Category Archives: Training

How runners can effectively track cross training

person on elliptical trainer

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One thing clear to me this summer is that getting in a lot of miles is probably not going to happen. It’s one reason I went ahead and joined the gym near my home: I need to do more to fill in the blanks with cross training. I’ll hit my key workouts whether outdoors or indoors, and then have a variety of indoor options with which to fill in the blanks.

Filling in the blanks however requires some analysis. People cross train, but people don’t have a firm basis from which to equate their cross training to the needed aerobic development.

How much work on the bike or elliptical equals one mile of easy running? Most do an indeterminate amount of cross training, but beyond knowing that it helps some with training, they have no idea how many miles or how much progress it has helped make them.

(I will also note that, while some writers and coaches think it so, I don’t consider treadmill running cross training. I realize at a zero incline, with a consistent surface, and with no wind resistance… running on a treadmill could be easier than regular running. However, there are enough equalizing factors I’ll discuss another time that can and usually do make it as difficult, sometimes more difficult, than regular running. Plus, you still are bearing all of your weight at a higher speed and intensity, as you do with running. So, I consider miles run on the treadmill equal to regular running miles.)

What’s the best way to figure out how much value, how much volume, a cross training workout provided to your training? It’s a question I’ve dabbled with over time, and wrestled with more in recent memory, especially now that I’m cross training more frequently at the gym.

I think the best way to figure this out is:

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The less you run during marathon training, the more important strength training becomes

As a runner, your body can only handle so much mileage. Some runners can pile over 100 miles a week. Some runners can’t run more than 3-4 days a week.

A better more emcompassing way to put it is that you can only handle so much time on your feet. Sure, some runners are faster than others and that’s why they can rack up 100+ miles at an easy pace, whereas if most of us ran the same amount of time we’d probably max out at around 60-65.

Back to the main point: While it’d be ideal to have you log 50+ miles while training for a marathon, many can’t quite hit that number within their reasonable best efforts, or their plan doesn’t ask that much. Even if your plan does, maybe you struggle for understandable reasons to do it: Hal Higdon might ask for 20 milers and 7-10 mile midweek runs, and maybe you don’t have the time to put them in… or your body simply gives out after 15 miles. Maybe the Hansons want you to run 6-8 miles six times a week, but there’s no way you can run six times a week.

However, as Jonathan Savage says, everyone running a marathon has to run the same 26.22 mile distance. Whether your longest run was 15 miles or 18 miles or 22 miles, everyone’s got to run 26.22 on race day. It doesn’t matter if you can’t handle the distance, the pounding that volume requires, in training. You’ll have to handle it eventually just like everyone else.

This doesn’t mean you need to do 20-26 milers in training to be ready. Some runners certainly can do that, sure, and they’ll usually be ready on race day. But while I do think it’s important to develop the aerobic endurance to go no less than 2.5-3.0 hours without stopping… what you do on the other days of the week can be far more flexible.

With one key caveat.

Your body not only has to be aerobically prepared to run long, but it physically must be prepared to take the pounding of that much continuous running. No matter how much you run or how you run, you must develop the physical strength to handle the 3-6 hour pounding. And that simply will not happen on a lighter running schedule by itself.

I also don’t think speed and tempo work is anywhere close to enough by itself. You’ll develop solid ability to run a 10K or something, but that won’t fully prepare you to handle hours of pounding and aerobic demand.

The successful marathoners I know and see all tend to have one other common denominator aside from just running a lot, running regularly and eating/sleeping/recovering well.

They strength train.

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The Open Road Mile: Modifying the mile strategy for non-track courses

Previously I wrote about a strategy for running your best mile on a standard track. Of course, not only do many people not have access to a track, but in many situations you may be asked to run a mile on a course that definitely isn’t a track, e.g. a mile long road race, or a time trial at school, the military, as part of a fitness class, etc.

The strategy I wrote about doesn’t quite work here because it’s built around each of the four laps taken around a track. In fact, as I mentioned when discussing Lane 8, running the mile in a different lane not only changes the start and finish for your mile, but requires you adjust the strategy even then.

