If you’re like most guys, you’re a creature of habit. You go to bed at 11 pm, you hit the toilet after your morning espresso and you run the same loop at the same speed in your lunch break.
That’s great for sleeping and shitting, but not so good for your fitness or race times.
A truckload of research shows that different kinds of running deliver specific fitness benefits.
Shorter intervals, for instance, increase your VO2 max (one measure of aerobic endurance), while longer sessions boost your Qmax, the volume of blood your heart can pump.
Smart (and fast) men take advantage of four key types of training – speedwork, threshold sessions, speed-stamina workouts and relaxed long runs – to race better and boost fitness. Even marathoners can benefit from lung-busting sprints.
In fact, elite coach Tom Kloos says that failing to vary your training is the biggest mistake he sees runners make.
“The best improvement I’ve seen is with speed-work,” he say. “It improves the way you move, your biomechanics and your running economy. That way you can run at race pace much more comfortably.”
We’ll show you the science-based benefits of each kind of workout and how to best fit it into your training.
WHAT IS IT?
A 30-minute sprint session. This training improves your stride, recruits more fast-twitch muscles and rapidly boosts your fitness.
Warm up with a two-kilometre jog followed by form drills: 15 seconds each of skips, butt kicks, knee raises, and fast feet (hit the ground as rapidly as you can). Do 3 sets.
To prime your muscles for sprinting, do dynamic activation: 30 seconds of mountain climbers followed by climbing 20 steps (or 20 step-ups on a bench). Repeat. Now you’re ready for the speedwork.
Do 20-, 30-, 40-, and 50-metre all-out sprints from a standing start. Walk back for recovery. Then do 100m fast three times, but not quite at a full sprint. Jog back.
To cool down, run 1km, progressing from a steady to a very easy pace.
WHY DO IT?
Sprinting uses more fast-twitch muscle fibres than distance running does, and it teaches you good form – pumping your arms, keeping your head and chest up, and driving your knees forward.
If you understand how this motion propels you, then you’ll also recognise when your form’s failing during a longer run – and you’ll know how to correct it. “You learn to run faster with less effort. That’s a win-win,” says Kloos.
The downside? Sprints are brutal on your joints. You’re pounding them with up to 700 per cent of your body weight with every footstrike.
At slower speeds, half your motion is powered by muscle contraction and half by the energy stored in your tendons, says biomechanical analyst Jay Dicharry. Sprinting allows no such luxuries. Your feet spend about a quarter of a second on the ground when you run slowly, and just an eighth of a second when you sprint.
“You don’t have time for the stored elastic energy to help you out when you’re sprinting, so almost all the work comes from active muscle contraction,” he says. That’s why Kloos advises giving yourself 48-72 hours to recover from this training.
WHAT IS IT?
Running for 30-60 minutes at your threshold pace – the top speed you can maintain without breathing so hard that you need to slow down. It improves your aerobic capacity and helps you incinerate more kilojoules than other kinds of running, because you’re working at a higher intensity for a long period with no rest.
Run at your threshold pace for 6-9km. When this workout becomes easier, run up to 30 minutes more when training for a 5-10km race, and up to an hour more for longer races. Then work on increasing your pace.
HOW TO DO IT
There are various ways to figure out your threshold pace, says Kloos. You can go by feel: it should seem hard but manageable. (That’s why it’s crucial not to push the pace fresh out of the gate.)
You can also use a running table: if you’ve recently done a 5km or 10km race, enter your time in the McMillan Running training calculator (mcmillanrunning.com).
A rule of thumb, he says, is to go slightly slower than your 10km race pace. If you tend to lose focus midway through a session, run with a friend. It’s more fun, and you can keep each other on pace.
If you can talk to your friend but don’t really want to, your pace is right, says Kloos.
WHAT IS IT?
High-speed repetitions of 200-1500m. This is the most physically demanding and mentally challenging kind of running, says Kloos.
The payoff for your 45 minutes of suffering is a stronger heart and more stamina, with the longer intervals increasing your heart “contractility” (the force of each beat) as well as the density of the mitochondria (cellular power plants) in your legs.
Warm up by jogging at an easy pace for 1500m. Then do some form drills: 15 seconds each of skips, butt kicks, knee raises and fast feet. Do 3 sets, then prep your muscles for sprinting.
Do four 80m acceleration striders (increase your speed incrementally until you’re going fast but are still relaxed and not in a full sprint; walk back).
The intervals: do 8 x 500m with a 100m walk recovery. The pace should be the fastest you can maintain for the entire workout. The recovery walk should take the same time as the 500m run.
To cool down, jog slowly for a kilometre or two.
WHY DO IT?
Long intervals aren’t for the faint hearted – but they’re great for your ticker.
Studies have found that this kind of high-intensity interval training increased VO2 max, heart rate variability (a good indicator of cardiac health), and muscle-capillary density, all of which help move oxygen around your body, allowing you to exercise harder for longer.
You also burn major kilojoules through excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC). In other words, you work out so hard that you keep burning ’joules even after the clock stops.
But don’t overdo it. “Four to six of these speed-stamina workouts is all it takes before you’re maxing out the benefits,” says Kloos.
He suggests adding them to your training regimen eight weeks before a race. Do one every other week or so, completing 4-6 sessions in total.
RELAXED LONG RUN
WHAT IS IT?
A slow and steady run.
These burn the most fat and increase your stamina. But they can be hard on your joints if you have poor form or weak legs, so work up to longer distances.
Run for an hour or longer at a pace that allows you to easily hold a conversation.
If you start puffing, walk until you’re breathing easily, then resume running.
WHY DO IT?
Running at a lower intensity for long distances is still the gold standard for endurance training.
In fact, many elite athletes divide their training into 70 per cent relaxed long runs, 10 per cent threshold sessions, and 20 per cent sprints, says running journalist Dr Alex Hutchinson. “This balances out the hard sessions that yield the swiftest gains with the easier ones that allow for recovery and continued improvement.”
If you’re looking to become lean, emphasise long runs. At 60 minutes, your body starts to draw from fuels other than just your blood sugar; this process can help you lose fat faster, says Kloos.
WHAT'S YOUR GOAL?
How often should you be completing each of these workouts? Pick your goal below for a custom training plan from Coach Kloos.
I WANT TO LOSE WEIGHT / IMPROVE MY GENERAL FITNESS
Use a two-week cycle and aim to do one of each workout every two weeks.
On other days, do strength training.
If you can run three times a week, add two relaxed long runs.
I WANT TO BE MORE COMPETITIVE IN A 10KM RACE, OBSTACLE RACE OR MARATHON
Use a two-week cycle, ensuring you do all four workouts.
If you can run six times per cycle, base the extra runs on the time to race day.
Six months out, add a relaxed long run, and alternate between threshold sessions and speed-stamina workouts for your other extra workout.
Three months out: add a threshold session, and alternate relaxed long runs and speed-stamina workouts.
Two months out: add speed work, alternating threshold and relaxed runs.