So far, we’ve covered the basics of getting started with running, with most of our focus so far on form. Truthfully, there’s not a whole lot more you need to know to train for a race and get yourself across the finish line. You could run the same, Easy pace for every workout, gradually building your endurance and the distance you could run without ever bothering to learn about the finer points of training.
But that’s not quite what we’re going for here. Sure, it’d be cool just to say you can run a distance that was unfathomable a few months prior, but being able to run far doesn’t necessarily imply a high level of fitness. We want to focus on fitness, too, so we’ll incorporate a variety of workouts into your training with the aim of burning fat, strengthening and building muscle, and improving cardiovascular health.
To close out the running section, we’ll cover the ins and outs of eating during and around your workouts. What you take in while you’re running has an obvious effect on how you perform, but many new runners neglect the crucial few hours immediately before and after workouts, which are just as important for performance and recovery. Workout nutrition comes down to just a few simple guidelines about what to eat and when, so it’s an easy way to take your training to a new level if you’re not already paying attention to how you fuel your body.
The Basic Training Principle: Alternate Hard Workouts with Easy Ones
The gentle rhythm will help you practice running away. But if you want to get in shape or train to save time, then you need to do more difficult exercises so that your body can adapt and get stronger. (Plus, running at speed can be very boring.)
When you’re ready to start mixing it all up, you’ll want to consider two other types of training for Easy Keeping: Speed Workout and Limited Workout.
Before we get into the specifics of the different types of workouts, it’s important to understand a critical principle that applies not just to running, but to all exercise. The way you build strength in a muscle is by working it hard and temporarily damaging the muscle fibers. The body responds by rebuilding the muscles and overcompensating by making them slightly stronger than before you tore them down. Assuming adequate nutrition, so that the body has the nutrients it needs to rebuild muscle tissue, this process takes anywhere from twenty-four to forty-eight hours. After several iterations of this process, the small gains begin to add up, creating noticeable improvement in strength, speed, and physical appearance (because you’ll also burn fat as you exercise).
Here’s the important consequence of the way this adaptation process works and the time it takes for your body to repair broken-down muscles: you must allow your muscles that time to rebuild before tearing them down again. If you work the same muscles too hard and too soon after a workout, before they’ve had a chance to recover, your workout will have been essentially wasted.
When it comes to running, the long and short of the above discussion is that you’re not doing yourself any favors by working out hard (anything other than Easy pace) on consecutive days. This is the reason it’s so critical that the Easy pace described in the previous article be, well, really easy—you want to get the aerobic benefit of logging in miles, but without interfering with the recovery of your muscles from the previous workout. Make your Easy runs too difficult, and you’ll be sabotaging your own progress. And don’t forget, because the heart is a muscle, too, even if you forego running entirely and choose to cross-train in between scheduled workouts, you’ve still got to take it easy on these days.
Along these same lines, I recommend taking one or two days completely off from running each week. Even when you’re alternating Easy runs with more difficult ones, it’s quite possible that certain muscles aren’t fully recovering in between workouts, so giving them a day of complete rest every week will ensure that a recovery deficit isn’t accumulating with each passing week.
Speed workouts are what they seem. The goal is to run at a much faster pace than you could maintain for a significant distance, but interrupt those intensity workouts with intervals of rest.
Speed work is usually done on a track, which has several advantages. First, the terrain is consistent and level. Second, you can measure your pace easily by glancing at the clock, and the markings on the track indicate the distance traveled. But I know, getting out on the track with a group of sprinters can be intimidating if you haven’t set foot in them since high school. Fortunately, there are less formal ways to work at high speed if the trail isn’t your beach, and we’ll cover those here as well.
THE BASICS OF THE TRACK
A standard outdoor track is 400 meters around, so it takes four laps to make a mile (technically, a mile is 1609.34 meters, but the difference is negligible for our purposes). This distance is measured along the inside lane, so you’ll want to make that one your default lane, only moving to the other lanes to allow faster runners to pass (or if you’re doing any racing where you’re in an assigned lane).
Usually, runners coming up behind you on the inside lane will yell, “Track!” as they approach, signaling for you to move over if you haven’t yet noticed them and done so on your own. You can do this, too, when you’re the one passing, but keep in mind that not everyone knows what it means, so you may have to pass in the outside lanes from time to time.