So what do you do when you’re running a mile on an unmarked course? Can the strategy be adjusted for that?

Totally. If you don’t have a marked course for your mile, but you at least know you’re running a full mile… this method can be modified by time.

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How to run a focused and pain relieving track mile

Few races or time trials were as painful for me as the mile. Never lasting more than 7ish minutes, the level of effort a mile trial demands always felt brutal.

I’d do one on the track, and before the first of 4 laps was done I was wondering how in hell I was going to manage three more, let alone post a good time.

At the same time, whenever I’d try to pace myself on the mile I’d end up going far too slow out of the gate and no matter how fast I ended up by the end, the end result was always disappointing.

I’d long since figured out how to pace myself in races, but the mile always flummoxed me. The pacing and technique that served me well in 5Ks and longer didn’t work with the mile.

Any distance shorter is mostly about busting ass out of the gate and running as fast as you could. That’s easy. And that doesn’t work for 1500-1609 meters.

But I finally figured it out, how to measure out your max effort in controlled doses and run the best mile you can, on a typical 400 meter track. Once I did this I shattered my mile PR by almost half a minute, and I didn’t even want to die afterward.

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The Park Bench Run: An easy speed workout

trees in park

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

A couple weeks ago, I planned to do some tempo work along a park loop as part of my run commute home. But once I left work and got to the starting point I knew I did not have enough gas in the tank to do the planned 800 meter reps AND take a full cooldown run home. I also didn’t want to take the bus, nor did I want to bag the workout completely and just jog home.

I took one 800 meter rep that went okay, but I knew doing several more was out of the question. What wasn’t out of the question was doing them as part of the run home, a hedge that allowed me to still get the speedwork in while curbing the amount of overall miles and reducing the overall stress of the run.

I didn’t want to do a full out uninterrupted tempo run home, but several reps of a few minutes each was totally fine. So here’s what I did:

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Finally Getting Back In The Gym

I finally got a membership at the nearby Planet Fitness. Despite having a gym within a block from home that only costs $10 a month and is open nearly all the time, I balked at getting a membership for a variety of practical reasons that now finally are no longer the case.

The gym itself has pretty much everything I’d need out of a gym. They have a ton of treadmills, several ARC Trainers and ellipticals, several spin and recumbent exercise bikes, and of course a wide variety of free weights and exercise machines. And because of the no-judgment motif of the Planet Fitness brand, everyone working out seems cool and goes about their business without any passive aggression or peacocking you see at other gyms.

I’m digressing a bit. As I ramp into official fall marathon training, the gym provides me with a ton of benefits it turns out I really need this time around. I’ve been admittedly struggling with several aspects of training over the last few months, and the gym’s going to help with several of them.

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Your goal pace has an easy run pace

Most runners train for a race with a goal pace in mind. Many will train for that goal pace by running it in varying distances and durations during their training.

Various authors, most recently and notably Matt Fitzgerald in 80/20 Running, advocate building a solid base of mostly easy running from which you can do a bit of tempo-specific running each week. This makes sense since your ability to run fast won’t matter much without the aerobic development to sustain a desired pace over your desired race distance.

Jeff Gaudette of Runners Connect takes this a step farther. He actually posits that most runners already have the desired speed to run a goal pace, that what they lack and need to develop is the aerobic and neuromusucular fitness to sustain that pace for their desired race distance.

Gaudette has a good point. Whenever you are able, go outside and run as fast as you reasonably can (i.e. don’t hurt yourself). I imagine if your pace was measured you’d easily exceed your desired goal pace.

I also imagine you won’t be able to hold that fast-as-you-can pace for very long. Running at max speed, you’ll be winded and your muscles will be neurally screaming in seconds. I’ve done max speed reps for giggles a few times, and I find the longest I can reasonably go at that intensity is about 30-45 seconds.

When we do speedwork, we’re not really training ourselves to run faster. Most of us already can run pretty fast. What we’re training is the ability to hold a given speed over a desired distance, whether that distance is 400 meters, 5K, or a marathon. (Ultra distance runners by and large have other aerobic and endurance concerns during training aside from speed)

This is why many coaches say the goal of speedwork should be economy, i.e. refining your form and taking every step as efficiently as possible, so that when you run your races you’ve honed and improved the efficiency of every step.

