Intelligent and Comprehensive Training for Distance Runners


We each have a limited amount of time and energy to devote to training. This time is valuable and we need to use it as effectively as possible. Unfortunately, many runners put large amounts of time and energy into training and achieve only mediocre results. The same training mistakes get repeated over and over. Let’s take a look at 4 common running-related training errors. By avoiding these pitfalls you will help optimise the effectiveness of your training and make best of use of your precious training time.

#1: Running intervals too fast

The purpose of interval training is to increase your maximal aerobic capacity (VO2 max). The best way to improve your VO2 max is to run intervals so that you accumulate time at (or close to) your current VO2 max pace. For most runners, VO2 max pace is about 3 km race pace. Training at 3K to 5K race pace will work your cardiovascular system to its limit, which will help increase the stroke volume of your heart and improve your muscles’ ability to use oxygen to produce energy aerobically. If you run your intervals faster than this, you will train your lactic acid (anaerobic) system more and provide less stimulus to improve your aerobic capacity. This is a mistake because for distance runners the aerobic system provides the vast majority of the energy used.

#2: Running intervals that are too short

As discussed in common training mistake #1, to improve your VO2 max you need to accumulate time running at, or close to, your current VO2 max. Your aerobic system, however, doesn’t reach VO2 max as soon as you start an interval. It can take up to a minute for your cardiovascular system to work at its maximal capacity. If you run intervals of 400 metres or less, therefore, you will not accumulate much time in the optimal intensity range. The best way to rack up time at VO2 max over the course of a workout is to run intervals of two to six minutes duration.

If you run one km intervals in 3:45, you are maintaining VO2 max for a solid three minutes. In a workout of eight times one km, you would accumulate about 24 minutes at VO2 max pace which provides a strong stimulus to improve your VO2 max. Unfortunately, some athletes persist running short intervals, perhaps because repeat 200’s or 400’s are not as tough mentally as having to maintain pace during longer intervals. An athlete recently justified these sessions by saying they allowed him to maintain good running form. That’s fine, as long as he is allowed to stop every few hundred meters during a race. These short intervals can be of some benefit if the athlete uses a very short rest interval so oxygen consumption doesn’t have time to go down too much between intervals. Still, 8 times one km is better preparation both physiologically and mentally than 20 x 400 metres.

#3: Running too slow on long runs

LSD should stand for long steady distance, not long slow distance. Here’s why.

Glycogen is the storage form of carbohydrate, and when you run low, you run slow. An important objective of long runs is to deplete your glycogen stores which stimulates your muscles and liver to store more glycogen-to help prevent future depletion. Because the faster you run the more glycogen you burn, running your long runs at a solid pace is a more effective way to deplete your glycogen stores (and hence stimulate the muscles to store more) than running slowly.

Similarly, long runs train your muscles to rely more on fat and less on carbohydrates at a given speed so your glycogen stores last longer. If you jog your long runs your body will adapt to burn fat at a very slow pace but will not necessarily be trained to increase the proportion of fat utilised at speeds approaching race pace.

#4: Training too hard on easy days

This is the most common training mistake of all. Say that Abigail feels pretty good on a scheduled easy day and trains too hard. Now, she’s a bit tired for her next hard day, so that workout doesn’t go as well as planned. She’s really annoyed, so runs the next scheduled easy day a bit harder. So begins a vicious cycle in which the easy days are done too hard and the quality of the hard days goes down. The result is mediocre race performances. It takes discipline to go easy when you feel good on a planned recovery day. Using a heart monitor is a good way to prevent yourself from training too hard on your easy days. Keep your heart rate below 75% of your maximal heart rate (or 70% of your heart rate reserve) and let your body recover to allow high quality workouts on your hard training days.

(This column originally appeared in Running Times Magazine.)