Five Running Workouts Every Runner Must Do

Five Running Workouts Every Runner Must Do

Albert Einstein once said that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. By that definition, most recreational runners are truly bananas, plodding along the same route at the same pace day after day with expectations of a slimmer waist, a faster 10K, a stronger heart, or a body that scoffs at very the idea of injury. But the reality is often quite different, especially where injury is concerned. Indeed, such aerobic OCD is more likely to find you among the 40 to 50 percent of runners who land on the disabled list each year. All of that repetitive pounding has its price.

Fortunately, the fix is simple: Mix up your training. By weaving the five workouts below into your training plan, you’ll improve your odds of achieving all of the results mentioned above. Skinny jeans? Check. Sub 40-minute 10K? Check. Runner’s knee and plantar fasciitis? Not in your body. Not anymore.

“Each run serves a different purpose and together they build endurance, speed, strength, and mental toughness,” explains Jenni Nettik, a Denver-based coach and owner of Mercuria Running. “Mixing up your training also helps keep things interesting and challenging.”

That last part is key when it comes to exercise adherence, which is arguably the most important training variable of them all. Without consistency, you’ll never achieve your goal. But before you can worry about achieving your goal, you need to figure out what it is. So let’s start there.

STEP 1: Determine Your End Game

Maybe you want to qualify for the Boston Marathon. Perhaps you simply want to give the couch-to-5K thing a try. Or maybe your objective is much simpler: shaving a few inches from your waist and a few points from your blood pressure reading.

“Training is all about figuring out your goal and working backwards from it,” said Nettik. “A program should have intentional peaks and recoveries throughout the training cycle so that you have the needed endurance, speed, and mental toughness to perform your best on race day.”

What follows are plans for achieving two of the most common goals: weight loss and a personal best in a race. Both are based on a four-month training cycle, which allows for the peaks and recoveries mentioned by Nettik. But keep in mind that no one plan is perfect for everyone. “What works for you might not for your training partner,” says Kristy Campbell, a Road Runners Club of America certified coach and founder of Run the Long Road Coaching in Philadelphia. “Some can handle more mileage than others, and some recover better than others. Every runner is an experiment of one. Listen to your body and adjust accordingly.

If your goal is to lose weight and generally improve fitness:

During the first month, do three to four easy runs and one long run per week, increasing the distance of the long run weekly. You can also switch out one of those easy runs for a cross-training activity like swimming, rowing, or bicycling to reduce the impact on your joints as you round into shape. During weeks five to eight, swap out one of your easy runs for hill repeats or a tempo run each week, alternating between the two from week to week (if you do hill repeats one week, do a tempo run the next). During the final two months of your training cycle, drop the hill repeats from your training program, and start doing a tempo run and an interval session each week in addition to the easy and long runs.

Once or twice a week throughout the 16-week training cycle, also do strength training. Not only can pumping iron boost your strength, speed, and power, but it can also reduce your risk of injury while improving your running economy and VO2 max.

Month 1

(Each Week)

Month 2

(Each Week)

Months 3 & 4

(Each Week)

Weight Loss

Training Schedule

Easy run: 3x – 4x

Long run: 1x

Strength: 1x – 2x

Cross-training (optional): 1x (in place of an easy run)

Easy run: 3x – 4x

Long run: 1x

Strength: 1x – 2x

Hills or tempo: 1x

Easy run: 3x – 4x

Long run: 1x

Strength: 1x – 2x

Tempo: 1x

Intervals: 1x

 

If your goal is to set a new personal record:

You likely already have a good aerobic base, so you can approach your 16-week training plan a little more aggressively. During the first month, do three to four easy runs and one long run per week in addition to a tempo run or hill repeats. You can also swap out one of the easy runs for a cross-training session, as described above. In month two, schedule a long run, hill repeats, and a tempo run each week, with easy runs between them. In month three, swap the weekly hill repeats for intervals. This stage — where you begin to build speed on top of a strong cardio base — is called “sharpening.” As you progress into month four, keep doing what you’re doing, but increase the distance of your long runs by one to two miles per week, and try to cover six to eight miles for your tempo runs. But take care that your weekly mileage total doesn’t jump more than 10 percent from one week to the next. As with the previously described weight-loss program, also do one to two strength-training sessions throughout the 16-week cycle.

