Why do we train? For some this is a philosophical question, but on the surface we train so we can get better. Most of the time there is a race at the end of the road that we are trying to run, so we hope to get our bodies ready for the race we will run. A good training plan will have a variety of runs in it. Each type of run is there for a purpose and the amount of a specific type of workout should reflect the end race you have coming. The overarching thought here is that you want to mimic race day as much as possible during training so you are ready for whatever comes your way. With that in mind, let’s look at a few different types of runs and discuss what they are for and how you might incorporate them.
Long runs. These are likely the most common and consistent workout you will do because the majority of training plans are trying to get you to run further than you typically do. Going from running 3 miles at once to 13.1 is a big change. 26.2 miles is an even bigger change. Regardless of race distance, you should have regular runs that stretch your distance and increase what you are able to handle. The average time for a half marathon is around two hours and a little over four hours for a full marathon. That is a lot of time and repetitive pounding on the ground, and the long run is designed to allow your body time to adapt to this consistent time on your feet. Long runs are typically slower, 1.5 to 2 minutes per mile slower than your goal race pace, and you may see them written as LSD “Long, Slow, Distance”. This is the kind of LSD we runners need in our lives.
Interval runs. There are a few different types of interval workouts that you will see or should incorporate into your programs. The goals of all of these workouts is to get you running faster than you typically do and in most cases at or faster than your goal race pace.
Short intervals. These intervals can be anywhere from a few seconds (15-30 seconds) in length to a few minutes (generally 3-5 minutes). The effort for these intervals is typically faster than race pace. The shorter the interval, the faster you should be running. Along with that, the ratio of run to rest should be greater. For example: 1 minute run with anywhere from 1-3 minutes of rest or light jogging in between. A word of advice on intervals is to find a place that you can run without crossing a lot of streets or worrying about having to suddenly stop. Tracks, parks, city blocks, and similar setups are where you generally see people doing their speed work.
Fartlek is a funny word. It is also a type of short interval workout. The word literally means “speed play” in Swedish so by nature this is a more unstructured workout. I commonly hear people describe workouts with varied intervals as fartlek workouts (1 min, 2 min, 3 min, 2 min, 1 min). That plan has the playing with speed aspect but it’s structured. A strict fartlek workout is less structured. The main benefit of a less structured workout is that it builds mental fortitude. On race day, you may have something happen that makes you think “I should stop, I want this to be done”. Random intervals during a workout help simulate that head wind you will have to battle or the hill you didn’t know was coming. A fartlek workout is typically a set time amount in minutes, and during that period you vary the speed up and down at random. An easy way to help you do this is to sprint “to the next stop sign”, “to that next street up there”, or “until that car passes us”. Pick landmarks and use those as your markers to vary your intervals.
Long intervals. We can really split hairs here if we want to, but I will try to keep it more general for now. These are the intervals that you do more right at or just below race pace, but you maintain the speed for a longer time than short intervals. These intervals will more closely simulate the speed you are hoping to run on race day, and they help your body adapt and get used to that speed as well. With these intervals you typically see longer work intervals and shorter rest intervals, almost the opposite of the short interval ratios. Example: 6-10 minute run interval with 2-3 minutes of rest and light jogging. Mile repeats and tempo runs typically fall into this category. Some may put tempo runs in their own category, but at their core they are long intervals or one long interval.
Cut down runs. Essentially these are a longer interval run, but with a sadistic twist to them. You start your run easy and then each mile (or at a set time interval) you speed up a little bit. Dropping 10-30 seconds per mile is what you see most often. These runs are fantastic because they allow you to practice running faster when you are already tired. It can be difficult to simulate how your body will feel during the late stages of a race, but this is a good way to force your body into doing the hard part when it really doesn’t want to. Another way I see this workout performed is running a set pace for half of the mileage and then a faster pace for the next half.
Hill Intervals. I saved my favorite for last. “Hills pay the bills” is a fun but true saying. You can apply all the other principles for interval workouts with adding in hills, but they add a few different components to the run. You can sprint up or down the hills and get different benefits from each one. Going uphill you will feel your calves and glutes firing a little more, while running downhill is an eccentric explosion on your quads. Very few races are truly flat runs, so adding in hills that will replicate your goal race course is a great way to “practice” for race day. They will also get your heart rate higher for a set time or distance than just flat running.
Recovery runs. This may seem like a far fetched concept when you are just starting out your training. If you struggle to run 2-3 miles right now, how can a 2-3 mile run be a recovery run? Throughout training, your body is adapting to the stresses placed on it. In a couple of months, when you are doing 8 mile, 9 mile, or longer runs, the shorter runs will be a welcome sight on the training plan. These shorter and easier runs allow you to get more mileage in for the week, get the blood flowing through the muscles that are achy and tired from your long runs and harder effort runs. They actually promote recovery and they help prepare you for the next day or the next hard effort. Every run in the training program should have a purpose.
You may be thinking, “This is a lot of stuff to think about and add. How do I fit all of these into my week?!” You don’t. Good training plans will build these in for you, generally 1-2 speed workouts a week to go along with your long run and a few easier short to middle distance runs. Hopefully you do not have to add these things to your plan. Ideally, you now have a better understanding of WHY you are doing what you are doing so that you can be more motivated and have better direction in your training. Each run has its own purpose. You will be tempted to adjust your program and skip the hard stuff, but sticking to your plan to the best of your ability is paramount to preparing you for whatever race you are training for.