The Logical Levels show us that our results come from our behaviours. In order to get better results we have to do different things. In order to do different things, we need three core ingredients:
1. Knowledge. Information. What to do, how often to do it and, crucially, how it works
2. Skill. Putting that knowledge into physical practice, in the case of running by carrying out the training sessions.
3. Attitude. The combination of whether we want to do what’s necessary (desire), think we can do what’s necessary (ability) and whether we will do it (drive).
Make a change across this level and behaviour will change. Fact.
Change behaviour, and results change. Fact.
All three of these ingredients sit within a personal sphere of capacity. Generally speaking we all are capable of more, but we all have a ceiling. Whilst we can grow within our sphere of capacity, we need to be mindful of our limits and not set unrealistic expectations which sit beyond them.
I can’t give you your attitude, nor can I gift you the physical capability. But I can teach you the knowledge you need. And that’s what I’m going to attempt to do here.
Getting “better” at running is just like any other form of growth.
If you want to grow your muscles, you lift weights. Lifting weights stresses the muscle fibres, which causes them to tear on a microscopic level. Recovery and nutrition then allows the body to repair; filling in the gaps with new muscle material, and so over time, with repeated stress and recovery cycles, the muscle gradually gets bigger.
If you want to improve your running, you need to look at it in the same frame – stress and recovery.
When we stress our bodies through running, we “damage” our muscles. Recovery then repairs them, leaving them stronger/fitter/more efficient.
We don’t always want our muscles to get bigger, though. So the key is knowing the different ways in which we can stress our muscles to our running advantage.
There are three “variables” to our training:
Conveniently, to help us remember, the initials spell “FIT”.
Notice there is no “Distance” in those elements. Distance comes from time.
So, the real question when it comes to improving our running is:
What should I do, for how long, to what level of effort and how often?
GOLDEN RULE: You should not run more often than it is necessary for your body to recover in between sessions.
How long it takes for you to recover is something you need to learn, and it changes (increases) with age. As a general rule of thumb, running every other day is a good starting point, but if you feel that you’re not fully recovered from previous sessions you should wait until you do before running again.
Running when not fully recovered won’t help you in the long term. Instead, at best your progress will go backwards since your body never has chance to fully repair but at worst you increase the likelihood of injury.
Schedules are all well and good, but you will intuitively know when you’re recovered from the last session, and will know when you’re ready to do the next.
Let’s look at effort and what it actually means.
When we work hard, two things generally happen:
Our muscles have a short term supply of fuel called “ATP” which is burned very quickly – within seconds – in a process that doesn’t need oxygen (anaerobic). This instant fuel means we always have the ability to move rapidly if needed, although it is soon exhausted.
If the effort is sustained beyond say 10 seconds, our muscles need more fuel from somewhere, and that comes from a different process that then takes over.
Glycogen is a type of glucose made by our livers only while we sleep (just one of the reasons we need a solid sleep schedule) and is stored in our muscles as a fuel for the day ahead. In order for our muscles to use that fuel (in a process called “glycolysis”) there must be oxygen present (the aerobic process). Oxygen comes from our lungs as we breathe, enriching our blood stream in the process. The maximum amount (volume) of oxygen that our blood can contain is what is referred to by the term “VO2 max”. That oxygen-enriched blood is then distributed all through our body by our heart, acting as a pump.
So, we continue to exercise beyond the ATP reserves and we enter the aerobic process. Oxygen from our blood is used to convert glycogen into fuel (as well as fat, and then protein, but I’ll leave that for now). As oxygen levels fall our breathing rate increases in order to replenish the oxygen that has been taken out (low blood oxygen levels are not good for lots of reasons, not least for the brain, so this is a prioritised automatic body function).
In order to get that newly oxygenated blood to where it’s needed, our hearts up their pumping rate.
Our bodies are slick, wonderful, biological machines 🙂
Incidentally, if we run out of fuel our muscles cease being able to function. This is the “wall” that marathon runners encounter as glycogen supplies are used up.
What all this means is that intensity can be conveniently measured by heart rate. The higher our heart rate, the more intense our activity.
To begin with, you need to know your maximum heart rate – the point at which your heart simply cannot pump any faster. Since this reduces with age, we can use the following formula to work out what that maximum roughly is:
220 – age in years
So, a 30yr old has a theoretical maximum of 190 BPM, whereas a 50 year old has a theoretical maximum of 170 BPM.
The keyword here is “theoretical” – everyone is different. The above is a guide, but your maximum may be different.
Heart rates are then split up into five different “zones”, each representing a range in terms of percentage of maximum:
Zone 1: 50-60% Max
Zone 2: 60-70% Max
Zone 3: 70-80% Max
Zone 4: 80-90% Max
Zone 5: 90-100% Max
Fitness tools like Garmin watches are able to work out these ranges for you simply by entering your age, so you don’t need to.
Operating in each of these Zones has unique benefits:
Zone 1: Reduces stress
Zone 2: Basic cardiovascular training
Zone 3: Improved aerobic capacity
Zone 4: Improved anaerobic capacity
Zone 5: Anaerobic and muscular endurance, increased power
So what this is saying is that in order to be able to sustain effort for longer, we need to spend some time in Zone 4. And in order to get faster, we need to spend some time toward Zone 5.
Conversely, we can never expect to get faster if we spend our entire time in Zone 2. That’s because we won’t work our bodies in the way they need to be worked unless we spend time in Zone 4 or 5.