Most of the time, you’ll run counterclockwise around the track. Although shorter tracks inside gyms often alternate directions several times a week to help runners avoid injury from always turning the same direction, this isn’t much of an issue with standard-length tracks. It’s possible, especially if you run with a group where the coach or leader is always coming up with interesting workouts, that one day you’ll find a reason to run clockwise around the track, but for the most part, just plan on running counterclockwise so as not to disrupt the flow of other runners.
There’s a bold “Start” line on most tracks, and from there the track is marked with a line every 100 meters, dividing the track into four segments. Although none of the workouts from this article will have you running less than 400 meters at a time, the intermediate markings are helpful for gauging your pace. For example, if your goal is to run a 400-meter speed work interval in 100 seconds, then you’ll want to use the markings on the track to make sure that at the halfway point, you’re not far from fifty seconds into the lap. (Keeping your pace as even as possible will help you run your best times.)
This is just about all you need to know to fit right in on the track! When the specific workouts are explained in other article, I’ll explain how long to run and rest and what to do while you’re resting (for the most part, a slow jog is best in between work intervals).
In the meantime, here’s a simple track workout to try once you’re comfortable with running a few miles: after running a one-mile warm-up at Easy pace, run half a mile (800 meters) at a fast pace, about the pace you could maintain for a mile or so. Time how long it takes you do it and then rest for that same amount of time by lightly jogging or even walking. Repeat four times, or for as many times as you find that you can maintain your initial 800-meter pace, before finishing with a one-mile cool-down at Easy pace.
FARTLEKS: AN ALTERNATIVE TO THE TRACK
If you don’t feel like doing your speed work at the track—a lot of people think running around in a circle is boring, and I get that—there are other options. The simplest alternative is called a fartlek (no giggling!), a Swedish word meaning “speed play.” To do a fartlek workout, you simply run along your normal route, but alternate periods of Easy running with short bursts of increased (but by no means breakneck) speed, often your 5K or 10K pace.
In a typical fartlek workout, you’d run at your Easy pace for five to ten minutes as a warm-up, then alternate, say, one minute of 5K pace running with two or three minutes of Easy running, repeating this “one minute at 5K pace, two to three minutes at Easy pace” sequence six times before switching back to pure Easy pace for a five-minute cool-down. Because the terrain will vary, and it’s not as easy to measure distance on the roads or the trail as it is on the track, it will be harder to precisely gauge how your speed is improving and to consistently reach the same peak intensity with each workout. That’s completely fine—it’s called speed play for a reason! Have fun with it and don’t get too caught up in exact paces for your fartlek workouts.
Speed work is tough and you probably only want to do it once a week at first. The next type of workout is a little less intense, but longer.
THRESHOLD (TEMPO) TRAINING
Your anaerobic threshold is the intensity at which your body goes from a state of comfortable aerobic exercise (where your easy runs should be) to a more stressful and demanding anaerobic state, in which your cells don’t have enough oxygen. to convert sugar. energy and you get tired quickly when lactic acid builds up in your muscles. Limited training (used interchangeably with the term “pace”) teaches your body to increase the intensity with which it transits between the two types of activity; in short, it trains you to stay in “comfortable” mode for longer and at higher speeds.
Limited training is often described as “comfortably hard” – it should be an intensity that you can maintain for about forty-five to sixty minutes and no more. If you’ve run 5 km recently, try a pace per mile that is slightly slower than your workout limit. You should be able to say short sentences while running at a limited pace, but it must be difficult to get a full paragraph. (For example, if you can run 5 km in 25 minutes, try a limited pace of around 8:30 a.m. per mile.)
Start with about 20 minutes at this pace and work your way up to run faster and longer as your fitness improves. Climb hills or even hike this trail on a trail to make it interesting, but you’ll have to slow down to make up for the rougher terrain.
THE LONG RUN
The bread and butter (almond) of the distance runner’s diet is the long haul. This is the longest training of the week, and whether you are training for the first half or the full marathon, this is where you usually run more than what you have run up to this point, which makes running a cause for anxiety. Provocative workout, but also extremely rewarding because you can stand up and see what you have accomplished.
