If you’re reading this then in all likelihood you’ve “bought in” to the concept of training to run. Running for sport is tricky because most people have little-to-no idea how to make the jump from “I hate this” to “I can crank out one more mile.” If we really think about running in conventional terms we can trace our exposure and history in the activity as a form of punishment for the sports we really liked. Running was the pre-season or end of a hard practice form of punishment that sadistic coaches subjected us to in an effort to break us.
The thing is running is one of those things that take time to do well and hopefully perfect. So, what’s the secret to running well? Without exploring the history of the Ancient Greek, Pheidippides or recanting the tales of the sports legendary runners, the secret lies in your training. Just about any training plan involves a progressive approach and rest days and a taper period depending on the time frame and difficulty/distance of the race. What you, as someone who runs, must master is consistency and variation training.
Forget “Couch to 5K” taglines and “Run Your Best Marathon Ever” promises glossed on running magazines. Those are misnomers of the highest order and instill a false sense of respect for true training. The most important part about training consistency is about stringing productive and functional training sessions together. The reality is we all can’t follow training plans to the last letter; however, we can augment them and in doing so, improve a training plan tremendously. Regardless of the distance and time out from the race you find yourself, your body has a base level of fitness — even if it’s pretty deplorable. Your first task is to measure this baseline with what I call a “blind run.”
A blind run is a timed run at a comfortable clip for a prescribed distance, or whatever one comes first. For example, running a 10K in 45 minutes would be a goal and the blind run would end after 45 minutes or when you’ve run 10,000 meters. The gap, if any exists, is your Gap Analysis. So if 45 minutes ticks by and you’ve covered four miles, you know that you have some speed work and tempo work to do in order to decrease that gap. Early on in a training process, consistency equates to consecutive days on the road, track, trail, or even the treadmill. At this stage, the goal is getting your muscles, ligaments, and most importantly, your mind used to training repetitively. Remember, running is no longer the punishment, it’s the sport.
The next step to ensure consistency is to introduce variation training. This is what people like but underuse far too often. If your goal is to run a half marathon the worst thing you could do is attempt to run a half marathon on every training run. The best thing you could do is to work on four main elements of running that will enable you to tackle that distance over a safe training block. These elements are: distance running, strength training, tempo running, and speed training.
Distance running is exactly what it sounds like. Here is where your body begins to understand how it breaks down under duress over the course of several miles. Distance running is also where your mind begins to convince your body it can’t run anymore. Distance running must start with attainable distances performed successfully with consistency to build up to the actual race distance (within reason exemptions being marathons and ultra-marathons).
Strength training is the secret weapon for functional running training plans. Without strength, our bodies break down and don’t recover nearly as well or as fast. Conditioning your muscles to handle workouts and workloads of anaerobic volume will not only make you stronger, but it will help keep you injury free. Many runners find themselves injured early on in a training plan because they have weak core muscles, weak hamstrings, or tight hip flexors. Strength training also comes in the form of non-impact cross training such as biking, elliptical work, kettlebell workouts, yoga, and dynamic stretching.
Tempo running is a time game. This is where you introduce your body to fartlek (speed play) training and is perhaps the most beneficial way to test your ability to sustain optimal performance levels over both distance and time. Tempo training relies heavily on interval training. For example, for every two minutes of consistent “cruising” you will churn out 45 seconds at an 80% clip over the course of an hour. Such a workout tests your recovery periods while allowing you to increase and decrease your speed accordingly. This type of training keeps your mind in tune with your body and serves as a salient litmus test for your overall fitness level.
The fourth element is speed training. Contrary to popular belief, most distance running involves heavy speed work. This where your cadence and turnover rate should be calibrated to help you find your groove. And, let’s be honest, nothing burns fat and puts you into oxygen faster than sprinting and changing direction or even doing “build-ups” over distance. Speed training also allows you to recruit and use more fast-twitch muscles on your run and gives your body opportunities to use the muscles you’ve trained in the weight room to explode, accelerate, and decelerate. There was a time when speed training was reserved for “fast” athletes but the truth is we all need to learn how to best maximize and improve our speed work as it aids in body control, coordination, and balance.
The last part of training is active recovery. People have a tendency to overwork their bodies when they start seeing body-centered results, they panic at the approaching race date, when they feel too overconfident, and when they aim for the aesthetic over the performance goals. Running aids in weight loss but it doesn’t rip us up like one might think. Running requires athletes to consume more carbs and fats. You can’t run your way out of a poor diet. Additionally, the runners who are in the best shape have acquired these results over time and distance. The more they run and stay injury free and the longer they do it, the better they are. Train with consistency and vary up your training plan, but remember, augmentation should aim to accommodate your schedule and abilities, not what you feel like is easiest. If there’s one thing running does more than anything else it exposes those who didn’t train well and rewards those who do.