This page will serve to offer a very short and basic introduction as to the what, how and why of quality sessions. Before we get to all that however, let’s get a few things out of the way…
How should you run your workouts? Unfortunately, there isn’t an easy answer.
There are no ‘magic’ intensities. Many people will say or believe that there are certain paces or intensities that garner improvements better than others; that running in this specific zone will make you improve whereas running too slow or too fast will not help as much. You’ll hear labels such as VO2max, lactate threshold, critical velocity and so on. Run at these paces, not any slower and faster and you’ll improve.
If only things were that simple! It’s true; they all do different things, but that doesn’t mean one is better or worse than the other.
Endurance isn’t about scientific trigger words, it’s an extension of quality.
Endurance is all relative, and we are just trying to extend it. It’s about extending our ability to maintain quality… quality foot strikes, quality touches, quality movements… or any other physical component of running.
Imagine the last repetition of a high intensity interval session. What are we doing? We are trying to maintain good form, struggling to keep the head up, resisting the urge to lean back and flail our arms as well as keeping the legs turning over and contacting the ground with good force.
We are pushing and straining, commanding the body to carry on despite increasing levels of pain – a clear signal from the brain that it really wants us to stop.
So how can improve our ability to do this, to push past and increase our limits? Well it should be no surprise it takes a mix of physiological, biomechanical, emotional, mental and neural adaptations. It can be impossible to tell which part is the weak link or how significant each factor is in the eventual breakdown.
This is why it is short sighted to think of endurance from only a physiological standpoint. Of course it is important, but extending the quality of performance means coming at things from a more holistic point of view by trying different cues, techniques and workouts.
Endurance can’t be boiled down to logging numbers. It’s an intricate process. The demands of endurance have to understood by going out there and experiencing them yourself. When you experience all the subtleties in turn, you may begin to understand the shades of grey you’re working within.
What workouts should you do?
It can sometimes seem like workouts are the be all and end all. How much should you run, the details of each repeat and recovery, when to do them.
While individual workouts are important, it can be easy to over-state their impact.
Remember, you are a runner, not an accountant. It’s not what you do, it’s how you do it – the quality.
Why run quality sessions?
This question was hopefully answered in the first section of this article. If we think of endurance as extending quality then all we’re trying to do with a quality session is extend the quality of our performance. We try different things, focus on the details and experience all the subtlety involved. We acknowledge it’s a complicated process so we respect it and try our best to understand ourselves.
Over time, hopefully, we will begin to make connections and overcome our own misguided assumptions. And that’s when progress can happen.
The Main Types of Training
Improving Basic Speed
Your speed is how fast you can run for a short period of time and determines the pace you can attain but not the pace you can maintain.
You can think of speed as your stride frequency multiplied by your stride length. Increase one or both while the other is constant and you run faster. Simple right? While this basic logic holds true the truth is a lot more complicated, but we’ll leave that for another day.
Running short, fast repetitions will improve not only your basic speed but also your running technique and may improve running economy.
While basic speed training is more important for a 5K than a marathon it has a place whatever your goal distance.
Your stride rate, also known as your cadence, is controlled by the neuromuscular system. Faster turnover requires practice. Your nervous system activates your muscle fibers and this firing pattern controls how fast you run.
Therefore, by running short, fast repetitions, you provide the stimulus for your nervous system to adapt to running faster.
With more speed work, a faster stride rate feels more natural and takes less effort to maintain. When fast-twitch muscle fibers are regularly activated it allows them to be more readily available during a race, allowing more chance of a fast finish.
Your stride length is determined by how long your legs are (which you can’t control), the power your legs can generate and flexibility (things you can control).
Short, speed work can improve your:
- Range of motion by dynamically stretching your hamstrings and hip-flexors.
- Power by improving knee drive and ability to ‘toe-off’.
- Co-ordination by getting used to running relaxed at speed.
These types of sessions are short and performed with sufficient rest (as they are not designed to improve your cardiovascular performance) and should, therefore, mean lactate levels remain low throughout the workout. This means they shouldn’t interfere with longer, race-specific workouts you have planned.
Can help improve performance in the mile to 5K range. Important for longer races but take a backseat to longer intervals and tempo running in that regard.
In running short intervals, we are trying to increase how much blood is pumped to our muscles and how much oxygen is taken from the blood and used by our muscles.
This is done with efforts done at intensities you think you can hold for 8 – 10 minutes, as faster intensities will increasingly use our anaerobic system.
- Length of the interval
Efforts of 2 – 6 minutes are usually optimal as they allow you to spend the most amout of time stressing the cardiovascular system to near max levels.
When starting an interval, oxygen consumption and heart rate take time to increase into the optimal range.
Therefore short intervals, while easier, mean a lower proportion of effective training time.
Intervals that are too long, on the other hand, you will not be able to maintain the optimal intensity for the whole workout.
For example, let’s look at someone doing 10 x 2-minute intervals versus someone doing 5 x 4-minute intervals. Both workouts include 20 minutes of total effort, but both may not be equally effective.
If it takes 1 minute to get into the optimal intensity range, the person doing the 2-minute intervals will only spend 1 minute (50%) of the interval doing effective training, resulting in a total of 10 minutes spent at said range.
The person doing 4-minute intervals will spend 3 minutes (75%) of the interval doing effective training, however, resulting in a total of 15 minutes spent at the same range, culminating in a much more effective workout.
