Varying your running pace can turn stale and tedious training into enjoyable runs, bringing both physical and cognitive benefits
It is always surprising to us at Advance Performance just how many people run the same run at the same speed, on the same route, three to five times a week. It’s even more surprising when they tell you their goals, because very often running the same speed and route doesn’t marry up to the goal they have in mind. What do we mean by this and how can varying your running pace help?
The speed you run at is one of the four main variables that you can vary each run, the other three include time, distance and resistance (hills, up or down). Running flat out, or for more time, or uphill every run can have a detrimental effect on your performance, the body can only take so much punishment before fatigue starts to outpace recovery. Running slower in some runs may be exactly what you need to do in order to run faster times. This article looks at the main types of run available to you that you can perhaps integrate into your training.
This type of run is continuous and high intensity in nature, just below what is known as your lactate threshold i.e. the point at which the body begins to produce lactate at a faster rate than which it can be removed from the muscle tissue. The downside of lactate is that it interferes with the muscle’s ability to function properly and fatigue sets in.
There is some variation in each individual’s lactate threshold, meaning different runners will be at different heart rates when the lactate threshold approaches but generally speaking it sets in at around 85% of maximum heart rate.
Interval Runs (sprints)
Steady state training provides your heart with a workout on a regular basis but it’s not the most efficient way of improving your cardiovascular fitness.
While beginners will feel the benefits and get notable gains in their fitness levels from steady state runs, established runners will benefit more from interval runs.
Regular sprint intervals are excellent at elevating your heart rate beyond the 85% of max heart rate that’s required to make meaningful gains in your heart’s fitness levels and improvements in your lung’s ability to absorb oxygen. They’re not for the faint hearted though, it’s recommended that you don’t undertake sprint interval training unless you have been steady state training for at least six weeks previously, if you are starting running from scratch you may want to extend this period further still.
A thorough warm up is crucial before undertaking sprint intervals. The warm up should be approximately ten minutes long transitioning from a dynamic stretch at the beginning (not long static stretches) to a walk, to a jog, to a run to 85% sprint efforts followed by a three minute recovery period before your first sprint. A sprint interval session may include 8 x sprints of 300m to 400m (50secs per sprint) with 150 to 250 seconds of rest in between, the distance you cover, the number of sprints you carry out and your rest periods will all be reliant upon your current fitness levels.
If you have a heart rate monitor use this to set your rest periods rather than a set time.
For example, let’s say your max heart rate (MHR) is 190 beats per minute. The first sprint elevates your heart rate to 185 beats per minute by the end of a 30 second period, the rest period is now determined by the length of time it takes your heart rate to recover back down to 65% of your max heart rate, or 123bpm.
This method takes into account your actual recovery rate and current fitness level rather than potentially asking you to sprint again while your heart rate is too high. It is a safer option, potentially lowering your chances of injury or excessive heart stress. The beauty of this method is also that provided you don’t let your heart rate drop further than 65% of MHR you are in your cardiovascular training zone throughout the duration of the session.
Regular sprint intervals are excellent at elevating your heart rate beyond the 85% of max that’s needed to make real gains in your heart’s fitness levels
Interval Runs (Fartlek Training)
An interval session can also be structured over a distance run, for example a run at a higher pace followed by a lower speed period.
True Fartlek runs don’t follow a predetermined structure but rather the runner decides randomly when to slow the pace down and when to increase their run speed. From a conditioning point of view, while not being the most scientifically accurate method, it can be a great way to take your heart rate beyond 85% for a period of time and then recover before pushing yourself again.
Sometimes the answer is actually to slow down. If you’re a keen runner who runs four or five times a week, a rest day isn’t necessarily something that comes naturally to you.
How about changing one of your runs a week (preferably the run following a hard/long run) to a much slower run or even a walk where your heart rate doesn’t exceed 60% of it’s max? You may know this type of run as a recovery run. Surprisingly though it’s actually another training run.
As running author Matt Fitzgerald highlights in his excellent article concerning recovery runs the misconception is that they flush out lactic acid and are an aid in kick-starting the muscle recovery process. The reality though is that your lactic acid levels reset to pre-run levels within an hour after your run and there is no evidence to suggest that the lower intensity run triggers a healing process.
During a ‘recovery’ run the lower intensity is still asking muscles that are already fatigued to work. However, because the human body is a clever organism it places emphasis on the the muscle fibres that aren’t as fatigued to carry out the demand. This results in a second work out for the muscle fibers that weren’t worked as hard during the first training run, resulting in a more complete workout for the muscle as a whole. Where the benefit of a lower slower run really shines through is following your day off after your long run and then recovery run the next day. The (now) exhausted muscle’s response is to return to a stronger or fitter state.
Real benefit of a slower run really comes following your day off after your long run, then add your recovery run the next day
A base run is carried out at a comfortable pace that doesn’t really tax you physically but allows you to get a chunk of miles done. It’s repeatable in nature and can be mixed with interval runs throughout a weekly program when improved cardiovascular fitness is at the forefront of your mind.
Bare in mind though that the temptation is to keep running at this pace for longer, fatigue will set in if you run too far and it may tip you over the safe limit for training that week.
These fatigue induced miles are more commonly known as junk miles, training that doesn’t achieve anything other than adding unnecessary miles to your training.
A long run is a base run that lasts long enough to leave the runner in a fatigued to severely fatigued state. It allows you to increase your stamina giving you access to longer races such as half marathons, marathons or even ultra’s.
The key to effective longer runs lies in good quality rest the following day. The distance places a considerable stress on the body and subsequently the body must be given longer to recover fully before being placed under stress again. This is a subject we have talked about previously in our article about supercompensation.
The science behind the different types of training run are important to understand as each run has it’s merits at certain times, it’s worth investigating them further if you haven’t already. The art of training effectively though is identifying when you should apply a certain type of run but this depends on what your goals are and also the type of running you are training for.
Enjoy your running