I realize I’m digressing a bit. I mentioned easy pace for a reason. We focus a lot on speedwork, on our goal pace, while forgetting that every goal pace has a corresponding pace at other distances… as well as a corresponding regular and recovery run pace.

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An extended recovery, and the flip side of antibiotics

I extended my recovery period after Vancouver a bit, in part due to the effects of the antibiotics I had to take for my elbow.

On the plus side, the clindamycin I was prescribed did work. The redness immediately ceased, the swelling and some of the pain went down, and three days into the 10 day RX the heat around my elbow began to fade. It still hurts to lean on the elbow sometimes because (infection or not) I still have bursitis in that elbow and from experience that hangs around a while. I can still push and pull and use my right arm fine for the most part. At least now I can actually put pressure on the elbow (probably will stick to straight-arm planks for now, though).

However. The minus side is that antibiotics mess with your entire body, and it certainly has messed with mine. Yes, I’ve taken probiotics to counter the mass murder of gut bacteria from the antibiotics, and eaten a mild diet to minimize any c.diff problems.

But the clindamycin still wreaked havoc on my overall organ function and my overall energy. Even with good sleep and diet I’ve felt tired every day (when the infection started, my energy levels and running were okay, so it wasn’t that). I have sizable bags under my eyes, indicating havoc on my kidneys. My sweat smelled like the medication this last few days. I took the last of the RX last night and I’m glad that’s done.

And of course, the pills affected the energy I have to run. Sure, it got fairly hot for Chicago this past week (87 degrees Fahrenheit, 30+ celsius), to the point where I had to cut my last run very short. But even prior easy runs took more effort than usual. The medication certainly dried me out some, and even with plenty of hydration it often felt like I was a bit dried out before and during runs.

Yes, having run a marathon almost certainly is a key factor to this as well. Again, the elbow problem developed a week after the marathon. My body being heavily compromised probably made it a lot easier for bacteria to take hold in my elbow, as well as easier for the subsequent medication to do a number on my still-recovering body. Add in returning to easy running a bit early, and it appears I just need a bit more rest.

Fortunately, I don’t need to begin training officially for the Chicago Marathon in October until mid-June. I will want to be running regularly by then, of course, but it’s not crucial that I be out there training every day right now. My last run Thursday in fact capped 5 straight days of running, so I’m certainly not starting from zero if I take the weekend off and resume on Monday.

I probably need the rest not just coming off the medication, and to acclimate to the incoming summer heat, but also still recovering from the marathon. Two weeks is a standard, and some do more (Kenyans famously take a couple months off after marathons!). Taking three easy weeks is totally fine.

I’m going to drown myself in fruit and fiber this weekend to get the medication out of me and get back to normal, so I can get back to normal running.

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Building hill workouts for your goal races

It’s nice when a goal race is on flat, normal terrain. A place like Chicago or New York City makes it easy, since all their races are on mostly flat ground.

Along with creating prime conditions for fast times (… well, weather permitting), training for the races is straightforward. Work on aerobic and neuromuscular fitness, work on tempo and speed, recover and feed yourself well, and you can crush it.

If a race has elevation shifts, things get a bit more complicated. We already see how weather and temperature impact races: If you train in clear and mild conditions, but then race in windy, hot/cold conditions, you’re not going to be trained to deal with the latter. Even when trained for warmer conditions, suitably hot races can negatively impact performance no matter what.

Likewise, if you train on flat ground, then try to run a race with hills (whether uphills or downhills or both), your performance and body will suffer as you likely have not trained at any length to handle hilly conditions. The longer the race, the greater the impact.