The long term is not complicated; You’re essentially running at a gentle pace, slow enough that you can carry on a conversation while running. The low intensity required to complete the long run without leaving your body completely destroyed means that the first half or more of the long run is usually quite comfortable, before the physical and mental effects of running for one, two, three or more hours. begin to manifest. make it very visible.
In my experience, the hardest thing in the long run is monotony. If you think you are bored, you can interrupt the process by bringing an MP3 player with a playlist, podcasts, or even an audiobook, if you prefer. Just pay attention to what is going on around you, especially if you are running on roads.
If you enjoy outdoor activities, you will find trail running to be much more exciting than road running, providing an escape from the busy world and the opportunity to meditate, reflect or just relax while doing your long. race.
The long haul is when you have to stop for water and nutrition (or bring it with you), as described later in this article.
For the most part, you’ll do your long runs at an Easy pace that you can maintain without too much effort until the final miles of the run. This is especially important the first time you train for a race to limit the risk of injury, but when training to improve on a previous time, consider several variations on the long run. You won’t find any of these long run variations in the training plans in this article, but they’re worth experimenting with as you gain experience.
The progressive long run involves gradually increasing your pace, so that even though you start out at Easy pace, by the end of the run you’re doing something close to (if not faster than) your goal race pace. Similar ways to boost the aerobic benefit of the long run are to aim to “negative-split” the run, meaning, to run the second half of the workout faster than you do the first half, or run up a long, gradual hill for the final fifteen to twenty minutes of your run.
You might also find it useful to increase the pace of your entire long run over the default Easy pace. You’ve got to be careful here because you run the risk of doing more harm than good if you run your long run at too hard a pace, but if you have a time goal, one way to get faster is to do your long runs at closer to race pace than the normal Easy pace, which is one to two minutes slower than race pace. For example, in my training to qualify for the Boston Marathon, I ran several twenty-milers at speeds ranging from eight minutes per mile (forty-five seconds per mile slower than my 7:15 goal pace) down to 7:30 per mile (just fifteen seconds slower per mile than goal pace). This was the first time I had ever done long runs with paces so close to marathon pace, and they certainly helped to give me a level of familiarity with what race day would feel like when it finally came.
One more common way to vary the long run is to put a tempo run in the middle of it. A twelve-mile run could become a three-mile warm-up, a six-mile tempo run, and a three-mile cool-down. This is a tough workout, challenging your lungs, your legs, and your head, so don’t try it at the end of an already hard training week. But if for some reason you’ve had to miss a mid-week workout and you’re looking for an added challenge in the long run, you might think about giving the combination long run/tempo run a try.
How Cross-Training Can Help Your Running
There’s a lot of argument about whether cross-training (engaging in exercise other than running) is beneficial, simply a waste of time, or worst of all, harmful for those whose goal it is to improve as distance runners. The benefits of cross-training, as I see them, are twofold:
- Cross-training allows you to work out and improve your overall fitness while giving your running muscles (and mind) a break; lower-impact or even zero-impact activities, like swimming and cycling, are often a welcome change from the pounding of roads and trails.
- Cross-training, particularly strength training, allows you to target certain muscles more effectively than running does and thus build a balanced body that’s more resistant to injury than if you strictly ran.
Critics, on the other hand, point out that many elite marathoners don’t cross-train. If your goal is to improve as a runner, they say, why put valuable training time into any other activity?
For the purposes of this article, let’s put that criticism to bed. First and foremost, if you’re new to fitness in general or inspired to get back in shape after years without exercise, I want you to do the activities you find most enjoyable. If you want to run, but not exclusively, and your goal is to improve your fitness more than it is to run your fastest race, by all means trade in a running workout for a serious swim in the pool, a bike ride, or a basketball game now and then. You’ll stick with a lifestyle that you enjoy, and I don’t want to tell you not to partake in those other activities, especially if your body hasn’t allowed you to do so in a very long time.
Even for those who do want to focus exclusively on running goals, I’m a believer that cross-training can help all but the most genetically gifted of athletes. Many elite runners are elite because their bodies are built for running; they can put in hundreds of miles a week without breaking down. Most of us, no matter how disciplined and dedicated, simply will never get to that point without injury ruining the party.
That said, cross-training should play a limited role. Specifically, all else being equal and when your body can handle it, you should prefer to get in a quality running workout over a cross-training workout.