Month 1

(Each Week)

Month 2

(Each Week)

Months 3 & 4

(Each Week)

New PR

Training Schedule

Easy run: 3x – 4x

Long run: 1x

Strength: 1x – 2x

Hills or tempo: 1x

Cross-training (optional): 1x (in place of an easy run)

Easy run: 3x

Long run: 1x

Strength: 1x

Hills: 1x

Tempo: 1x

 

Easy run: 3x

Long run: 1x

Strength: 1x

Intervals: 1x

Tempo: 1x

 

A note about recovery:

Regardless of your goals, take every fourth week as a recovery week to avoid burnout and injuries. In practice, that means reducing your total mileage by up to 50 percent, and not doing more than one high-intensity workout (e.g., hill repeats, tempo training, or intervals).

Step 2: Determine Your Training Intensity

Some coaches like to use “perceived effort” to guide intensity, ranking it along a graduated scale from six to 20 (six being “no feeling of exertion” and 20 being “maximal exertion”). But the smartest ones use lactate threshold heart rate (LTHR), which is much more accurate.

Contrary to popular belief, lactate (and not to be confused with lactic acid, which isn’t produced by the body) isn’t a bad thing. It’s a buffering agent that helps neutralize the hydrogen ions that accumulate in muscles during aerobic (oxygen-fueled) energy production. The buildup of those ions is what causes acidosis (aka “the burn”).

Your lactate threshold is the point at which you begin producing more hydrogen ions than you can effectively neutralize. Your LTHR is the exercise intensity (measured in beats per minute) that will cause you to reach that point, after which your muscles will fatigue precipitously toward failure.

Knowing your LTHR will allow you to adjust exercise intensity so you can sustain high-intensity efforts. To determine it, you’ll need a heart rate monitor and a relatively flat stretch of road that takes you at least 30 minutes to cover. Warm up for five to 10 minutes at an easy pace, and then hit the accelerator, running at the fastest pace possible for 30 minutes.

Your average heart rate for the final 20 minutes of the run is your LTHR, which you can use to determine the training zones that will guide your workouts.

Zone 1: Less than 80 percent of LTHR
Zone 2: 81 to 89 percent of LTHR
Zone 3: 90 to 95 percent of LTHR
Zone 4: 96 to 99 percent of LTHR
Zone 5: 100 to 105 percent of LTHR

Step 3: Begin Training

Now that you’ve identified your goals and established your LTHR and training zones, it’s time to get to work. Weave the following five workouts into your weekly training schedule according to the instructions in Step 1.

Workout 1: Easy Run

Intensity: Zone 1
Duration: 30 to 60 minutes
Purpose: To build endurance and optimize recovery

While easy runs are sometimes thought of as junk mileage, most coaches agree they’re integral to building a strong aerobic base and should comprise the bulk of your workouts. Indeed, up to 80 percent of your training plan should be easy runs — emphasis on “easy.”

“You shouldn’t ever feel like you need to recover from them,” says Campbell. “If you do, you’re not running slow enough.”

Easy runs are also effective for optimizing recovery between high-intensity workouts by boosting blood flow to muscles and resetting your central nervous system. “Such light exercise can also shake out your muscles and keep them from getting stiff,” says Nettik.

Bottom line: Think of this mileage like money in the bank. The more you have, the richer your running performances will be. “Runners often feel better after an easy run than they do after a day of complete rest,” says Nettik.

