Tag Archives: aerobic endurance

Work out with purpose when endurance training

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Matt Fitzgerald recently wrote on an interesting topic, asking: At what minimum volume does 80/20 training cease to be useful? I had some useful, common sense thoughts on the topic… that turned into the much longer piece below on endurance training, and how it must evolve past the basic runs consistent in most runners’ training plans.

First, to address Matt’s question… I think it’s important to consider the length of your goal event. Short of the marathon, I think it’s important during easier runs to practice running the duration or distance you plan to run your goal race, to accustom your body to the volume of running required.

For shorter events, this is easier. A 5K (3.11 miles) takes most runners 20-40 minutes, so it stands to reason you should be running at least 20-40 minutes or about 3 miles in easy runs. Doing 1 mile or 5 minute runs aren’t going to help you much at all. Hal Higdon has the right idea for beginners: Just work on running easy as long as you can uninterrupted until you can run 3 uninterrupted miles. That task in itself will suitably occupy most if not all of your training for such a race.

Something longer like a 10K (6.21 miles) might take more like 40-60 minutes. Even if you don’t run 6 miles regularly, running 40-60 minutes regularly in easy runs is probably a better idea than just brief 2-3 mile runs. Even your easier runs should have some specific application to the distance or time you plan to race.

It becomes more complicated running a half marathon, marathon or more. A 13.1 mile Half requires around 90-150 minutes of racing for most. Obviously, it’s not reasonable for most people to run 2 hours or 13 miles everyday. And of course the marathon requires a limit-busting 26.2 miles, and can take several hours. No one in their right mind will ask you to run that much.

The 60 minute race threshold is where a trainee should cease trying to run the distance in easy workouts, and focus instead on aerobically beneficial workouts:

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How runners can effectively track cross training

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

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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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Endurance is best built through your regular runs, rather than your long run

Runners understandably focus on their long runs while training for races from the 5K to marathons and ultras. Your ability to run long determines how well you run your longest races, and long runs help build the aerobic capability that carries you through races of all distances.

However, the long run also receives too much focus. I’m not going to call the long run overrated, because long runs definitely are not overrated. They’re important. But long runs are one component of a successful training plan, and building your aerobic endurance and performance requires more than getting your long run in every week.

And no, I don’t mean doing your speedwork. In fact, improving your aerobic capability requires no speedwork at all (though speedwork can certainly help your running economy, and is valuable for maximizing your race day speed).

We fixate on the length of our long runs. We fixate on the speed at which we run our speedwork. But we don’t pay much attention to the length of our regular runs, and it turns out the latter is as important (if not more important) to developing our aerobic endurance.

To briefly summarize and blow over a ton of science:

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