There are three primary instances where I think cross-training is beneficial to runners, discussed here in decreasing order of importance.
1. Light strength training, when done before or after running workouts, promotes strength and flexibility that will improve running efficiency and help prevent injury.
USA Track and Field–certified running coach Jason Fitzgerald addresses this subject on our advanced marathon training website, Run Your BQ (www.runyourbq.com):
Before you can run twenty miles comfortably (or race a marathon well), you need to first be a good athlete. Overall strength, flexibility, balance, and coordination are essential even for marathoners. Weight routines in the gym and body weight exercises that can be done at home are one way to get more athletic.
Note that Jason said, “race a marathon well.” If all you want to do is finish this one marathon in your lifetime before you put this silly running thing to bed, well, you can probably get by without strength training. But even then, a properly designed at-home routine of just five to ten minutes per day could significantly reduce your chances of getting injured during training and help you to make it not just to the start line, but across the finish line as well.
It’s beyond the scope of this article, unfortunately, to provide detailed strength-training workouts, but I highly recommend you check out the Core Performance website (www.coreperformance.com) and series of books, specifically Core Performance Endurance, which was the first serious strength program I incorporated into my marathon training (and which essentially wiped out the nagging injury problems I still dealt with when I tried to train for marathons).
2. Low-intensity aerobic training, done in place of Easy runs, can help prevent mental burnout or allow you to maintain aerobic gains while limiting running mileage to recover from or prevent injury.
I’m a huge proponent of the Easy run in-between tougher running workouts. I’ve experimented with the approach of replacing it entirely with cross-training, as suggested in certain low-mileage training plans that have recently become popular, but I actually found myself more susceptible to injury when I didn’t have those easy miles to log in between workouts. Just as importantly, I realized how much I needed them mentally, when the same amount of time and effort in a pool or on a bike just didn’t have the same meditative effect that easy running does for me. (As the saying goes, “I run because it’s cheaper than therapy.”)
But I do see the benefit of long, slow, cross-training workouts as a replacement for the occasional Easy run. There are times in any training program when your legs feel like they need a break, and you get the strong sense that even your Easy run will do more harm than good. When you just can’t justify taking the day off, a light cross-training workout can serve you well. If you enjoy swimming, cycling, cross-country skiing, or any other endurance sport, this is the time to work it into your training schedule. Just keep in mind that what you have scheduled is an Easy run, so make sure you keep your cross-training at that same easy, conversational pace.
3. Higher-intensity endurance training can serve as a temporary replacement for quality running workouts while you allow an injury to heal.
Finally, I can see one main time for high-intensity (as supposed to easy) cross-training: when you’re injured or seriously worried about an injury that’s coming on. You may still want to get in a high-quality workout, and if you know for sure that your cross-training workout won’t aggravate the injury that you’re supposed to be allowing to heal, then go for it.
SHOULD YOU BOTHER TO STRETCH?
Many runners stretch religiously before and after their runs, often for no other reason than because it’s what they see other runners doing. And everyone knows, from as far back as gym class, that stretching prevents injury. Right?
Not so fast. In fact, the truth could be just the opposite. Traditional, static stretching before a workout (meaning no movement, as opposed to dynamic stretching) may actually increase the likelihood of injury by reducing running economy, maximal power, and strength before your workout even begins. Additionally, stretching a cold muscle (i.e., one that hasn’t been warmed up) is a great way to invite a pull or strain.
But certainly, flexibility is an asset to a runner, as is a light warm-up before a workout. If you’re choosy with your strength-training exercises, you’ll increase flexibility with them, but you can simultaneously achieve both aims of increasing flexibility and raising your body temperature and heart rate through dynamic stretching, a form of stretching that involves movements not entirely unlike those you perform while running.
You’ll find several such routines in the book Core Performance Endurance, and Runner’s World details a free dynamic stretching routine which you can find at their website: www.runnersworld.com/stretching/dynamic-routine.
Fueling Before, During, and After Your Workouts
Of all the meals you’ll eat during your training, those surrounding your workouts are the most crucial to your success, particularly because they affect your ability to recover in time for the next workout. Fortunately, the precepts of optimal workout nutrition are completely consistent with plant-based nutrition. In fact, vegan ultramarathon legend Scott Jurek once pointed out that most people eat a plant-based diet anyway while they’re running.
