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When I first started running, I thought the way to do better was to run fast every time. However, as I gained a little experience, I found that varying your runs is an important part of training. So, how do you vary your runs?
You can vary your runs by increasing or decreasing the intensity or distance. However, you should not increase both variables at the same time, instead, decrease one variable when you increase the other to avoid overtraining and injury.
Ahead, we will look at how you can vary your runs in more detail. We will also talk about the different elements that you can use in your training to mix up your running.
The Detailed Guide to Varying Your Runs
You’ve been training for many months now when you realized your 5k pace hasn’t changed from the last fun run you’ve signed up for. You couldn’t believe it because you’ve been diligent in stacking up your miles. What is it that you’re missing?
Well, most often than not, it’s because you’ve been running at the same pace at the same route every time. Your training lacks variation and it may be holding you back from improving.
And although running at a slow and steady pace is important to build up your aerobic capacity when you’re just starting out, at some point, you’re going to have to add a different type of stimulus to your training.
So, how do you do it?
Depending on what race you’re training for, the ratio between easy long runs and short hard runs will vary.
In general, if you’re training for short races (under 10k), you will have more hard short runs in your training. If you’re training for longer races (above 10k), you’ll have less hard runs and more easy long runs.
It doesn’t mean that you won’t run hard when you’re training for a marathon and vice versa. It only means that you’ll reduce the hard short runs to train for specifically for long runs (which is what a marathon is).
For example, I’m training for a half-marathon and my weekly mileage is 35 miles a week.
I train 5 days a week. 4 of those days I run 7-8 miles at a low to moderate intensity. I spend one training day doing a tempo run for 30 mins which would be between 4-5 miles.
If, for example, I’m training for a 10k event. Instead of having 35 runner miles a week, I would reduce it to 25-30 miles a week and I spend 2 days for speed intervals, sprints, or uphill runs. The rest of the days I’d do long runs to build up aerobic endurance.
Now, what you do exactly will vary from person to person, but it’s important to keep in mind that you should never increase the intensity and distance of your runs at the same time.
By the way, I made an article about the 10 mistakes you might be doing that are keeping you from improving. If you feel like variation isn’t the limiting factor in your performance, it could be one of those 10 so make sure you check that out.
Why Should You Mix Up Your Runs
Now, you might be wondering why your runs should be a mix of long low-intensity runs and short high-intensity runs. Why couldn’t it be just running the same pace and distance every time? After all, if I’m training for a 10k run, wouldn’t it be better to just run hard every time?
I’ve thought the same because I’m familiar with the law of specificity training, but then, after doing my research and asking some professional runners and coaches about this, they gave me a reasonable explanation. 3, actually.
It helps train different energy systems. If you’re not familiar with energy systems, these are aerobic and anaerobic systems (more on this later).
It decreases risks for injury and fatigue. Running fast ALL THE TIME is an all too common reason for fatigue. I’ve been through it multiple times because I used to try to beat my old time on the same route every time I run. Having a program that varies in intensity allows me to see that each run has a purpose and that I should just run whatever pace or distance is written on my program.
It allows your body to recover. That being said, having easy runs and rest days in between your hard runs allows your body to recover for your next day’s training.
The Benefits of Long Runs
A long run is a type of run where you run at a comfortable pace for long durations (not necessarily distance).
This type of run primarily improves your aerobic system which helps with the efficiency of your heart to utilize oxygen.
According to the book Running Well, long runs should be the staple of your training. They even highlighted a study that found that the most important factor in determining successful completion of a marathon was the length of the competitor’s longest training run.
Aside from the boost in performance and chances of finishing a marathon, it also has a number of health benefits.
According to Healthline, the benefits of aerobic exercises include:
- Improves cardiovascular health
- Lower blood pressure
- Regulate blood sugar
- Reduces symptoms of asthma
- Reduces chronic pain
- Aids sleep
- weight regulation
- Improves immune system
(I didn’t include the whole list of benefits but you can check it out on their page.)
So how long should you run?
Well, it depends. There’s no magic number to how much you should run. That depends on your goal, current level of fitness, and time.
As a general rule, the longer the race you’re training for, the longer you should run on training and vice versa.
