So you're going to start running for the first time in a while, or you're going to get more serious and add some structure, but where do you start? How far do you run? How often? How fast? On what surface? And what about gradient? I'm going to walk you through the types of run that you'll want to rotate through and talk about how to approach each type, how often you should be doing it, and how to get the most from your training.
This could be anything from a few miles, to several hours. It's the run most people associate with longer distance training, such as for a marathon or an ultra, but actually has a place in all programmes. A lot of coaches and programmes refer to this in terms of heart rate as a zone 2 run, and the goal is normally distance-based, or occasionally time-based, and may have a secondary target to do with pace or time. I advocate only 1-2 of these in a 2-week window, and only when you need longer runs; such as to build a base for a specific race. This is less than most coaches advise, but my logic is simple; these are the most time-consuming part of any programme but offer the least physiological benefits. Furthermore, many of the benefits they offer can be gained, at least in part, through other types of session, the recovery window is longer, and the risk of injury increases. The longer the event you're training for, the longer these sessions will need to be, but less frequent. As a general rule, for anyone taking on anything up to 10km I get them to run that distance, or sometimes further, in training, whereas for longer distances they train to a lesser distance. I do make exceptions for half marathons if I feel the runner will benefit from the confidence a 13-mile training run will give them.
The tempo run
This is actually several types of run, which most coaches and apps will break down by heart rate zone, pace as a percentage of known times or occasionally a combination. Tempo runs ordinarily refer to zones 3-5 in the language of heart rate, mainly 4 and 5, or at 70-100% of known race pace (or slightly higher in shorter bursts). I prescribe bands of perceived effort combined with breathing standards as a way to moderate intensity. There are a number of reasons for this, a few key ones being heart rate is both inaccurately measured and manipulated by factors other than exercise intensity, pace can vary due to a multitude of factors on any given day - a 7-minute mile might be comfortable one day, almost unobtainable the next, and you can run at a set pace or heart rate, and still run poorly, and miss the goal of the session. These tempo runs can be at a fixed intensity, or varied, on level ground, or undulating, on-road, or off, longer, or shorter. With these variables, these runs should form the majority of your running sessions. 1-3 per week is right for most people, training for most distances. As an example of someone following a 10km programme, they may see 8km at 75-85% effort and 6km alternating between 1km at 55-65% and 1km at 85-95% in the same week. To put these sessions into a broader context, the long run that week might be a 10km effort at 55-65%.
The same distance, or varying. Long or short. Best effort or sustained effort. Rest times fixed, based on run times, or linked to breathing recovery. There are many tweaks that can be made to get value from interval sessions. I use these once every week or two, and use them to achieve one or more of several outcomes, including maintaining race pace for longer, recovering more efficiently from harder efforts, or learning to hold good form under fatigue. In terms of bang for your buck, these sessions are huge! Planned with the right distances, intensity levels and recovery windows, you can build speed, speed endurance and get the aerobic benefits of a long run, in a much shorter time period. Where many programmes see a long run each week, I tend to programme one of these in the alternating weeks between long runs.
The dirtiest word(s) in running programmes ever? Quite possibly. But nonetheless, these are a great training tool for many reasons. These build power, anaerobic capacity, form and mental toughness, all while decreasing impact and eccentric loading and challenging the aerobic system during recovery too. My favourite method is to pick a length of hill, a number of repetitions, and go best effort up, slow jog back down. Just like intervals, these see a lot of training benefit, crammed into a small amount of time when compared to traditional zone 2 and 3 runs. I add these once per week for those who have enough training history to handle them and get the most out of them. They are best used once a certain amount of speed has been developed on the flat, although pretty safe at any level.
For the discerning reader, you will have counted 3-5 runs per week, 1-3 tempo runs, an interval or long run, and a hill session. This is all I give my runners, or have ever used myself and, full disclosure, the 5 is too much for anyone who isn't elite or on the edge of breaking through to that level. I very rarely run more than 3 times per week (often only 2) and very rarely prescribe more than 3 sessions weekly for coached athletes. There are a couple of reasons for this, but the key two are, firstly, time is better invested in other things, such as strength and mobility training, and, secondly, the risk-reward balance swings towards injury risk and away from training returns pretty sharply in most cases, since people tend to neglect strength and mobility training and often aren't set up to adequately recover between sessions.
This article isn't designed to be a comprehensive training plan, rather help you build your own, or at least know what to look for in an effective plan that isn't just watered down from a world-class runner's programme.
There is a final thought I'd like to leave you with; the best programme is firstly one that someone sticks to, and secondly, one that someone enjoys. Those two are often synonymous. With that in mind, a type of run I didn't cover above is the "fun run". This will differ from person to person, but for me, it's almost always on the trail, somewhere quiet if possible, with my dog, and involves no plan, target or desired training outcome. It might be 2 miles, or 10. It might be fast, slow, or usually a combination. It will see me hide my watch so I don't see my pace or estimated heart rate. While some argue that there is no training value to these runs, and potentially even an inverse value, I disagree. These are the runs where I can focus on my form, my breathing, learn my gear changes without worrying about meeting an objective, and most of all, enjoy where I am, and why I'm running to begin with. Sure, I still track them, but I don't look until I'm back home afterwards. As a quick anecdote, my best trail half-marathon time, over pretty challenging terrain, was the result of one of these "blind" runs.
Which is your favourite type of run? How often do you run? Have you tried regulating intensity using breath instead of heart rate? Let me know below, and make sure you enjoy your next run!