However, the food that will maximize performance and recovery differs significantly from what you should eat as part of your normal diet—most noticeably, the focus shifts toward simple, sugary carbohydrates. The reason is simple; most of the time, you want your body to have to work a little to break down the food you take in. But a workout is one time when you want the opposite: easily-digestible, quick energy sources.
The following guidelines will help you to ensure that you’re taking in adequate nutrition to power your workouts—before, during, and after.
A PRE-WORKOUT NUTRITION PRIMER
1. Consume carbohydrates and protein in a 3: 1 ratio. The 3: 1 ratio is almost universally recommended for optimal nutrient absorption before training. For a big workout, it is best to eat a large meal three to four hours in advance, so that your stomach can completely get rid of the food when you start to move, and then have a small snack consisting mostly of carbohydrates (eg. example, a banana or a few dates) just before the start of training.
The less time you have before training, the smaller your “big” meal will be: if you have an hour or more, thirty grams of carbohydrate and ten grams of protein are great; otherwise, divide the values by two. Mark Verstegen of the Athletes Performance Institute recommends one scoop of protein powder in about six ounces (175 mL) of Gatorade or diluted orange juice. I’ve found this little pre-workout drink easy and convenient when I don’t have a lot of time between meals and training.
If you choose to include fat in your pre-workout meal (which can help with nutrient absorption) do so only in moderation because fat takes longer to convert to energy during physical activity than carbohydrate and causes gastrointestinal distress in some people. Five grams of fat should be plenty for this purpose.
2. Include fast acting, high glycemic index carbohydrates for energy now, sustained release carbohydrates (but not necessarily starches) for energy later. For example, if you make your own pre-workout drink, you can use dates (glucose) for high GI, instant energy sugar, and agave nectar (fructose) for slower energy release, such as does Thrive author Brendan Brazier. in many of their mixtures.
How about bagels or starchy bread? Converting starch into usable sugar requires your body to work, and during a workout you would like to use the energy available for movement, not digestion. This guideline mainly applies to workouts that last up to three hours. For longer workouts and events, the intensity becomes low enough that starch consumption and digestion isn’t a problem, and you probably want to.
3. Get a head start on electrolyte replacement. Lack of electrolytes can do more than just bring on a nasty bonk; in fact, it’s downright dangerous. Hyponatremia is the condition of having too much water and not enough sodium (an electrolyte) in your system, and it has proved fatal for endurance athletes who load up on water but don’t replace electrolytes that are lost during physical activity.
Lots of electrolytes are lost through sweat, and you should take in salt and other electrolytes during your workout to replace them. Coconut water and most sports drinks and gels contain electrolytes, so you’ll get them during your workout if you’re consuming any of those drinks. But you can get a head start on electrolyte replacement simply by adding 1/4 teaspoon of salt, which contains 500 to 600 mg sodium, to your pre-workout drink.
EATING AND DRINKING DURING YOUR WORKOUT
For short workouts (less than forty-five minutes), a quick pre-workout meal will get the job done and carry you through the workout. But for any workout lasting longer than that, or in very hot conditions, you’ll want to replace lost fluid and electrolytes and replenish carbohydrate stores during the workout. Here’s how to choose what (and how much) food and drink you take in while you’re on the move.
1. Consume mostly liquids or easily-digesting food. Solid food takes more energy and blood to digest than liquid, leaving you with less for running. And solid food is more likely to cause intestinal distress, which can ruin a workout or race.
Energy gels are designed to be easy to digest and to pack a lot of carbohydrates (plus electrolytes) into a small space. Amazingly, nature created a food with those exact same properties—dates! Most of the time, I bring along a handful of fresh, whole dates instead of energy gel because I prefer the taste and texture (they’re more like gummies than gel) and I like the idea of fueling with whole food over processed. Just don’t forget to remove the pits!
If you’re a gel person, I suggest making your own, especially if, like me, you’re not a fan of the taste or makeup of most commercial varieties. See my recipe for homemade energy gel shown here.
