Tag Archives: tempo runs

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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On measuring cadence instead of pace in tempo runs (when pace isn’t possible)

Yesterday I had a scheduled M-pace training run, the first in a while and the first of many in the Vancouver training cycle.

I also had to do it after work, and nowadays for a variety of reasons taking transit home and trying to do the workout at 6-7pm is not ideal.

I haul-run home from work in part to not pay for an extra transit fare home from work (I already take the bus into work), and the later in the evening I run the later I may get to bed and/or the harder time I’ll have getting to sleep. Finishing my runs before 7pm has been very beneficial to my sleep.

Also, I carry stuff to and from work in a backpack, and everything together weighs about 15-16 pounds. This is not a huge deal on regular runs (in fact it adds a bit of a strength component), but for any tempo training it definitely slows down and compromises the workout.

Nearly all of my needed running the last few months has been easy, and now I need to do more speed and tempo running. So haul running home every weekday isn’t necessarily the best decision.

I partially get around this by sometimes driving in, parking on the free curb a bit away from work (which does not have freely available parking), stowing stuff and then running in a nearby park… which allows for gear-free faster running. I got a 3/1 mixed tempo run in last week this way.

Meanwhile, I did try a Fartlek workout as a haul run, and it has reasonably solid results. Measuring the pace was a fool’s errand. The key, it turned out, was focusing on cadence.

Most runners maintain roughly the same cadence in every tempo they run. They just push off and stretch out a little farther on faster strides. I typically slow things down on run-commutes due to fatigue and due to carrying weight. To step as quickly as I do when empty-handed can cause an everyday workout to be a lot more taxing than it needs to be. In my races and tempo runs, I simply step more quickly.

Fitbit tells me that on most easy runs, I take about 760-810 steps every 5 minutes (about 155-165 steps per minute). On faster runs, I’ll take more like 820-850 steps (165-170), and I’ve gotten the wheels to turn 870ish times per 5 on occasion. I’m not at a place where I can comfortably take the fabled 180 steps per minute (900 per 5). You want your legs to turn over light and quick without straining, or it defeats the purpose of a faster cadence.


So then… if I need to haul run home on a day I have a scheduled tempo run, and I can’t or shouldn’t start the workout later in the evening when empty-handed… what if I did the tempo run as a haul run, but focused on sticking a fast cadence instead of on how fast the actual run was?

The few resources that calculate weight’s effect on your run pace go all over the place on exactly how much extra weight affects your pace per pound. And all such calculations assume body weight gain, rather than whether or not you’re carrying external weight, as I am in haul runs.

There’s a difference between gaining 15 pounds of fat and what it does to your running… and picking up 15 pounds and putting in on your back. Both affect your pace in substantially different ways. That 15 pounds of fat is spread rather evenly around your entire body. Its effect on your pace is far less than a lump of 15 pounds strapped to your shoulders and back.

For the physically strongest of us, the difference of extra carried weight is probably minimal. But most human beings will notice more of a difference than the 2-4 seconds per mile per extra pound that most calculations predict.

Yesterday, I hauled 16 pounds away from work (I had to make a purchase at lunch during work), warmed up for about 25 minutes, and then immediately quickened my cadence before holding that faster cadence for 30 minutes.

I used the step counter on my Fitbit tracker, which was conveniently right at 1000 steps when I began my pace run. Knowing that 170 steps per minute was my higher end of fast cadence, I previously calculated that over the 30 minutes I scheduled for M-pace, which came out to 5100 steps.

I rounded that down to a goal of 5000 steps at that cadence. At the 1000-step starting point, I knew my goal was to go until the counter read 6000 steps or more. I didn’t pay much attention to the time reading, and knew at worst I’d have to M-pace a bit longer than 30 minutes.

This was much easier to track mentally and physically than to monitor a clock, or look at a faulty pace reading that was only going to tell me I wasn’t going fast enough.


After a bit over 3 miles, the counter topped 6000 steps and I slowed to an easy run. The haul run M-pace workout was a success. And I didn’t feel terrible during any of it. The workout was challenging but comfortably hard.

Ideally, I don’t have to do this for every M-pace workout. Maybe I can drive in and do them at the park some days. Maybe I can get home early and get the run in with enough time to spare that I can cook/eat dinner and get to bed before 10pm. The hope is, as summer approaches and the sun comes up earlier, I can get outside and get runs in by 6am, and I can knock the M-pace runs out then.

But, if I’ve got to haul run home, and I’ve got an M-pace run scheduled that day, I now have a solid approach that allows me to get them in without compromising my training.

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Learning race pace with an accessible mixed-tempo long run

In light of my previous thoughts on tempo running… here’s an idea for a long run workout. Basically, it’s like a long, stretched out low key speed workout.

  • Warm up with easy running for about 1 mile.
  • Run 10 minutes at your desired marathon /half/15K/whatever tempo, or (if conditions won’t allow it) at a similar relative intensity
  • Then run easy for 5 minutes.
  • After that, again, run 10 minutes at tempo.
  • Then, again, run easy for 5 minutes.
  • Repeat until finished.

It’s pretty simple in structure, even if in practice it’s not so easy.

