Since I started running seriously a few years ago, I have consulted every runner I know, scanned dozens of websites and read countless books to try to find the ideal training program for racing. And while everyone has their own ideas on the topic, some formed by gut instinct and some, allegedly, backed by science, it seems like almost all of them come down to the same essence: three quality runs a week. That's where I stand (or run) today. Do you have something better?
Most of the year, when I am not training for a marathon, I run three times a week. One day I run speed: intervals of a mile or less (usually a lot less). Typical would be 12 x 400 meters at 5K pace. Or 8 x 800 meters. Before my 10K personal best last year, a partner and I did a weekly progression, extending the length of the intervals each week. We started with 400s, then 600s, 800s, 1000s, up to 1600 meters the week before the race. Since it worked so well, I go back to that or some version of it before other key races.
My second workout, usually after a day of rest, is almost always a tempo. This is where you do a short warm up and then run for about 30 to 40 minutes at a pace you could hold for an hour. I've heard this described as "comfortably hard." For me it is my 10-mile race pace, or a little faster than my half-marathon pace. My favorite version is a simple five-mile tempo. But we also do 3 x 3 miles or 2 x 3 miles with a rest in the middle, and if I am training for a short race I might back off to 2 x 2 miles for a week or two before the event. Other variations include "tempo intervals," and this year I have done two of those: workouts of 10 x 1 mile at tempo pace. The idea of these workouts, as I understand it, is to increase your threshold level, or the pace at which you can run before you reach the point where your muscles can no longer process lactic acid and you begin to quickly tire. It does seem to work, and if you use a heart rate monitor, you can compare your stats week to week and see how over time you are running at a faster pace at the same heart rate, or at the same pace with a lower heart rate.
My third quality workout is usually a long run. When I am not training for a marathon, that might mean 14 or 16 miles. During marathon season it goes up to 20 miles or more, with 10 or miles at my goal marathon pace.
And that's it. Most of the year I mix in cycling and swimming on my running off days, and when I am training for a marathon, I will do one or two recovery runs in place of the cycling. But I actually have found that cycling on off days leaves me feeling better than running. I've even had very good races just one or two days after doing a fairly tough bike ride of 40 or 50 miles. Something about spinning those wheels seems to loosen up my leg muscles for running hard the next day or two days later.
The details of these three workouts are easy to adjust according to your pace. Anyone who is trying to improve their times can use this system. Just plug in your recent race paces or a reasonable goal pace and go from there. But if you have a better system, I would love to know. I am always looking for new ideas and for ways to improve my training.
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