Runners who live in hilly locales face challenges with training speed, tempo or maximizing mileage because of the hills impacting speed. But this becomes an advantage when they run races featuring hills. Their bodies are well-trained to deal with the big elevation shifts. American runners in Seattle, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and mountainous regions like Colorado and Utah are better equipped to handle hills than runners in Chicago, Florida or New York City. (Plus, that never minds thinner air in higher altitude, also a key factor and a separate subject)

So, as a Chicago runner, I have to be mindful when I blow town for a race in a locale with hills. Vancouver is a clear example, with not only big elevation shifts early in the Vancouver Marathon course, but even the smaller elevation shifts later in the race are mountainous compared to the elevation changes in flatter Chicago.

One key reason these hills didn’t destroy me is that on multiple occasions I ran special workouts at nearby Cricket Hill. While Cricket Hill isn’t exactly a big hill (with only a 45 foot elevation climb), it does rise at a tough grade and when run on right, it can prepare you for running up and down hills.

So, how?

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Fitness Debriefing After Vancouver 2019

VancouverMedalSitting down and beaten up from the longest run is a great time to take stock of where I’m at with fitness and what I ought to do for next time, even if next time isn’t going to get here for a little while.

I worked hard to prepare for and run Vancouver, and while I improved my endurance and strength in a variety of ways, there’s a number of things that even before the race I knew I wanted and needed to improve.

There’s a lot of goals I have regarding how fast I want to run races, how fast I know I’m capable of running races, and there remains a substantial gap between what I can do and what I want to be able to do… a gap I believe I can substantially close starting even before the beginning of my next training cycle….

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Cool, and certainly not impossible

CoolImpossibleCaveat: I’ve talked before about books relevant to training plans I’ve reviewed, but I’m not big on book reviews. I’ll talk about my thoughts on reading this book, but this is not totally a review of the book. If interested, look up reviews of the book or browse a copy separately on your own. And of course, if you disagree with any of the following… cool.


A few weeks back at a local bookstore I stumbled upon and bought a book by Eric Orton called The Cool Impossible. Orton gained fame in Christopher MacDougal’s book Born To Run, about Christopher’s journey to run the Copper Canyon ultra with the uncanny endurance-running Tarahumara natives of northwest Mexico.

Eric Orton coached Chris through training for the ultra, and his personally developed methods (derived in no small part from what he learned with the Tarahumara) find their way into this book I found a few weeks ago.

I read this book and unlike other running books it doesn’t map out a training plan to prepare for a goal race. Instead, what training plan the book has intends to rebuild your running ability through balance and strength exercises using slant/wobble boards and a balance ball, and later through perfecting your running form and cadence through drills and then shorter bouts of running that grow gradually longer over 26 weeks (including the initial strength building phase) of general training.

Orton details how the Tarahumara run on custom-made minimalist shoes made from old tires on uneven, rocky trails that constantly require stepping on and pushing off from uneven terrain. Most runners in civlization run on cleaner, flatter surfaces, and don’t develop the nuanced lower body strength from running on rocky terrain that the Tarahumara do.

Reading through these anecdotes and Orton’s breakdown of the subsequent exercises, two ideas jumped out at me.

1) Virtually no one else who coaches or writes about running even talks about this, let alone works on or teaches how to do this.

In fact, most running coaches probably have no idea how to run on truly uneven terrain, even if they run trails or trail races. Such runners probably stick to paths and then just tiptoe through these sections that Orton and the Tarahumara have the nuanced strength to run straight through.

2) Hey wait, I already do this.

Growing up in dry hot Vegas, what grass we had in the schoolyard and parks was largely unmaintained. It was mowed and occasionally weedwacked, sure. But we played soccer and ran laps over lumpy, rugged grass whose random bumps and divots you perhaps got used to over time.

Add in running over dusty desert dirt, the random consistency of what pavement there was, and I got a lot of practice growing up in running over uneven terrain. I wasn’t even a distance runner.

Once I got seriously into distance running so many years later, I was among the few who had no problem taking my run onto the dirt fringes of the Lakefront Trail, or even onto the similarly rugged, inconsistent grass terrain.

Whenever I slip in icy terrain during winter, I have the proprioception to stay balanced and continue forward without falling or getting hurt. Even when I do trip or slip and begin to fall, I have the awareness, balance and strength to often stay on my feet, or at least land safely without injury.

