The Smart Running Program
Let’s face it: running is the most popular form of exercise. It’s cheap, convenient, and so popular that when anyone stares in the mirror and makes the firm decision to get in shape, they start by hitting the road. Well, before they start pounding the pavement, they stock up on clever t-shirts, cool looking running shoes, and a survival pack that lets them carry water and other essentials. Then people start running.
Okay – in all seriousness, we run for two reasons: to either lose weight or improve endurance. If you’re in the weight loss group, then this article isn’t for you. But don’t hit the back button on your browser just yet! There are plenty of articles here that will help you lose weight and here’s a spoiler for you: it won’t involve endless runs that will consume all of your free time.
Now for the serious runner. You want to become a better runner, which at the end of the day means that you can run a set distance in less time. There are plenty of different ways to get there, but the overall goal is to improve aerobic fitness. Basically, aerobic fitness is the ability of your working muscles to utilize oxygen and turn that oxygen into energy that the body can use. Aerobic fitness can be thrown in with a bunch of other terms like cardiorespiratory endurance, aerobic endurance, and simply, endurance.
There are three methods to do this: the old fashioned way, the technical way, and the new age way. However, as a disclaimer, everything that is old becomes new again, so the old fashioned way has its merits. By old fashioned, I’m referring to trying to improve VO2 max (which is the maximal amount of oxygen that you can take in….notice how you breathe harder during exercise?) In theory, the more oxygen you can take in, the more endurance you’re going to have. The old fashioned way refers to the old form of exercise: just simply trying to run more and more….and more.
The new age way is actually trying to make the body more efficient at getting rid of acid, with the technical name called lactate threshold training. You know that burning sensation you get when you exercise hard? That’s from your muscles producing a lot of waste product from training. If you can get rid of waste product faster and more efficiently than the next guy or gal, then you’re probably going to be a better runner.
The technical method refers to improving running economy. This means that your running technique is poor and you’re basically leaking energy while you run. The equivalent would be throwing your own money out of the window as you drive down the freeway. You wouldn’t do that with your hard earned money, so why do that with your running? However, we’re not going to discuss running technique in this article.
Becoming a good endurance athlete doesn’t mean just stepping out of your front door and trying to run as long as possible. A smart running program incorporates different forms of workouts, and that’s what this article is going to try and do. Your approach should be based around distance work, coupled with different forms of interval and threshold training along with some stride work to help your technique (1).
The distance work is self-explanatory: you want to be able to work up to the distance that you desire running (5K, half marathon…whatever you want to do). For the most part, this will probably make up around 50% of your training. You would start off with a set distance, say two miles to start. Each week you could add a mile to the run and you would eventually couple that with weeks of recovery or what we refer to as a deload.
The other forms of running are where your program can get a bit technical, but also fun. It helps break up the monotony of long runs and introduces a new challenge to set your eyes on. Interval training works and allows you a lot of variety to introduce. Usually, your intervals will last between 1-5 minutes. Before you ask it, yes – these short intervals are nasty and will make you long for the days where you knocked out an easy 5 with your running buddy while chatting about the latest trailer for Avengers 2.
Researchers have used intervals to show their effectiveness in improving endurance. Female soccer players increased their conditioning by using 30-90 second intervals. Athletes would run at 90-100% of their maximal effort for 30 seconds. They would then recover for 30 seconds and then repeat the effort (80-90% of maximum effort) for 60 seconds. The pattern continued up to 90 seconds and then was repeated two more times. At the end of the 8 week program, the soccer players had a 25% increase in their VO2 max, or in other words, improved their endurance (2). The soccer players performed 9% better than a group that did traditional long runs.
If you still want to run longer than 90 seconds, then you can use 4 minute intervals. Elite soccer players used 4 minute intervals (paired with 3 minutes of active recovery) to improve their 300 yard shuttle time (3). As a result, the players were able to tolerate more lactate, which shows that you don’t need to run across the country Forrest Gump style to become a good runner. Just to show the variety that you can include in your training, a study found that runners doing 6 – 2 minute intervals (running at 90% of maximum) were able to increase their critical power (meaning that they could run faster while using less energy) (4).
Lastly, if you plan on doing a race, then you need to make sure that you’ve planned a taper. A taper allows you to still train up to your event, but you need to know how to recover so you’re in the best shape come race day. This can get pretty technical, but a good rule of thumb is that you should cut in half what you’ve been doing (5). If you run 30 miles a week, then you would want to cut down to 15 come race time.
Below is a sample week of a running program (I’ve put in times so people can get a general idea rather than specific distances)
|60 Minute Run at 70% of maximum effort||4 minute intervals at 90% maximum; 90 seconds of rest x 4||45 Minute Easy Run at 60% maximum effort||OFF||90 Minute Run at 70% Maximum Effort||2 minute intervals at 100% maximum; 2 minutes rest x 6|
1. Daniels, Jack. Daniels’ Running Formula: 3rd Edition. Champaign, Ill: Human Kinetics. 2014; pp 47
2. Clark, James. “The Use of an 8 Week Mixed Intensity Interval Endurance Training Program Improves the Aerobic Fitness of Female Soccer Players.” (2010) Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 24;7, 1773-1781
3. Sporis, G., Ruzic, L,and Lero, G. “The Anaerobic Endurance of Elite Soccer Players Improved After a High Intensity Training Intervention in the 8 Week Conditioning Program.” (2008) Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 22;2, 559-566
4. Kendall, K.L., Smith, A.E., et al. “Effects of Four Weeks of High Intensity Interval Training and Creatine Supplementation on Critical Power and Anaerobic Working Capacity in College Aged Men.” (2009) Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 23;6. 1663-1669
5. Mujika, Inigo. Tapering and Peaking for Optimal Performance. Champaign, Ill: Human Kinetics. 2009, pp 86