5 Experiments to Improve Your Runs This Spring

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Every runner is a hurdler. The hurdles we face are barriers to the improvement we seek. Each time we clear a hurdle and achieve a goal, we soon discover that the next hurdle is close at hand. The specific nature of the hurdle that an individual runner faces at any given time depends on a number of factors. For a beginner, the first hurdle might be simply feeling comfortable running any distance. For a very experienced runner, the next hurdle might be figuring out how to squeeze out that last 1 percent of his or her potential after already realizing the other 99 percent.

Clearing hurdles requires jumping—or taking a leap of faith. You need to come up with a hunch about the best way to change your training to overcome the particular challenge you're facing, and then test that hunch. There are no guarantees. Every change in training is an experiment. If it works, you retain the solution; if not, you discard it and try something else.

More: Stock up on new spring running apparel.

Spring is an ideal time to experiment in your training. It's the start of a fresh "season" of running, allowing you to take advantage of what you learned in the last season and devote a full season to giving your hunch a fair test. Here are five experiments to consider trying this spring. Choose the one that seems like the best way over the hurdle you're currently facing.

More: 7 Ways to Jump-Start Your Spring Training

1. Run more.

For the vast majority of runners, the simplest and surest way to improve is simply to run more. Average weekly running volume is the single most powerful determinant of fitness outcomes. The more you run, the more efficiently you run, and the more efficiently you run, the faster you race.

Set a short-term goal to become a higher-mileage runner. If you currently run 20 miles per week, build up to 30. If you currently run 30 miles per week, aim for 45. Take your time, increasing your mileage by no more than 10 percent per week and cutting back by 25 or 30 percent every fourth week for recovery or whenever your body needs it.

More: 3 Steps to Long-Run Recovery

2. Get serious about cross-training.

Every runner has a limit in terms of how much he or she can run without getting injured. It's important to respect your limit, but you can also work around it. By incorporating cross-training into your routine, you can get the same stimulus for cardiovascular development that you would get from logging more miles, but without the additional beating that would come with it.

I recently tried this very experiment and it has worked exceedingly well. I cut my running volume from 80 miles per week to 40 miles and made up the difference by spending lots of time riding an ElliptiGO. The result has been that I'm racing just as well I did when running twice as much. But my muscles, bones, and joints feel far more sound and healthy.

More: 3 Benefits of an ElliptiGO

3. Start training by heart rate.

Research has shown that runners perform best when they do 80 percent of their training at low intensity, 10 percent at moderate intensity, and 10 percent a high intensity. The average runner actually does about 45 percent of his or her training at low intensity, 50 percent at moderate intensity, and 5 percent at high intensity.

The average runner, in other words, needs to be held back in training, and a heart rate monitor is a great tool for that purpose. With a heart rate monitor, you are given objective, quantitative definitions of low, moderate, and high intensity that make it easy to keep the intensity low during the 80 percent of your runs that should be.

More: Find a heart rate monitor.

Following the 80/10/10 rule is even easier with a device such as the Square One from PEAR Sports, which essentially puts a coach inside a heart rate monitor so that training at the right intensities becomes a virtual no-brainer.

More: The Power of Pace and Heart Rate Training