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Three Runs for Speed and Stamina

Improve Your Workouts

There are some things you do where less means more. Running is one of those things...if you want to be faster and fitter, that is. Jogging along at the same slow pace for years may be an enjoyable outlet, but if you want to keep getting leaner, faster, and stronger you may want to rethink how much you are running and pick up the pace. You will keep getting what you are getting if you keep giving what you are giving.

Too Much of a Good Thing ?

Here are a few questions for you to ponder. Have you been jogging five times a week for a few years, lost a few pounds initially, and then plateaued, and now you feel like you've been chasing your tail ever since? Do you drag yourself out of bed, pull on your running shoes, and head out on your usual route at your usual pace, day after day, wondering why your clothes keep getting tighter? It doesn't seem to make any sense that you can spend five days a week running and still have to watch every mouthful you eat. If you run with your faster friend, are you huffing and puffing to keep up, relieved when they go home and you can get back down to your comfortable, slow pace? Do you get a sore knee repeatedly, or an achy back?

If this sounds like you, you aren't alone. Running is a fantastic form of exercise. It is one of the most natural movements for the body (though what is natural is no longer so, after sitting at a computer for hours a day). Running can burn more calories per hour than almost any other exercise. When people ask me what they should do to lose weight, running is my answer (after diet, of course). Unless you have severe knee problems or are extremely overweight, the best bang for your buck, time-wise, is to gently pound the pavement, and propel yourself forward.

The problem with running is that you can easily overdo it. People want the perks of it without understanding how the body works in terms of recovery and adaptation. If running is so great at burning fat, you might as well do MORE of it...right? Wrong. When you run too often, too slowly, or on tired legs, you are not making the most of your precious time. Furthermore, when you run the same run every time you run, your body has no need to adapt.  In time, the five mediocre runs a week will cease to have a positive impact on your cardio, muscle, and weight.

Rather than running five slower runs a week, why not switch to three specific, higher intensity runs instead. Stop sluggishly pounding the pavement and start progressing and prioritizing your runs. And your time. By running less often you will experience substantial and continual improvement.

Three Runs for Faster Running

Run #1 - Interval Run

These are runs best done on a track, during which you will run FAST for 400 metres to 1200 metres. The purpose of these intervals is to improve your VO2 max (what the heck is that, you ask). VO2 max is the amount of oxygen that your body can take in and use to produce energy. The greater your VO2 max, the harder and longer you are able to do physical work. Why is this important? Because the longer you can work, the more muscle fibre you build, tear, and repair, and the more calories you will burn.  As time goes on, these runs will make you a faster runner with less effort, not to mention the fact that they burn a ton of calories from glucose and fat due to the intensity and effort involved.

How to do intervals - begin these runs with a 10 minute warm-up. Then begin running FAST for an entire length of the track. You want to maintain the same pace for the whole 400 m, so it is not a full out sprint, though fairly close to your maximum heart rate. Follow the interval with a slow jog or fast walk for another 400 m. Repeat these intervals for a minimum of 5 times. As you progress, you can increase the length of the interval, but don't go beyond 1200 m as you want to be running almost as fast as your legs and heart can take you.

Run #2 - Tempo Run

This is the second of your three weekly runs. You better be sure that your legs and lungs are well rested for these runs because they're  going to have to work hard, and for a much longer time period than the shorter intervals.  During a "tempo" run you are working at or above your lactate threshold. To understand what that feels like, think of Lance Armstrong (still the world's best cyclist, medals or not) pushing up the mountains through France. Lactate is what accumulates in the muscles during periods of hard work. The muscles and heart attempt to flush it out so that your body can continue to  work. Training at the level of intensity where lactate is rapidly accumulating in muscles forces the body to start using that lactate anaerobically as energy. Over time, your lactate threshold will increase, and your body will be better able to use lactate as energy, allowing you to work harder and longer. Your metabolic fitness and anaerobic metabolism will increase through these uncomfortable runs, making your cells much more efficient at producing energy without oxygen. In turn, you will become a faster, fiercer runner.

