Incorporate long runs for improved performance at all distances

Credit: Alex Livesey/Allsport
"Slow and steady always wins the race."
Marge Simpson

This bromide was delivered as mother Simpson was putt-putting along the track in a go-cart, while other go-cart enthusiasts zoomed around her, lapping her every few seconds. And just like Marge in her go-cart, the slow and steady runner will beat the walkers home, but not many others.

It is true that runners well below their maximum training load can increase any aspect of their training including doing more slow and steady running and see improved racing results. This is why so many people can testify to the validity of various training strategies: It is no hard task to improve the performance of a runner used to 20 miles per week of running. Adding any amount of interval training fartlek, hills, tempo runs or more mileage will improve the performance of someone who has dabbled at running.

Improving performance for more serious runners gets more difficult. But for both the beginner and the experienced runner looking for improved performance, the starting point has to be the amount and quality of distance running. The one thing that separated modern training methods from the earlier models is mileage, so it seems clear that a runner bent on improved performance needs to get the amount and quality of mileage right before considering the niceties of interval or hill training.

How far to train

Determining the optimal mileage depends on how good the runner is at distance running, and the length of the races he anticipates. It seems obvious that someone training for a 5K distance will not need as much mileage as if he were training for a marathon. Yet there are plenty of people who disagree with this. In fact, I know many top athletes who hold that the only difference between training for a 10K and for a marathon is that the Sunday long run is slightly longer. This approach short-changes one, or even both, of the events.

For a runner to discover how good he is at covering mileage, he simply has to try different amounts at different paces. For example, I had success training for 5K to 10K races at anywhere from 50 miles per week to 130 miles per week; training only once per day or as many as three times per day (more if you count supplemental swimming and bicycling); training at near full-throttle efforts most of the time, to easy mileage.

My best success was found somewhere in the middle. A friend of mine improved from a 2:15 marathon to a 2:13 by reducing his mileage from 140 miles per week training twice a day to 70 miles per week training once per day. And I have seen other runners improve by increasing their mileage.

This may sound unhelpful, since there is no firm advice here about how much mileage should be done or how fast that mileage should be. That is the inexact science of running. But accepting that there is a wide degree of variance for different runners, what follows is how the typical runner can improve his performance by changing mileage and pace.

The typical runner will not achieve a best effort in a 5K unless he is doing at least 40 miles per week. What this means is that a runner can do less than 40 miles per week and have success, but it is unlikely that he will come close to reaching his maximum performance. And if a runner is easily injured, he may well have to stay under 40 miles per week because an injured runner never achieves maximum performance.

For the typical runner/triathlete, about 70 miles per week should be the maximum. That provides a range of 40 to 70 miles per week for runners seeking to achieve their best effort in the 5K. Those runners who are more efficient generally those who are thinner (ectomorphs), have efficient strides, don't seem to sweat as much as the rest of us will be at the upper mileage range. Runners who are less efficient generally larger body types (mesomorphs and endomorphs), and who are not efficient with their movements or seem to sweat more than average will be at the lower end of the mileage range.

If the race distance being trained for is a 10K, the bottom of the mileage range will stay about the same 40 miles per week, but the upper limit can increase to 80 miles per week. For marathon training, the mileage range goes up to 60-100 miles per week to achieve maximum performance. Runners can have success at less than that amount of training, but they will not achieve their potential.

I know someone will ask, "But aren't there elite athletes that train way more than the upper end of that range? Aren't there milers, let alone 5K runners, who exceed 100 miles per week in their training?" Of course. But first, these are not typical runners; they are atypical and not good examples to follow. Second, elite runners routinely overtrain in their zeal to achieve excellence and in their misguided weekly mileage scorekeeping with other runners (a very destructive practice).

There are plenty of elite runners who could reduce their mileage and have more success. Finally, many of you are also swimmers and bicyclists who will get a lot of the aerobic benefit of easy running mileage from their other disciplines.

How fast to train

The equally important part of the equation in the quest for maximum performance is how fast the mileage should be. Some people get in the routine of slogging through slow miles. They then may include interval training sessions to achieve their overall conditioning. I have seen runners have very good success with this type of training, but I think even these runners are making a mistake. There is too much to be obtained from having the right mix of quality mileage to leave it on the table.

On the other extreme, I have trained with elite runners who always ran their mileage fast. One in particular (a former American record holder in the steeplechase and a 2:11 marathoner) would leave the house running at 5:30 per mile pace and would never slow down (but would not speed up much either). People literally had to do warm-up jogs before going for a distance run with him.

Once again, for the typical runner, the best success will be found in the middle of these two extremes. Over a 10-day period, a runner should have three to four easy days of running, which could include up to two days of complete rest. Three or four of the days should have mid-quality running, and two to three days should have high-quality mileage.

The easy running is self-explanatory: All the running that day should be easy, 120-130 heartbeats per minute maximum. (My reference to heartbeats per minute is for illustration only, and different runners would be wise to determine their own easy-medium-hard effort ranges). And it is OK to take a day or two off from running altogether if the runner needs rest.

The mid-quality running is done after an appropriate warm-up period in which the runner runs easily. Medium-paced effort can comprise either a steady pace with the heart rate in the 140-150 range, or a varied effort (for example, going up and down hills) where the heart rate swings between 120 and 160. The runner should always be below maximum on the mid-quality days, never feeling completely tapped.