Over my life I’ve been in a few messy homes, workplaces, classrooms, and got used to stepping through and over a variety of mess, stepping accidentally on all sorts of random things, and staying balanced when that happened.

That certainly helped when I got into theatre and dance, and that sort of dynamic balance came in handy. Add in the deep movement training of both disciplines, and having that now-natural perception helped a lot when I later got into distance running.

I realize I’m not a typical case, that most other people won’t have this ability or awareness if they don’t discover and work on it. Sure, they may have some, but a lot of them tiptoe through tough spots, or hurt something as soon as they step off-balance on something. A book like this might actually be really useful for a large number of such runners.

Meanwhile, while I might get some value out of some of the exercises or the renovative training plan (probably after the Chicago Marathon in October, though)… the idea of, say, balancing on one foot on a slanted surface isn’t new territory for me. In fact, I had to do stuff like that in George Lewis’ Meyerhold Biomechanics theatre class every week.

A few weeks ago, I had to run through large swaths of terrain during my last 17 miler. Weather, people and conditions forced me onto bumpy grass and dirt for a good portion of it. Not only have I not forgotten how, but I still need and utilize those abilities today.

I’m glad I got this book, and there’s useful material in here, even if it turns out I already have some of this knowledge. Sometimes it’s cool (and certainly not impossible) to learn that what you innately knew isn’t foreign to others.

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Headwinds are a training blessing in disguise

agriculture alternative energy clouds countryside

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I’ve spent a busy April mostly off the grid. I am running the Vancouver Marathon in 8 days. Since muscle damage takes about 14 days to fully repair and quality training’s benefits take about 10 days to manifest in your running, I am done with high volume quality training or any tough workouts. Now it’s about maintaining conditioning and resting up for the marathon.

After getting sick a few weeks ago I had to abbreviate peak training, and I ran a final 17 mile peak run last weekend. The 20 miler I ran in mid-March would be my only one this training cycle, and the 40-45 mile weeks I had that month would be as high as my volume would get.

So, that final long run. Due to weather forecasts and other needs, I had to run it on a Friday right after work. Even though it was the best possible weather of any time I could run that weekend, I had to do most of the run into a stiff 25-30 mph headwind.

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2019 Lakefront 10 Miler recap, and the Vancouver 2019 training end-game

LF10-finishYesterday I ran my final 2019 Vancouver tune-up race, the CARA Lakefront 10 Miler. The 1:36:24 was my slowest finish in a 10 Miler to date, but I had fun (the LF10 is my favorite Chicago race) and the race turned out well in other ways.

As mentioned, I got sick with the flu at the end of last month. While I bounced back quickly for such an illness, I did lose over a week of normal training (plus, likely in part because it was starting to get me, I had reduced my volume a bit the previous week due to fatigue).

I ran a lot less than usual while recovering. Once recovered, I had to ease back into my prior volume over the following week. In fact, I only got back to normal volume right before this race. I hadn’t done any speed or tempo work in several weeks. I was definitely not trained to race the 10 Miler. I wasn’t even sure if I could hold anything beyond an easy pace for 10 uninterrupted miles.

Alas, I settled into a (slower than most of the people around me) pace, and managed to comfortably hold it for the entire distance without any real distress (even powering past people on inclines, including the LF10’s infamous Cricket Hill finish, by merely maintaining tempo). The pace slid between 9:00-10:00 but mostly hung in the 9:30-9:40 range… which incidentally was my originally hoped for marathon pace! I even sped up without trouble and took the LF10’s final lap around the Wilson Track at 1:59.

While sore and tired like I ran a race, I didn’t feel as sore or tired as usual. Following an afternoon meal and nap, I went back out and ran a couple more miles (with some speed reps) to finish the day at 17.8 miles (between runs to/from the race, the race itself, and the evening run).

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When Runners Get Sick

I just spent the last week sick with what might have been the H3N2 variant of the Swine Flu. The office had been fairly sick for a while, and it finally got me last weekend.

I hardly ever get sick anymore. I don’t even get the digestive ailments that used to get me from time to time over the previous years.