How to do tempo runs- begin these runs with a ten minute slow warm-up jog. Then increase your speed for 1 to 5 miles, depending on the distance you are currently able to run. You want to run at about 85% of your heart rate, and no higher than 90% for as long a time as you can sustain. The goal is to be able to keep running at or above your lactate threshold, which means you are breathing hard and wanting to slow down, but you are still able to keep going. At the end of the tempo, slow back down for a cool down run.

Run #3 - Long Runs

These runs are where you build your true endurance and increase your mileage. They are done at the lowest intensity and heart rate of all three runs, but not as slow as most endurance runs. Remember that if your goal is to be faster and stronger at running (save time and burn more calories), you have to get used to running faster. I remember asking a friend who is a 3 hour marathoner the best way to train for speed. His answer was "Run faster". Simple. "Get used to the feeling of running fast". At first it may not be so comfortable because we tend to associate hard work by our heart and muscles as an indication to slow down or stop. And this is certainly true if you are doing an interval workout where your heart rate is 95%, but for the long run you should be at about 7O to 80 % of your maximum heart rate. Physiologically, this means you can keep going because you are still able to use oxygen to produce energy. Keeping in mind that you are trying to maximize the benefits and adaptations from each run, you do want to be closer to 80% than 70% of that maximum heart rate. You should be working hard enough that you are always completely focused on your form and your breathing. This is the run where the rewards of your other runs will present themselves. As your training progresses you will notice an increase in your speed at a lower heart rate, and the ability to run farther. All of these are signs that the other two runs are playing their part.

How to do the long run- the key to endurance is to build up gradually. Adding 5 to 10 minutes per week (about a mile) is a general rule of thumb for the long run. Don't go beyond that or you will risk an injury. Start slowly to let your heart and muscles warm up. Once you are settled into a groove, increase your pace slightly bringing yourself up to about 75% of your maximum heart rate. It may take a few runs to know how quick of a pace you can maintain for the entire run. The quicker the better, obviously, but the goal is to run the entire time. With the long run, keeping a steady rhythm and maintaining upright fluid form are the key priorities.

The Benefits of Cross-training

When I talk about running less as a way to run faster, this does not mean that you should sit around doing nothing for the other four days. There are numerous other activities that will train the same body systems as running does without causing over-use, injury, and fatigue. You can still mimic the three types of workouts that you are doing here, using other activities. 

Cycling is one of the most common and complementary exercises to pair with running. Using a heart rate monitor or your own perceived level of exertion, you can perform short, high intensity workouts that will increase both your VO2 max and your lactate threshold. These short, yet challenging workouts will in turn translate into increased running speed and stamina.

Strength training is another cross-training activity that will make you stronger and less prone to injury while running. By working the muscles of your legs, back, and core, you will stabilize and support the knees, hips, and spine, making them more resilient during repetitive impact and movement of running. Strengthening the gluts, hamstrings, and back, in particular, will assist in creating proper form and upright posture.

Stretching is always up for debate. There are those who never stretch and swear by it, and there are others will swear that their injuries are always a result of not stretching. My experience is that you want muscles that are elastic and allow for a full range of motion. You don't need to be a rag doll, able to fold over backwards, but you DO want some ability to extend your hips and expand your chest and shoulders. Focus on daily stretching of the hip flexors, gluts, and hamstrings. Roll on the roller to lengthen your IT band and your quads. Lie on the roller to open up the front of the shoulders and chest so that you can maintain a tall, upright posture while running. The muscles at the front of the body are most prone to tightness, thus preventing your back and gluts from firing properly. Since these are the muscles that provide you with running power, you want them to be long and strong.



Kirsten Bedard works in Toronto as a Nutrition Consultant and Private Exercise Trainer. You can read more of her writing at ladyleanslessons.com or contact her at kirsten@ladyleanslessons.com