On the high-quality mileage days, the runner should reach maximum effort during the run after appropriate warm-up at easy and medium pace. The maximum effort can come during a steady pace where a near-race effort (heart rate exceeding 160) is maintained for some distance. Alternatively, the maximum effort can include fartlek or hills, where there are shorter maximal efforts combined with recovery running.

Going once, going twice, going three times?

The question of how many times a day a runner should train for optimal performance is often answered by the rest of life's demands. Quite simply, most people will find that one run a day is all they have time for. This is almost certainly true for multisport athletes who have to get in other training each day.

Runners who are "stuck" with this reality do not have to feel like they are leaving much potential behind as they read about Kenyan running machines regularly training three times per day. It has been my experience that one longer, quality effort is usually worth two shorter, quality efforts that total as much as 50 percent more in total mileage (at least when it is 5K/10K training).

For example, if a runner runs one quality 10-mile run, he will get the same benefit as doing two 7-mile runs that day. One reason is that by running only once per day, the runner has more rest, mentally and physically, to put into that one effort. In addition, the warm-up period of any run will be about the same, with the typical runner needing about 3 miles to get up to training speed. This results in the 10-mile run providing 7 continuous miles of quality mileage, while the two 7-mile runs net only 8 miles of quality mileage broken into two 4-mile pieces.

Where do intervals fit into this?

Intervals are a subject for another day. Intervals can be valuable if they are part of a comprehensive training approach. However, many runners will find that they can achieve nearly all, or all, of the conditioning they need from a well-designed quality distance program. Interval training can add the last component of racing fitness, but only after the runner has achieved the right balance of distance training.

Having trouble getting up to speed?

Some runners have trouble getting out of the slow distance running rut, or they keep sliding back into it. Two strategies that help runners keep their pace up while doing mileage are strides and timing of runs. Strides are a relaxed, slow sprint of about 100 meters (anywhere from 80 to 120 meters works). Build up speed gradually so that full stride speed is reached at about 40 meters. The top speed on the first few should be about the speed the runner would go during a one-mile race. The latter strides should get gradually faster, but never faster than 400-meter race pace. The runner should always be comfortable, with top-end speed held back.

Doing six to eight of these, with 20 to 30 seconds jog-shuffle in between, preferably on a soft surface, will accomplish a couple of important preliminary training goals. (However, runners not used to doing strides should start out doing only a couple of strides at slower speed and building to the six to eight strides at recommended speed).

The strides should be done once or twice every 10 days on medium-quality days. Strides will stretch the leg muscles and exercise fast-twitch muscles without tiring them. The muscle memory of going faster will last and should carry over to regular distance running, increasing the pace at which the runner generally runs.

The second strategy is to time portions of some runs. Part of the joy of running is to get away from the clock and pressures of the day. However, if a runner has trouble keeping daily mileage at a quality level, the solution is to set a modest time goal for measured portions of a couple of runs each week. Also, doing a timed run of 3 to 6 miles (tempo run) over a relatively flat course or on a track once every 10 days can work to create muscle memory and make generally faster distance running more comfortable.

Is a long run necessary?

For marathons, the answer is simple yes. Someone training for a marathon will need to have lengthy runs (20 miles or so) to prepare for an optimal performance.

For 5K and 10K runners, the need for a run that long is questionable. Most 5K/10K runners do not benefit from training runs of longer than 14 miles. Longer runs may not be harmful, but such longer runs will make a runner more tired and will reduce the quality of other runs. My recommendation is that if a 5K/10K runner likes long runs, a run of up to 14 miles once every 7-10 days would be fine. Otherwise, 10 to 12 miles is as long a run as the typical 5K or 10K runner needs to do.

A sample training schedule

This type of program would look like the training schedules that follow. Recall that these are illustrative only, that schedules should be tailored to each athlete and should be changeable based on real experience. Remember that these schedules are for 5K/10K athletes who have built a relatively high level of fitness and are seeking to maximize performance, and not necessarily for triathletes whore concurrently in training for the bike and the run.

Were I to create additional schedules that would follow these, the speed and mileage of training would be increased as the runner becomes better conditioned. At that point, the question of adding intervals will become increasingly necessary.

The one-week cycle has never suited the various demands of training. Longer periods such as 10 days or two weeks provide a much better time period to rotate through the various aspects needed in training.

Runner 1: higher mileage trainer (average 8 miles per day)

Day One: 9 miles medium effort, plus 6-8 strides.
Day Two: 6 miles easy effort.
Day Three: 10 miles medium effort, with some hills.
Day Four: 8 miles medium effort.
Day Five: 5-mile sustained hard effort, with warm-up and cool down.
Day Six: 4-6 miles easy effort.
Day Seven: 12 miles medium effort.
Day Eight: 4-6 miles easy effort.
Day Nine: 10 miles hard effort, with hills.
Day Ten: 4 miles easy.

Runner 2: lower mileage trainer (average 6 miles per day)

Day One: 6 miles medium effort, plus 6-8 strides.
Day Two: 3 miles easy effort.
Day Three: 10 miles medium effort, with some hills.
Day Four: 5 miles medium effort.
Day Five: 5-mile sustained hard effort, with warm-up and cool down.
Day Six: 3 miles easy effort.
Day Seven: 10 miles medium effort.
Day Eight: 3 miles easy effort.
Day Nine: 10 miles hard effort, with hills.
Day Ten: Day off.

Greg Hitchcock is a running columnist for Slowtwitch.com. Now an attorney, he holds many course and school records and was a member of the University of Oregon's cross-country team.

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