I want to call it a testament to my healthy eating and my improved commitment to recovery. But then again, I got sick like everyone else last week, so never mind that.


Coughing up my lungs on Tuesday, I had no idea how long it would take for me to get anywhere near back to normal. The good news on Saturday is my cough subsided substantially and, other than recurring sickness-related digestive issues, and being a little rusty on runs (of course, I broke off training for a few days while sick), I don’t feel bad at all. A couple of colleagues mentioned their flu passed rather quickly, even if the cough loosely hung around for a while. So perhaps it’s the nature of the current illness going around.

In any case, I’d like to think the following approaches helped me quickly unload an unwanted flu, and can help you as well:

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Thoughts on the Thompson New Intervals approach to speedwork

I have all sorts of thoughts on the New Intervals approach, which basically says to do your recovery intervals/jogs in speed workouts at a harder intensity. The link is Matt Fitzgerald’s write-up on the method.

I hated this 24 hours ago when I first read this. I saw a recipe for injury and burnout. Given more time to read it over and think about it… not only do I think it’s a good approach to speedwork, but I realize this is a speedwork version of what I’m doing with my 55-5 Long Runs. Given the parameters, it’s actually quite hard to overrun the workout, and in fact it prevents a lot of the overrunning of conventional speedwork.

This is basically sets of mixed-tempo cruise intervals. It’s written as sets of 4-6 reps of 400m intervals, but since each 100m “roll-off” cooldown is done fast, those roll-offs are basically part of the reps… making each set one long rep.

The key to this approach, as Fitzgerald mentions, is that your fast “reps” need to be dialed back so you can maintain the pace for each one in the set.

The volume of the speed reps you do in this workout needs to be less than a typical speed workout with such reps. Observing Daniels’ caps on rep/interval level speed workouts… you now need to observe the effect of the roll-off portion, which would previously be ignored since they were recovery intervals. Here, those “recovery” portions are more intense and basically part of the set, and thus should be considered part of the volume.

Conversely, most runners’ problems with speed workouts is that they slow to a stop or walk between reps in the first place… which happens mostly because they’re doing the reps too fast and too hard so they’re forced to stop. This sort of workout at least will prevent that. To stop or walk with New Intervals is to effectively cut the set short. It makes cheating the workout difficult.

90% of 90% of people’s problems with speed-rep workouts is that they’re going all out trying to beat a clock that no one’s keeping score of, instead of giving a controlled-fast effort where they work on running economy. This would pretty much eliminate that, though now you need to be careful of booking too hard of a workout since these are basically 1-2 mile reps broken into mixed tempo sections.

If interested in the New Intervals workout, it may be best to start with an easy workout with just 1-2 of them, to see how you handle it and to get used to the mechanics. Also, sampling the workout like this is an easy chance to see if you just hate it without completely tanking your workout plan.

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A Better Long Run: The 55-5 Long Run Method

road nature trees branches

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

As with a lot of training approaches, runners have a very polarized approach to how they handle long runs.

Either they do a simple easy run over a long distance, or they add in some tempo with the long run (either trying to run the whole thing at a tougher moderate pace, or mixing in tempo segments with easy running), turning it into a grueling exercise.

Both polarized approaches have substantial drawbacks.

The long easy paced run may develop long aerobic endurance, but it also accustoms you to only handling your longest distances at an easy pace. Any attempt to race longer distances thus becomes a huge struggle, because you haven’t practiced running faster at max distance.

The mixed tempo run may address that issue, but creates another issue: It asks you to work especially hard at points on a run that is already fairly difficult due to its duration. This increases the burnout and injury risks, and at the least makes long runs such a miserable experience that many just forego any sort of intermediate tempo work on those runs. (It’s the biggest issue with the Daniels Marathon Plans. Those quality long runs are super-demanding. Few outside of elites and hardened distance running vets can consistently handle them.)


Regular readers can probably sense where I’m going with this point: There is a vast and mostly-unexplored middle ground to long runs that will allow you to work on and develop aerobic strength (aka the ability to maintain faster paces over longer distances), without demanding so much from you.

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