Why you might benefit from a running plan – even without a race in the diary

·5-min read
Photo credit: Jonah Rosenberg
Photo credit: Jonah Rosenberg

It's National Fitness Day – a day for us to celebrate the important role physical activity plays in helping us lead healthier lifestyles.

Of course, we don't need a national day to remind us of the physical and mental health benefits of running – and the joy it can bring to our lives. But if you're someone who has lost their running mojo recently, perhaps you do?

Or, perhaps you need some practical advice on how to get it back...

A few months ago, one of the runners I coach contacted me. She felt discouraged. Her running had become unstructured, inconsistent and, she believed, it was now pointless. She genuinely loves running; she just felt stuck. Like most of us, due to the pandemic, she’d had no races to train for.

I estimate that 99 per cent of the runners I coach only follow a training plan if there’s a race at the end of it. But while major races might be returning, it's worth remembering: you don’t need a race to follow a training plan. Training plans serve many objectives, and you can simply follow one to bring purpose, satisfaction and improvement back to your running life.

I have built hundreds of specific training plans to meet goals from finishing a first 5K to a sub-2:45 marathon. No matter the experience of the runner, weekly mileage level or intensity of the workouts, all plans have one of two things in common: either they train you to run longer or they train you to run faster. Some may even do both. If you’re stuck in a running rut, I want you to start by asking yourself one thing right now: do you want to run faster? Or do you want to run longer?

Excellent. Now let’s build a plan that will help do just that – no race required. There are four simple running ingredients that make up a variety of different plans. Here’s a primer on each one, why they are essential and a month-long plan for running with purpose. Let’s go.

The easy run

It makes up the majority of a training plan. You should do it at a conversational pace, or 1:30 to 2:00 minutes per mile slower than your 5K PB pace. These miles still help to build up your aerobic system without the intensity of the other workouts. Easy runs can be anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour, depending on your typical mileage. They should leave you feeling fresh, relaxed and ready for more intense training ahead.

The tempo run

This is a faster and sustained effort over a set period of time. The goal here is to push to the upper limit of your aerobic system without crossing your anaerobic threshold, where you start building up lactate faster than you can clear it. This is typically between your 10K and half-marathon race pace, or about 30 seconds per mile slower than your 5K race pace.

These runs are not as conversational as an easy, aerobic run, but they’re not a max-out effort, either. Mixing in a 20-45-minute run at threshold pace once a week is a staple of any good training plan. These efforts can be intimidating, mentally daunting and easy to skip. I encourage you to embrace them. Even with no race on the calendar, they help you mentally navigate tough workouts.

Intervals

Essential for developing speed, intervals come in all shapes and sizes: on hills, on a track or out on the roads or trails. They are usually one to three minutes in duration (though they can be as long as a mile, or even two) and range from 90-95 per cent of your maximum heart rate. That can be equivalent to your 5K PB pace or even faster. If you can hold a conversation while running intervals, you’re not going hard enough.

Intervals are crucial in every training plan for which the goal is to build speed, whether you’re training for a mile or a marathon. Make sure you warm up well before any interval workout and do a proper cool-down afterwards.

The long run

My personal favourite, the long run should be done at the same intensity as your easy run (conversational, 70 per cent of your maximum heart rate) but, you guessed it – longer.

An effective long run should be at least 60 minutes and up to three hours if you’re training for a marathon or you are deeper into your training plan. The 90-minute mark is vital because that’s roughly the point where you have depleted the glycogen stores your body uses for energy, so you must take in fuel or shift to burning fat. Training your body in that zone is the only way to improve your body’s lipid metabolism, which means you’ll become more efficient at burning fat over time. This is an essential tool for any distance runner to have in their arsenal, because for most of us, a half marathon takes longer than 90 minutes to complete, and a marathon certainly does.

Now you're ready

You have the ingredients. Now, let’s cook. You’ll find the bones of two basic one-month plans above, aimed at the goal you picked. Each follows a simple schedule. To run faster, each week, perform: three easy runs, one interval workout, one tempo, one long run and ensure you have one rest day. To run longer, each week perform: three easy runs, two long runs and have two rest days. Increase your mileage by no more than 10 per cent week to week.

The plans above are designed for runners comfortable completing 20 miles a week and running for at least 60 minutes at a time. If you are just starting out, feel free to cut back the running time and interval workouts by up to half.

Ready to reclaim your running mojo? Get started on the plans whenever you feel ready. I hope they help you to find purpose in each and every mile.

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