At first glance, running is a simple discipline that requires minimal gear. But anyone who wants to get a bit more serious about running knows that training requires strategy and structure. If you slog through a 45–60-minute run a few days a week, run sporadically at random distances or pound the pavement every single day, it’s nearly impossible to take your running the next level.
If your goal is to improve, you can make it happen by simply adding these three specific run days into your week. Also, it’s worth noting that these runs work in harmony with one another. One study showed that high intensity is improved by endurance, and you can’t go long without proper recovery.
1. SPEED WORK
Why? A 2007 study verified what professional athletes have known for years — training at high intensities improves performance more than training at moderate intensities. Too many people fall into the camp of training just a bit too hard for the run to be considered endurance, but they also fail to push themselves hard enough to actually see any progress. Instead, they stay stagnant or run the risk of injury. Adding speed work in some form — structured intervals or casual fartlek-style runs — will pick up your pace and improve your overall running ability.
How? Start simply with some fartlek intervals. Named after the Swedish word for “speed play,” these intervals are random bursts of speed and can vary in distance. Start your run at an endurance pace, and, after you’re warmed up, simply pick a spot (like a street sign) that’s anywhere from 10–30 seconds away and sprint to it. Recover at endurance pace for a few minutes, then repeat.
Another alternative is to do hill sprints. Warm up at a slow pace, then find a hill and run up it for 30 seconds as hard as you can. Jog or walk back down, and run for five minutes to recover, then sprint up again. Do this a few times: As you get fitter, add more repetitions or simply go harder. Find a segment to time if you want to track your progress.
2. LONG SLOW DISTANCE
Why? The long slow distance (LSD to the running nerd community) is a classic training tool for a reason. Coined decades ago by the famed Dr. Van Aaken, the LSD concept is simple: Run long, but don’t run hard. You can increase volume, or you can increase intensity, but you can’t do both at the same time. Fellow running guru Phil Maffetone has long championed the idea of running at an aerobic pace, keeping your heart rate steady as you build up mileage. It worked for Mark Allen, who won the Ironman World Championship after switching to this style of training, and it could work for you.
How? First, think about what your longest run is right now. If you’re a new runner and even that first mile is torturous, then run that first mile, but tack on a few extra minutes of walking before and after. If you’re a 45 minutes-and-done person, aim for 46 minutes of running this week, but again, add 5–10 minutes of walking before and after. Keep slowly increasing the run time, but keep the walking (the warmup helps ramp your heart rate to a nice aerobic level rather than jumping up too fast, and the cooldown lets your body adapt to the added time and avoid cramping and stiffness). Remember: You don’t need to go from 30-minute runs to 3-hour runs this week. It’s a process.
3. RECOVERY RUN
Why? Prevent overtraining by recovering properly. A recovery run is (strangely enough) a fantastic indicator of progress in your training. If a recovery run pace is super easy to maintain, you’re getting fitter and stronger as a runner. If it feels difficult, you feel sore or you end it feeling extremely unhappy, you’re either taking your other workouts too aggressively and at risk of being overtrained, or you’re not actually doing distance slowly, or speed work quickly and you’re still stuck in that middle zone. This is also a good time to check in with your body: How are your calves feeling, is your stomach cramping, are your feet sore? You might not notice these things during your harder workouts, but a recovery run might give you the insight you need into how your body is truly feeling.
How? If you’re new to running, a recovery run might almost feel painfully slow, barely a jogging pace. But make sure your heart rate stays low — keep it hovering below your aerobic zone. Walk if you need to. Keep this run short: If you’re new to running, a 15-minute walk might be enough for you (though walking longer is never a bad idea). For seasoned runners, 45–60 minutes can be done at a recovery pace, but if you see your heart rate start to creep up, you start to feel tired or you feel any soreness, cut it short and start walking.
GEAR UP FOR YOUR NEXT RUN