2. Take in four to six ounces (120 to 175 ml) of water every ten to twenty minutes. Your goal is to replace most of what you lose in weight, so if you want to get precise, you can figure out what you lose during a standard workout and drink the exact amount you need to replace it. But for all but the most serious athletes, that level of precision is unnecessary, and a rule of thumb like this one suffices.
3. Get 500 milligrams of sodium with every sixteen ounces (475 ml) you drink. As mentioned above, when you sweat, you lose electrolytes, and that puts you at risk for hyponatremia if you hydrate without replacing them. If you’re making your own drinks and gels, 500 milligrams is about the amount in 1/4 teaspoon of salt (this will vary slightly depending on the type of salt you use).
4. For workouts and races lasting longer than an hour, you need thirty to sixty grams of carbohydrate per hour. If your workout is shorter than an hour, you probably don’t need to take in any calories during it, and your main nutritional concern is hydration if you’ll sweat a lot. But if you’ll go beyond forty-five minutes, it doesn’t hurt to have a little something, either in liquid or solid form, to help you stay strong at the end.
Thirty to sixty grams per hour is the standard recommendation, and if you prefer to think in terms of calories, aim for 120 to 250 calories per hour, mostly carbohydrates. These are big ranges, as your true needs will vary according to a whole host of factors. With awareness and experience, you’ll be able to narrow the range to one that works best for you. For a more precise starting point, divide your body weight in pounds by four to determine your minimum hourly carbohydrate requirement in grams. Some experts say that a little bit of protein as well, in a 4:1 carb-to-protein ratio, helps minimize muscle damage.
For mid-length workouts, up to two hours, my preferred sources of carbohydrates are sports drinks, dates, or a combination of the two. Bananas and other soft fruits are great, too. For lower-intensity workouts that last longer than two hours, you may find you want something besides sugar; I like to bring along a pita with hummus or almond butter, pretzels, and other convenient, starchy, salty foods on long runs.
MAXIMIZE RECOVERY WITH PROPER POST-WORKOUT NUTRITION
Every athlete can appreciate the joy of the post-workout meal. It’s a celebration of a job well done, and the food we eat when a long workout has left us ravenously hungry usually tastes better than any other. Fortunately, eating immediately after a workout serves us by jump-starting the recovery process. When you chow down post-workout, follow the guidelines below to choose food that will make the most of the work you’ve done to earn it.
1. Respect the recovery window. In the fifteen to forty-five minutes immediately following a workout, your muscles are primed to receive fuel to start the repair process. Eat (or drink) your recovery meal right away, within the first half hour after the workout, to begin the recovery process.
2. Make your post-workout meal easy to digest. Your muscles need blood for nutrients. The more the blood is forced to digest solid food, the less it reaches the muscles. Ideally, you should get your immediate post-workout dose in liquid form, such as a shake or shake.
3. Consume 0.75 grams of carbohydrate per pound of body weight and include protein in a 4: 1 or 5: 1 ratio of carbohydrate to protein. I’m usually not one for specific food numbers, but these are so common I had to list them. Your carbs should include high glycemic index carbs like glucose (again, dates are great) and slower release carbs as well. And don’t forget the fats: include about half the grams of healthy fats like you do with protein. Several of the energy bar recipes in this article contain the right proportions of nutrients to make them perfect for a post-workout snack.
4. Drink 2 cups (475 ml) of water per pound of body weight lost during exercise. Do I really expect you to weigh yourself after each workout and drink a corresponding amount of water to make up for it? Of course not. But if you have access to an accurate scale, you can weigh yourself after a typical workout to get an idea of how much water you need, then use that as a guideline for future workouts. Easier, I think, is just to drink a few cups (475 to 700 ml) of water immediately after the workout and more throughout the day until your urine is nearly clear.
5. Replace lost electrolytes. Hopefully you’ve done this before and during your workout, but you’ll want to take in electrolytes once more to help with recovery. Some good sources of electrolytes are fruit, coconut water, dulse flakes, a few pinches of sea salt, and Nuun tablets.
And remember: Recovery doesn’t stop with your post-workout meal. You’ll want to eat again an hour or two later, this time focusing more on quality protein. After your long runs, you’ll probably find that you get hungry frequently throughout the day, as often as every two hours or so. This hunger is a message from your body that it needs food to replace the calories you burned and rebuild your muscles for the next workout, so don’t ignore that message.