Workout 2: Long Run

Intensity: Zone 2
Duration: 90 to 120 minutes
Purpose: To increase endurance and strengthen the entire cardiovascular system

The weekly long run serves as the backbone of most training plans. By gradually building physical and mental endurance, it serves to bolster running performances at a variety of distances.

“The majority of a long run should be at an easy pace, but the last quarter can be run at race pace,” said Nettik. “It’s not necessary to run the entire distance at that pace because all of the other runs you do during the week work together to fatigue your body and thereby mimic the race experience during a long run.”

Campbell points out that the long run also serves as an important training ground to test out race day strategies. “I call every long run a dress rehearsal for race day,” she says, adding that such practice builds confidence. “Once you figure out what works for you, you should get in the routine of having the same meal, wearing the same outfit, and practicing the same mental mantras that you’ll use in the race.”

Workout 3: Tempo Run

Intensity: Zone 3
Duration: 20 to 40 minutes
Purpose: To increase your capacity for high-intensity effort

A tempo workout involves running at a “sustainably hard” pace with the goal of increasing your lactate threshold. The higher you push that threshold, the more efficient your body becomes at buffering the hydrogen ions that cause the deep muscle burn during high-intensity efforts. The result: You can go harder for longer.

“Tempo runs also teach you to run on tired legs,” says Campbell. That, in turn, will help you develop the mental toughness that many coaches simply refer to as “grit.”

After a 10- to 20-minute warm-up/jog, increase your speed. If you’re new to these workouts, start with 20 minutes in zone 3, increasing your time by five minutes per week until you reach 40 minutes. If you’re a seasoned runner, jump right in at 30 to 40 minutes. Whatever your starting point, the end results of each workout should be the same: burning legs, a pounding heart, and sweat-soaked clothes.

Workout 4: Intervals

Intensity: Zone 4
Duration: 40 minutes
Purpose: To improve aerobic capacity, power generation, endurance, stamina (exercise tolerance), and speed

Interval training is also referred to as speed work, and it is hard. Really hard. So hard that you’re counting the seconds until you stop. Your lungs and muscles should be burning, and your heart should be thundering in your chest. In short, you’re butting right up against that red line known as your lactate threshold.

“If you want to race fast, you’ve got to train your body to run fast,” said Nettik. “The goal of interval workouts is to train the body to run efficiently at a quick pace while building quick turnover, good form, and mental fortitude.”

Intervals are most efficiently performed on a track. If you don’t have access to one, a long stretch of flat, uninterrupted road will do. The duration of your intervals can range from 20-second sprints to 10-minute repeats, but according to a recent study in the journal PLoS One, the sweet spot is three to five minutes.

Start with three intervals of three to five minutes, depending on your fitness level (the fitter you are, the longer they should be). In between each interval, take anywhere from half (1:30 to 2:30 minutes) to full (3:00 to 5:00 minutes) rest. If you feel like you could run another interval at the end of your workout, add it the following week.

Workout 5: Hill Repeats

Intensity: Zone 5
Duration: Varies depending on time of each repeat
Purpose: To build leg strength and power

These sessions can include everything from short, steep sprints to long, gradual ascents. More than any other workout, they’ll help you develop strength and explosive power below the waist, and they do that with minimal wear and tear on the body despite making you feel like you want to vomit. Welcome to the red zone.

“Running uphill is low impact,” says Netti. “It also reinforces good form by forcing you to lift your knees higher and take short, quick steps.”

A good place to start is on a long, gradual hill that takes one to two minutes to ascend at a fast clip. During your first week of hill workouts, sprint up the hill for 30 seconds, and then walk slowly back down. Repeat four to six times total. Increase the duration of each repeat by 30 seconds every two weeks.

About

Mackenzie Lobby Havey is a freelance journalist and coach based in Minneapolis. She contributes to a variety of outlets includingRunner's World, TheAtlantic.com, OutsideOnline, espn.com, and Triathlete. She holds a master’s in Kinesiology and has run 14 marathons and an IRONMAN.