The point here is that you should design a running schedule around your goals.
So let’s get into designing a running schedule…
When it comes to running, we can look at the Zones as follows:
Zone 2: Warm-ups, Cool downs and Recovery
Zone 3: “Base”. The aerobic, fat-burning zone.
Zone 4: “Tempo”. The anaerobic zone.
Zone 5: “Threshold”. The VO2 Max zone.
That’s the good news! There are only 4 zones when it comes to running, and even then there are only really three when you consider Zone 2 is for warm-ups, cool-downs and recovery runs which add no training effect. Remember, training is all about effort and recovery – you can’t grow without both – so your schedule needs to have an appropriate amount of effort and rest, which means an appropriate mix of time in zones and time in recovery depending on what you want to achieve.
When it comes to the act of running, not all running is equal.
Some running is by definition harder than others, in other words some types of running take us into different Zones. We can use this to our advantage when putting together a training schedule.
Here are the basic types of run we can do:
Each of these types of running serves a particular purpose, and if done properly each can be used to ensure your training time is spent in the Zones needed for you to improve in the area you want to improve.
Recovery: Slow and with no effort. Used in between scheduled runs to recover from periods of higher intensity. These should not work you, but keep your legs “loose” and “wheels turning”. Not to be scheduled in regularly, but used as and when needed.
Base: The majority of your training. Done at a comfortable pace with a comfortable amount of effort. The staple run for typical school days.
Long: Slower and further than base runs. Works “slow-twitch” muscle fibres. Develops stamina.
Fartlek: Continuous running with varying random speeds, both up and down. Develops “fast-twitch” muscle fibres, and therefore speed.
Intervals: High speed bursts with occasional breaks. Develops speed.
Hill Repeats: Running up an incline, jogging/walking back down and repeating. Develops stamina and climbing speed.
Speed: Sustained higher speed runs to, err, develop speed. If you want to run faster you have to run faster!
Racing: Maximum sustained speed/effort. PB and running glory territory. Not part of a regular training schedule, but useful as periodic “benchmarks” of progress
Now that you know about effort, and the types of run we can do, the third and final element is the amount of time we sustain that effort for.
The amount of time depends on the type of run you do.
With the exception of racing, which is always sustaining maximum effort for as long as possible (or over a particular distance), each type of run straddles the Zones roughly as follows:
As a general rule, the higher the effort, the less time it should be expended over. As you get fitter the actual time you’ll be able to sustain that effort will increase, but relatively speaking as effort goes up, the time you hold that effort for should come down.
Ignoring Recovery and Racing (being the two extremes and not usually part of a regular training schedule), there are of course 6 other remaining types of run.
You’ll see that a long run, for example, should be in Zone 2, whereas fartlek sessions should span Zone 3 and Zone 4 (as you vary from a relatively easy base to bursts of increasing speed). Intervals should be more extreme, and therefore span between periods in base, tempo and threshold.
The actual time you spend doing each run depends on your level of fitness. Nobody knows how long you can sustain a maximum effort hill repeat until you actually do one. One good way to set a benchmark is to time yourself over a mile on the flat running with maximum effort. From this benchmark you will be able to work out how much time you should spend in the other Zones.
In order for your running to really take off, you should make sure that your training schedule includes each type of run at minimum once every 2 weeks. The reason it’s 2 weeks is that’s the length of time after which we start to lose fitness. By doing each type at least once every 2 weeks we make sure we increase in all areas we need to in order to move nearer to our running goals.
All this leads to putting together a training plan.
A training plan that captures each of the types of run, each having a specific purpose and each being done for a period of time in line with the effort needed.
There are all sorts of guides and schedules out there, and every runner will have their own view on what a good training schedule looks like. My strong steer is to design your own (only you know how your body feels and what it is capable of) but as a rough guide, and until you feel able to do that on your own, here is my base training plan:
Recovery Runs = Up to 20 mins
Long Runs = 60 to 120 mins
Base Runs = Up to 60 minutes max
Fartlek = Up to 45 minutes max, with approx. 60% in Zone 3 and 40% in Zone 4
Speed = 30 minutes max
Intervals = 6 repeats over 20 mins max. The last burst should be at the same pace as the first (all bursts equal pace)
Hill Repeats = 10 repeats over 15 mins max
Let’s imagine I gave you a schedule for an interval session that was “Run 100m, 5 times”. One of three things would be true:
It’s much better for you to set your own stretching schedule. As long as you do each type of run at least once every 2 weeks, and you make sure that you stay in the relative Zones for each one (by adjusting your effort level) AND make sure you do them for an appropriate amount of time then the training WILL work.
Remember growth comes from those cycles of stretch and relax…effort and recovery. It’s the variety of runs, done at the appropriate level of effort (heart rate zone), for the appropriate amount of time that gets the results. Nothing else. No magic. No “special” body needed. This works regardless of size/shape/ability. You do, of course need to fuel these runs properly, so just as you wouldn’t put cheap fuel in to a Ferrari and expect it to run well you shouldn’t put poor quality fuel (food) in your body and expect it to perform. Nutrition is important. So too is rest. It’s only when we sleep that our livers can make glycogen than will fuel tomorrow’s activity. It’s only through recovery that our bodies are able to make the necessary repairs from the previous training session.
You have all the ingredients now. You have the knowledge – what’s left for you is to put that into practice through getting out there and doing it. If you do then I’m confident that you will achieve more than you ever thought possible.