  • This is basically an interval workout built into a long run.
  • You can practice race pace or intensity within the challenge of a long run, without having to hold that pace for the entire run or build the entire workout around it.
  • Later tempo reps in the workout help simulate the fatigue of later miles in an injury-safer controlled setting.
  • You challenge yourself for a few minutes at a time, then catch your breath and recover with easier running.
  • And throughout all of this, you’re also getting the important aerobic development of a long run.
  • This workout is a fine middle ground for intermediate runners training for a 10K or longer race, who want to improve their race times or hit a goal time.
  • It may be more productive and efficient than doing a hard midweek speedwork session, and then a separate long slow run on the weekend.
  • Even if you fail in some way at running your desired pace… you still get all the benefits of a speedwork session AND a long run, without unduly taxing yourself.

In fact, if you don’t have a ton of training time during the week, doing this on the weekend as your only non-easy workout might work best for you. It can be your one key workout, while you can mix in whatever easy running you can do through the rest of the week. It takes a lot of pressure off of training, while ensuring you still do quality training that can prepare you for race day.

Another great aspect about this approach is, for most mid-pack marathoners, the tempo segments usually line up perfectly with the amount of time it takes to run between water/aid stations. You can carry hydration or other fuel, and practice fueling/drinking every time you hit a rest interval.

Sure, the easy run intervals are much longer than it would take you to get through an aid station. But this is not a full practice for a race, and you don’t want to subject your body to a full race during a workout anyway.

The easy running not only pads this into a true long run, but gives you ample time for your body to recover for the next bout of tempo.

If you want to seriously practice race fueling during this workout, you can take a swig of water/fuel right at the end of an easy segment, and make sure to hit a full dose once the tempo segment ends.

Or, if you plan to keep running hard while drinking/fueling at aid stations, it may be best to fuel in the middle of a tempo segment, to practice doing so at full speed.

 

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The Debate on Tempo Runs and the Lactate Threshold

There are two schools of thought concerning tempo runs, aka extended runs done at or above your lactate threshold, the point at which your muscles produce too much lactic acid for your muscles to absorb + clear, causing your muscles to feel weary (among other tired effects).

As your fitness improves, the pace at which you hit your lactate threshold should get faster. This can allow you to run farther at faster paces. For any race distance beyond a sprint this is of course very important.

The traditional school of thought is that tempo running at or above the threshold strengthens your muscles’ ability to clear excess lactic acid, and therefore your threshold will increase over time.

Another school of thought is that a lot of aerobic running at a sub-threshold pace over time will increase that threshold, plus higher intensity running at shorter bursts will improve your running economy and in turn that threshold.

Who’s right? To some extent both camps are right. The question is which camp’s approach is most beneficial.

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Chops: A personal statistic for tracking training volume

Chops

A snapshot of my Google Docs training log, which outlines mileage, time spent in “hard running”, time spent doing hard exercise or similar labor, estimated walking distance, lifetime training miles since 2016, and my personal stat “Chops”, described below.

I keep a Google Doc spreadsheet log of all my training sessions: Mileage, any speedwork mileage, time spent in strength training plus other active/intentional physical effort, and estimated distance walking.

I also track known lifetime training mileage, and a self-created stat called Chops.

Chops is named after the musician term chops, which describes a performer’s current musical skill. Similarly, my Chops number provides an estimate of how many miles I can comfortably run at full strength over the following week.

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The treadmill as a tempo training tool

Yesterday I got on the dreaded treadmill. I generally will not train on one, but during my last training cycle I discovered that it has one very good use: You can work on running at a specific tempo, since treadmills are set to move at a given tempo!

I finished Wednesday’s Yasso 800’s with an average interval of 3:59… indicating that I can potentially run a marathon in 3 hours 59 minutes. I did some basic math and found this would take a pace of 9:07 per mile, about 6.6 mph.

So, still in my work clothes and thus carrying about 6 extra pounds, I set the treadmill to 6.6 mph and ran that for 30 minutes. I had no trouble physically maintaining pace, but by about 7 minutes in I was (true to form) already losing patience with the treadmill, and by 10 minutes I considered cutting it short at 20, while wanting to stick to the plan and push out 30 minutes.

The key to staying focused and getting 30 minutes done: I imagined being at mile 25 of the marathon, knowing at that point I would be in some pain but definitely very tired and wanting to stop, and knowing that at that point there was no other way to the finish line but to tough it out and run that last 10-12 or so minutes. It would probably feel worse than this moment on the treadmill, and if I couldn’t handle 30 minutes of this crap in a gym then how could I expect to handle 4+ hours and those final miles on race day?

I kept my cadence and ground out the minutes, getting to 30:00 and being able to cool down and shut the machine off.

Despite the lack of outdoor air resistance, I felt like that 30 minutes on the treadmill was harder than running that pace would be outdoors on race day.

  • First of all, I was tired after a long workday.
  • I was wearing my slacks (with stuff in my pockets), my sweaty t-shirt I couldn’t take off in the gym, and my dress shirt tied around my waist. That’s 6 pounds I won’t carry on race day. Plus the wet shirt and the slightly warm indoor conditions prevented sweat evaporation.
  • I’m running in place, with no scenery passing by me to help guide me visually. My only frame of reference is the clock.
  • Because the treadmill moves at a set pace, I cannot slow down or speed up as needed to maintain comfort. I didn’t change the dreadmill’s tempo during the run.

So I felt good about the workout, even if I didn’t feel good doing it. The tempo is one I could definitely maintain, and if I can handle it in contained, uncomfortable circumstances, I get the feeling I can handle it on race day.

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