Many runners want to be able to run faster, further, or try different events than they do currently. To help you achieve these goals, welcome to our introduction to the principles of running training.

Improvement

The definition of “improvement” will vary from runner to runner. Here, we will be looking at how you can:

  • Get more comfortable running certain events;
  • Get faster; and
  • Lower your finishing times.

The principles to achieve these apply whether you’re a beginner or an experienced runner. That said, there is no single best way to train, as every runner is different. Instead, we encourage you to consider the concepts and approaches mentioned here and adapt them to suit yourself.

“Should I just run more?”

Yes, running more will usually help you improve – within reason, and in usual circumstances. The reasons for this are straightforward.

Training is about stress and adaptation. If you stress the body, by doing a particular exercise, the body will then try to adapt in a way that improves its capacity to do that exercise in the future.

For example, if you were to regularly stress your biceps by doing bicep curls with a heavy weight every day, then your body would adapt by growing bigger biceps. The same is true for more complex movements, like running.

When we run, we use pretty much every muscle in our body, plus our skeleton, respiratory system, nervous system and other bodily processes. Every time we run, we stress each of these systems, causing the body to try and adapt to make running easier. These adaptations then occur when we rest and recover.

Therefore, the more we run, the better we get at it. However, it is possible to run too much.

Don’t push too hard

Sometimes, running more can be a bad thing.

The key thing to remember about the stress and adaptation model is that you have to allow the adaptation to happen to get the benefit of the stress. This won’t happen if you’re pushing the running, but skimping on the recovery.

To recover effectively we need to sleep and rest, and eat well. Because running is a high impact activity (we put a lot of force through our bodies with every step), it is vitally important to get this right or we can break down quickly.

Fortunately, if we choose to listen to them, our bodies are very good at telling us whether we are in balance or not. If your training load is too high compared to your recovery levels there may be warning signs, such as:

  • Running slower;
  • Feeling tired all the time;
  • Losing motivation;
  • Picking up an injury, such as a muscle tear or fractured bones;
  • Periods stopping or become irregular.

On the other hand, if you feel great, you’re probably getting it right.

Lonely Goat, Debbie Cutlan at the Kingston Spring Raceday
Periodisation

It is with the above in mind, that the runners who improve tend to organise their training in cycles. They have times when the balance is shifted towards stress, and times when it is shifted towards recovery. This is known as “periodisation” and it occurs on the daily, weekly, monthly and yearly level. For example:

  • A hard run, followed by an easy run.
  • Three weeks of increasing mileage, followed by a week with fewer miles.
  • A three month training block leading up to a target event, followed by a fortnight off.

By managing periodisation effectively, it is possible to improve your running by pushing your body to slightly break it down, and then recover to allow the adaptations to occur.

Variety

If you only do the same kind of runs, over and over again, you’ll get very good at that kind of run, but may struggle to do others. Maintaining variety in your training will help you become a good, well-rounded runner. One way to do this is to incorporate different kinds of runs into your weekly routine. You can do this in whatever way is best suited to you, but for example:

  • Monday – rest day or easy running;
  • Tuesday – intervals for speed;
  • Wednesday – rest day or easy running;
  • Thursday – tempo run for a mix of speed and endurance;
  • Friday – rest day or easy running;
  • Saturday – rest day or easy running;
  • Sunday – long run for endurance.

This schedule follows an easy, hard, easy rhythm as described above.

80/20 training

Research has shown that the best endurance athletes in the world do not run hard all the time. Instead, only about 20% of their training is done at moderate to hard intensities. The remaining 80% of the time they train at an easy effort level.

This principle is knows as 80/20 training. It is a useful guide when designing your own training plans, as the research demonstrates this works well for all runners at all levels, not just the élites doing 100+ miles a week.

Easy runs

Easy runs are those done at an effort level you could maintain a conversation for. They improve your general endurance by:

  • Increasing capillarisation – more blood vessels to get oxygen to your muscles;
  • Strengthening your musculoskeletal system – so you can absorb the impact of running;
  • Improving your “fuel efficiency” – making the most of the energy you eat, or have stored in your body to power your muscles.

These will be the runs where pace isn’t important and you can tick off the miles enjoying the view, the sound of bird song, or whatever else is around. Because you’re running slower than your target race pace, you may even be able to run further than the event you’re training for.

Fast runs

It can pay to do 80% of your running at an easy effort level, but adding some fast running offers big benefits. After all, if you want to run a certain speed in a race, you need to do it in training occasionally to get used to the pace.

Depending on your fitness, part of your training may be even faster than you hope to run in your target race. Running faster than race pace will help you get used to running quickly, and should give you a “speed buffer” so that race pace doesn’t feel as hard as it otherwise might have done.

Running fast is hard to maintain for a long time, so it can be broken up into intervals or “fartlek” speed sessions, or maintained over a shorter distance. For example, a runner looking to set a PB over 10K, might run slightly faster than their goal pace, but only over 5K, so that 10K pace doesn’t feel as hard.

Alternatively, a runner looking to run 5K for the first time might do a handful of short sprints in some of their training runs to help them get used to the feeling of pushing hard as they cross the finish line.

Fast running will help you by:

  • Improving your running efficiency and style  – it is hard to “plod” when sprinting;
  • Strengthening muscles – the effect can be similar to weight training;
  • Helping to get you comfortable with feeling uncomfortable – by pushing you outside your comfort zone.

Think of your faster runs as the chilli you add to a recipe. Too much can be uncomfortable, but a little goes a long way and can give you the extra kick you need.

Experiment and seek advice

We hope this article has given those runners who want to be able to run further or quicker, the information they need to assess their own running and look at how they might do so.

You may also wish to read our other training articles:

There’s a massive community of Lonely Goats to chat with should you want to ponder how you might be able to get the best out of yourself, so we encourage you to raise your questions in the Facebook Chat Group, using our Instagram hashtags, or in the Strava group.

Lonely Goat, Jason Pickin at Telford parkrun
“But I’m happy as I am, thanks”

Finally, we want to point out that we realise not all runners want to run faster, further, or try different events.

At Lonely Goat Running Club, we want all runners to feel welcome: from the first timers, to the veterans; from the PB hunters, to those who aren’t motivated by fast times. If you run, have run, or want to run, that is good enough for us.

With this in mind, we recognise not only will definitions of “improvement” vary from runner to runner, but many Goats will be quite happy as they are, perhaps running on an ad hoc basis, with no desire to change anything.

This is perfectly OK. In fact, it’s great, as satisfaction and contentment with your running has got to be a good thing.