tempo you run them. But you also shouldn’t do major hill runs too often either. Once or twice a week is sufficient to build strength. Here, in the ATX, we have plenty of great hills that runners use to train on. Some of the best ones are Exposition, Mount Bonnell, Ladera Norte, Mesa, Courtyard (Shepherd’s Mountain), Lost Creek, Stratford and a dozen others.
Speed training is the only way to get faster. A speed workout is defined as any type of running which is faster than your normal training pace. You must run some workouts at one of several different race paces (typically, 5-K, 10-K, half-marathon or marathon goal pace). Whatever pace you do an individual speed workout at that pace must be faster than your normal easy run pace. That’s the only way to get faster. It’s as simple as that.
But there is nothing simple about speed workouts. They are so varied that there is literally a different set of speed workouts for every runner for every week. Usually, a good speed workout is a formalized set of distances, times and length of recovery between each set. The distances of a speed workout typically range from sets of 200 meters to two miles with varying periods of slow running in between each set. Since the distances are shorter than you would race, you can run faster than you usually do which teaches your leg muscles to work at a faster turnover. Thus, over time, you train your body to become more used to running at a higher rate of speed.
Try to keep moving between the hard parts of the workout. After completing a set distance, keep jogging for the prescribed length of recovery time before launching into the next set. If the recovery time is too short and you’re still tired, you’re either running too fast or the length of the speed portion is too long.
The idea behind a speed workout is to push the pace just a little bit harder than your normal comfortable running speed. A speed workout is not easy, but it shouldn’t be extremely hard and painful either. When you finish a speed workout, you should feel tired without being completely exhausted. Don’t run speed workouts too hard–or too easy. You’re trying to train yourself to run faster and also learn proper pacing.
Ordinarily, many runners assume they must do their speed workouts on the track because of the precise distances and controlled atmosphere there. Although tracks are the traditional spot for speed training, speed can be done anywhere. Simply find a relatively level stretch of road or dirt trail where you can run unburdened by traffic or traffic lights, bikes or walkers. You can even do highly controlled, precise speed workouts on treadmills.
Fartlek is a type of speed workout, but it’s much less structured and controlled and usually is a lot more fun. A good fartlek workout consists of portions of easy running interspersed with periodic surges or bursts of speed that either last for a few minutes or are run to a specific landmark. Or, you can simply run as far and as fast as you want, based on how you feel.
The idea is joyful, uncomplicated running that can be quite fast and satisfying. This allows you to do speed over varied terrain (never on a track) and it also teaches you how to vary your pace and tempo.
Fartlek is easy to do. After running easily for 10-15 minutes, begin throwing in surges of speed for either certain distances or times during the rest of the run. You can vary the intensity of the speed bursts and the length you run. After each one, continue running at an easy pace until beginning the next one.
Fartlek can be as tough as you want it to be, depending on how fast you run, how many surges you do, the terrain and the recovery time you allow yourself. The total length of a fartlek run should be about the same distance as your normal easy day run. Best advice is to do fartlek runs with a partner or as part of a group.
Long runs are the core of any training program. It doesn’t matter whether you’re training for a marathon or a 10-K, you still need to do long runs that will train your body (and mind) for the distance you will race. Certainly, the length of a long run for a marathoner or half-marathoner will be much longer than for a 10-K runner, but the concept of doing a long weekend run is integral for any runner.
How long, what speed and terrain you do long runs depends on many factors, but suffice it to say weekend long runs are all about building aerobic endurance. They should be relaxed, steady runs that go for an hour or longer. Marathoners usually go 2-3 times longer than that.
The main value of running long is training your running system to work for increasing lengths of time. You’d be amazed at how quickly you lengthen your long runs.
Running is all about gradual improvement. With a solid foundation, based on these essential building blocks, you will become a stronger, faster, more efficient runner.