The Benefits of Hard Runs
Running hard is something you don’t see often outside of the track for a lot of reasons. Number one is that nobody wants to look like a fool on the street who looks like he’s being chased by a dog, and two, running hard is hard (obviously), and the idea of gasping for air in the middle of the street is not fun for most people.
But hard runs are essential because it improves the two energy systems (aerobic and anaerobic) in different ways, they improve your running technique and they build muscles.
There are different kinds of hard runs. Tempo runs, speed intervals, hill runs, and fartlek.
These runs will likely cause muscle soreness and it’s hard for your body to recover from. The good news is, you don’t need to do them often.
‘How often? Experts recommend that for intermediate runners, running hard 1-2 times a week is the sweet spot.
The type of hard run will also vary depending on your personal preferences and your training goals. Let’s talk more about what those types are.
Types Of Hard Runs
Threshold runs are defined as running comfortably hard for a certain period of time. Comfortably hard should be something that is just below your lactate threshold (or you that moment when your muscle ‘burns’). It should be fast but bearable.
In simpler terms, that pace should be faster than your easy run which you can maintain for 20-30 mins. Around 6/10 on the rate of perceived exertion.
Tempo runs help improve your running economy and lactate threshold allowing you to run faster without accumulating lactate (burning sensation) in your muscles
Interval and Speed Training
I’m pretty sure you’ve already heard about HIIT or high-intensity interval training. It’s defined as bouts of speed intervals followed by bouts of slow intervals or rest.
Interval training improves your cardiovascular efficiency and builds up your tolerance to lactic acid.
You can vary your interval training by manipulating the intensity of your runs, the duration of each work and rest interval, the volume of the whole workout.
I like to like to run 5 sets of 1-mile runs with a 3:1 work ratio. For example, I finished my first set (1 mile) in 9 mins, I’m going to rest for 3 mins and repeat that for 5 sets.
My goal is to try to run 1 mile at the same time and rest a third of that time.
Fartlek is simply bouts of fast running intermixed with slow running in an unstructured way.
Meaning, there’s no timer or distance that tells you when you should speed up or slow down.
Traditionally, your bouts of the fast runs are determined by the landscape. For example, you sprint from one tree to the next and then you do a steady pace run until you reach the next intersection.
It’s a fun way to introduce speed runs and it’s particularly very useful for beginners.
I’m not going to go deep on this topic cause I made an article entirely about fartlek training. If you’re interested in fartlek, check out that article.
Another fun hard running variation you can do is hill training. It helps build your muscle strength and endurance and it’s a good way to strengthen your core.
If you’re interested in learning more about running uphill, I also made an article regarding that topic. I went a little deeper and discussed how you can improve running uphill and how often should you do it. Make sure to check that out.
Rules In Putting Them All Together
Now, you might be thinking “Great! I have these different running variations and all I’m gonna do is to put them all together and I should be on my way to a new 5k PR”. Wrong!
There are rules that you have to adhere to to prevent yourself from injury and burnout.
Rule 1: Don’t increase intensity and distance at the same time. I’ve mentioned this earlier but it’s worth repeating. When you increase the intensity of your workout, don’t increase the distance of your runs.
Rule 2: Long runs should be the staple of your program. Regardless of the distance you’re training for (unless it’s a 400m dash), the heart of your training program should be long runs. How long will depend on your goals and current level of fitness. But as a general rule, keep your hard runs around 1-2 times a week if you’re an intermediate runner and once every 2 weeks to once a week if you’re a beginner.
Rule 3: Always include a rest day in your program. No matter what level you’re in, a rest day will always be a vital part of a complete training program. It allows your body to recover and adapt to the physiological changes which will improve you as a runner. Not having enough rest days can hold you back from improving.
Typically, you should take 1-2 rest days a week. One day could be an active rest day (do anything other than running like swimming or biking) and the other day should be a complete day off (you know, when you’re just sitting on the couch binge-watching your favorite Netflix show).
Varying your runs is an important part of your training program no matter what race you’re racing in. It allows you to improve different energy systems and experience different stimuli so your body can make the necessary changes to adapt to a new kind of training.
Although what you got here is a lot of resources for varying your runs, nothing will replace hiring a good running coach to help you with your training.