- How many intervals you do
In other words, the amount of total effort for the session. The optimal training volume depends on one’s training history. The key is providing a strong enough stimulus to incur adaptations but not wearing yourself so much that you cannot maintain the right intensity for the current session and/or that you cannot recover quickly enough for your next session or training period.
- How much recovery there is between efforts
The purpose of recovery between efforts is to allow completion of the session at the required intensity.
If recoveries are too short, you may have to go slower than required or having to cut the workout short because you are worn out.
If recoveries are too long, your heart rate and O2 consumption will decrease so much that it will take too long for them to back into the optimal range during the next interval.
For short intervals, recoveries tend to typically be 50 – 90% of the length of the effort. Longer efforts need proportionally less rest. For example, a 2-minute effort may need up to 2 minutes of rest, but a 6-minute effort shouldn’t be followed by a rest of more than 3 – 3.5 minutes.
Active or passive recovery?
Research has shown that for endurance running, active recovery is more beneficial. Recovery is increased when you are moving as lactate is removed more quickly, your muscles stay warm and heart rate along with O2 consumption is kept elevated allowing them to reach the optimal zone more quickly in the next interval.
If you are too tired to jog or perform an active recovery, then you are most likely running the intervals too hard. While it is not unusual to need to stand or walk for a few seconds after a several minute long effort, you should go into a recovery jog as soon as you can.
Designing the workout
As we have seen, an ideal short intervals workout is one with intervals of 2 – 6 minutes with each interval performed at an intensity you think you could hold for 8 – 10 minutes.
Some other notes:
- Can can be done on roads and trails and can be effective on flats, uphill or on undulating terrain.
- Intervals can be constant, which make it easy to see if you can maintain the optimal intensity with consistency, or varied, to make the workout a bit more interesting.
- Uphill work can be useful earlier in a training period when cardiovascular fitness is more useful than pure racing speed.
- Running uphill and then maintaining intensity on a flat or downhill is useful for simulating race conditions and converting uphill power into speed.
Longer intervals / tempo runs
When you exercise, lactate is produced in the muscles when carbohydrate is metabolised and is also used by muscles as fuel.
When you walk or run slowly, lactate levels will remain low as the rate of production is equal to the rate of use.
During easy running, the rate of production and the rate of use increase.
Eventually, however, you will reach an effort where the rate of lactate production is greater than the rate of use, causing the concentration of lactate in the muscles and blood to rise.
This is often know as your lactate threshold pace, the intensity at which lactate clearance cannot keep up with production.
Your lactate threshold pace
While LT is best measured in a lab while taking blood samples during exercise, a low-tech method is to use an estimate of the best pace you could hold for an hour.
We do these sessions by running slightly faster than your maximal one hour pace; mixing harder efforts with efforts slightly slower than this pace.
Broadly speaking, longer interval sessions can be split into four main types:
- Tempo runs
- Change-of-pace tempo runs
- Cruise intervals
LT should feel comfortably hard. The more time spent at the proper intensity, the greater the training stimulus. Workouts should be challenging but intensity should be at levels one can sustain.
Feeling sore and stiff the day after an LT workout implies one has run too hard.
Classic tempo runs
A continuous run of 20 to 40 minutes. If you are not used to these kinds of runs it is a good idea to do them on flat routes so intensity and pace can be more easily gauged and maintained. After a few tempo runs you should have developed a feel for the right intensity and effort.
Additionally, low-significance 5K to 10K races are good substitutes for tempo runs as long as one does not get carried away.
Change-of-pace tempo runs
These involve mixing harder efforts with running at slightly slower intensities.
The rationale is that the faster running increases lactate production but the slightly slower pace improves the body’s ability to use that lactate as fuel.
For these workouts, the first faster interval should be at least four minutes long for that initial increase in lactate levels.
Instead of a continuous tempo run, it is believed similar benefits can be gained by breaking the session into several intervals.
Just like in a tempo run, these intervals are run at slightly faster than your max one hour pace. Recoveries between efforts are kept relatively short.
Long intervals can add variety to training and can allow you to spend more time at high intensities. They are also great if you tend to avoid classic tempo runs.
The continuous tempo run does have one advantage however in that it is a tough mental workout as well as a physical one, allowing you to practice the mental fortitude required during races.
Each type of training prepares you specifically for the different types of physical challenges you will face during a race. We all have commitments and priorities outside of running so structuring training to make the most of your limited time requires balancing these types of workout to appropriately prepare for the demands of your goal event.
Generally speaking, all the types of workout described above will provide a benefit to performance across any distance of race.
Optimising performance for a specific distance of race will require more race-specific workouts however, as will performing said workouts closer to the goal event.
5K – 10K races will require more short intervals, whereas half and full marathon performance will be better aided with more longer intervals.
The adaptations resulting from and the benefits of basic speed work and drills will be useful whatever event you’re doing (or not doing).
As described in the section regarding basic speed training, loading faster workouts earlier in the training period will result in improvements that will make performing short intervals easier in the next phase, which in turn will make longer interval workouts easier in the subsequent and often final phase of event training.
To conclude, the most important thing to remember is to vary the types of training one does. Performing one type of training consistently can lead to dramatic benefits initially but these improvements will taper off and eventually lead to a plateau in performance. Varying types of training and the stimuli that the body is exposed to is much more likely to result in gradual, continual improvement and increasing specificity towards a goal event will ensure the body is optimally ready for the demands of the race.