In my 30+ years of training experience as a high-performance triathlete and runner, as well as a dedicated coach, I have delved deep into the world of endurance training. Through countless hours of personal training, studying the training methods of successful runners, and coaching aspiring athletes, I have discovered a set of principles that form the bedrock of fast and efficient running.
While there are many other types of running workouts you should incorporate into your training, these four cornerstones serve as the foundation that supports all other training sessions. Neglecting these cornerstones can prevent you from realizing your full potential.
These cornerstones of training have stood the test of time and have been proven to enhance performance, enabling athletes to reach their maximum potential. Whether you’re a seasoned runner aiming for a new personal best, a beginner, low milage runner or a triathlete seeking to improve your running speed, incorporating these fundamental training elements into your regimen will pave the way to success.
Aerobic quality runs
These workouts, also known as fast endurance runs, involve running at a pace faster than your training pace but slower than tempo pace. The distance covered in these runs varies depending on your running experience and goals.
Beginners and low mileage runners might start with a 5k or 10k run, while competitive marathoners could go as far as 2+ hours. The key to these sessions is maintaining relaxation at a pace that challenges you but is sustainable. A good starting point is running at a pace one minute per mile slower than your 5k race pace.
These workouts should be incorporated throughout the training year, with a higher frequency in the early phases and reduced frequency during the racing season. Aerobic quality runs are fundamental for all runners, but particularly beneficial for those in the early stages of development.
Race Specific work/max lactate steady state workouts
This cornerstone can be divided into two categories based on race distances. For events ranging from 1500 meters to 10k, specific max lass workouts play a crucial role. These workouts involve running at a pace within approximately 1% of your race pace. For instance, if you aim to run a 20 min 5km, your specific pace would be around 3:58 to 4:02 min per km. And for longer events like the Half-Marathon or Marathon incorporate longer tempo runs (4-15km) at or slightly faster than your goal race pace or race pace intervals (1mile, 2k, 3k) or progression runs.
It’s important not to push the pace beyond what is appropriate for these workouts. If the prescribed repeats feel too easy, instead of running them faster, consider reducing the rest time or extending the repeats while maintaining the same pace. As you progress from the base phase to the specific phase of training, these workouts should evolve to include repetitions at race pace combined with explosive sprint repetitions.
Max lactate steady state (Max lass) workouts focus on improving your ability to sustain a steady level of lactate, or acid, in your blood while running at your specific race pace. Initially, it was believed that this could only be achieved at 10-mile to half marathon race paces. However, recent findings indicate that athletes can maintain a near-maximum lactate threshold at faster paces, such as 3k to 10k race pace, for durations of 5 to 25 minutes.
During the base phase, max lass workouts involve explosive activities like short hill sprints, bounding, and sprinting when your body has a substantial amount of lactic acid. This can be achieved through hill circuits or incorporating hard track repeats with circuits or hill sprints during the rest intervals. As you transition to the specific training phase, these workouts shift to include repetitions at race pace interspersed with explosive sprint repetitions.
It’s worth noting that these specific workouts, both for marathon training and max lass development, are only slight modifications of traditional or “normal” workouts. Merely relying on regular training sessions and working hard is not sufficient. The inclusion of these workouts has been a major factor in the improved performances we observe today compared to the 1980s. While factors like EPO use may have influenced some of the significant improvements, there are many clean athletes achieving sub 13:10 times in the 5k.
This suggests that subtle but essential changes have occurred. Both past and current generations engaged in high mileage, tempo runs, intervals, and long runs on similar tracks, but the difference lies in the two types of workouts highlighted above. Hence, it is reasonable to assume that if runners from the past incorporated more of these sessions, they would have achieved faster times.
Traditionally, these workouts involve running at a pace equivalent to your half marathon pace or LT2. While incorporating such tempo runs is beneficial, I find that alternating style intervals are more effective in improving your threshold and overall fitness. Your threshold pace, often referred to as your steady state pace, is a critical determinant of success in races ranging from 3k to the marathon.
A high threshold enables you to perform well, and when combined with specific workouts, it leads to even better race results. Enhancing your threshold pace allows you to convert a challenging pace that you can only sustain for a short distance into a pace you can comfortably maintain over several miles.
Alternation workouts for threshold training include for example “over & unders”. These workouts involve mixing intervals of faster-than-half-marathon-paced running with quick recoveries that are faster than regular training pace.
Improvements in threshold workouts have a positive impact on tempo runs (aerobic quality run), and vice versa. If you find yourself plateauing in either of these work types, it is often beneficial to focus on the other. I have personally experienced the connection between these two workouts in my training, witnessing improvements in one type leading to improvements in the other.
It’s important to note that speed work is not synonymous with anaerobic work. This cornerstone focuses on training your body to run fast while maintaining relaxation.
Speed work can be as simple as incorporating strides into your training. It can be performed in varying volumes, either with high frequency or low volume but regularity.
Many runners assume that running fast means running hard, but it’s essential to understand that fast and hard are not the same. Similar to the workouts in the first cornerstone, speed sessions should not be excessively difficult. They should be more challenging than an easy day but much easier than a hard day. There are numerous ways to address the need for speed work, such as performing sets of strides or incorporating short hill sprints (8-12secs). During my racing career I often engaged in longer sessions, such as 10 to 20-second bursts of high-speed running into regular runs, allowing for full recovery between efforts.
The key aspects of this type of work are focusing on maintaining good, relaxed, and powerful running form (foot-placement) while ensuring adequate (full) recovery time between efforts.
In conclusion, while the four cornerstones I’ve described should not constitute the entirety of your training, they should serve as the central focus of your training schedule.
Regularly incorporating all four types of workouts, combined with physiological assessments such as blood lactate testing or/and VO2 max assessments, will yield even more precise and targeted results.
By utilising these assessments to inform your training and structuring the workouts in a well-designed progression that includes increased volume and periodized adjustments, you will truly be engaged in purposeful training rather than simply running.
This comprehensive approach will lead to impressive improvements in your performance, allowing you to unlock your full potential as a runner or triathlete and transitioning to the next level.