By Jason Fitzgerald and published on strengthrunning.com
Over the last 13 years of competitive running in high school, college, and beyond, I’ve picked up certain training strategies that I’ve incorporated into my current training. Some of these training principles are well-known while others are less common.
Many of us know that we should do a long run every week but we don’t do it. Most of recognize that we should do some core and strength exercises every week, but a lot of us don’t. I don’t want you to read this article, say “that’s nice,” and go back to your game of Angry Birds.
After you read this, I want you to make ONE positive change in your training and then tell me about it. Get to a point where you’re doing all of these things consistently and you are going to surprise yourself at how fast you are, how much better you feel, and how fewer injuries you get.
In typical Strength Running fashion, this post is long but packed with as much tactical information as I can provide. This isn’t really a list post because each piece of advice below could almost be its own blog post! Without further ado, below are the valuable training tools I’ve acquired over the last 13 years.
If there are other pieces of wisdom that you have picked up on your training journey, then please let us know in the comments!
The Almighty Long Run
It doesn’t matter if you’re training for a 5k, triathlon, or ultramarathon – the long run is one of your most important workouts of the week. Aim to run anywhere from 20-30% of your total weekly mileage during your long run, depending on your fitness and goals.
The long runs boosts your aerobic capacity and allows you to run faster for longer. It helps you become more efficient, creates more mitochondria (the energy producers of your cells) in your muscles, and strengthens your cardiovascular system.
For all new runners, the biggest limiting factor for their performance is a lack of endurance. As soon as you’re ready, start incorporating one longer run into your training week and you’ll see positive results in a matter of weeks. All during high school, I did about 3 long runs – all of them at the end of summer before the cross country season. More consistency with running longer would have helped me run closer to my potential.
If you’re training for a 10 miler or longer, it’s important to mimic the conditions of race day during your long run. For road marathons, you need to practice running long on the roads. But if you’re gearing up for a trail marathon on technical terrain, it’s essential to spend your long runs on the trails.
An advanced technique to gain extra fitness from your long runs is to introduce some faster paced running in the middle or end of the run. I like adding 20-30 second surges during the last 1-2 miles; they actually make my legs feel less stale the next day. You could also opt to do a progression, tempo, or fast intervals.
Whatever your choice, progress slowly and intelligently to the point where you’re ready for the new challenge.
Barefoot Strides – Not Just for Hippies
I started doing barefoot strides 2-3 times every week in college during cross country. They made a huge difference in almost all aspects of my running. I improved dramatically during that first season and while I know it wasn’t only because of barefoot strides, I think they had a big role to play in my success.
Even when you run strides in shoes, they’re a great tool to help you loosen up after a distance run. Stretching your legs by running close to your maximum speed for a brief period of time stretches your muscles and just makes you feel good. It’s exhilarating.
Take off your shoes for strides (only on a grass or synthetic turf field) and you’ll help improve your mechanics more than when you wear shoes. Foot strike and cadence will be at their most efficient and your legs will go through their proper range of motion with no over-striding.
Most runners know that barefoot running can help you develop more foot and lower leg strength. But running barefoot strides can also make the transition to minimalism a LOT less painful. If you can sprint barefoot, running easy in a pair of minimalist shoe will be much easier.
Even if you’re doing barefoot strides regularly, if your goal is to become a minimalist runner you should do it gradually. Start in a pair of neutral performance trainers like the ASICS speedstar and run 10-30% of your weekly mileage in them. As you adapt to this new stress, you can transition to less and less shoe.
Just remember that minimalism and barefoot running are tools to help you run with better form and prevent injuries. The end goal should not be minimalism.
Double the Fun, Double the Fitness
Running twice a day is an advanced strategy for reaching the next level of performance. I only recommend it for runners who have at least two years of consistent training behind them. If that’s you (or you’re just curious), then double sessions can help you run faster.
Research indicates that running when you’re tired, or in a pre-fatigued state, can boost your fitness faster than if you were fully rested. This is why I don’t take a rest day after my long runs – I believe that running slow when I’m tired helps me get faster in the long-term.
In addition to adding volume to your schedule, which will help increase your aerobic capacity and running, adding an easy morning run will help you prepare for afternoon workouts. After you’re comfortable running easy twice a day, a morning run will help you shake out the kinks and increase blood flow before an afternoon fast workout. This was a staple in my college years and something I continue to practice today.
The (Almost) Long Run
Long runs are damaging, both physically and mentally. Without recovery, you’ll never absorb their training benefits and boost your endurance. This is why most runners never do two long runs in a single week. However, there’s one advanced strategy that you can implement in your training to get similar benefits without the damage: the medium-long run.
For me, a “long run” is 17+ miles. My medium-long runs are typically 12-14 miles and occur in the middle of the week, at least 3 days before the long run. They provide another opportunity to develop your aerobic system without excessive fatigue. This is a Mark Wetmore tactic that I started implementing in my training in college after reading Running with the Buffaloes.
If you’re a runner that responds to mileage, consider adding a medium-long run in the middle of the week that’s about 75% of the length of your long run. Gradually increase a distance you’re comfortable with until you’re about halfway between a normal distance run and long run length.
Dynamic Stretching and Core Exercises
I very rarely did running drills in high school but started doing more while in college. Soon we were adding flexibility exercises and a core routine to our weekly program. Now I consistently do a dynamic warm-up and core routine almost every day.
The warm-ups prepare your body to run by increasing your heart rate and blood flow to your legs. Isn’t that what a “warm-up” is supposed to do? Plus, doing a real warm-up before a cold winter run makes it much more enjoyable!
Static stretching can be done after your run, but it should not be done before you run. Instead, choose a routine like the Lunge Matrix or Standard Warm-up (see link in paragraph above) to get ready properly.
Many of these exercises make you a more well-rounded athlete, less likely to get an overuse injury, and enable you to hold your form when you’re fatigued at the end of a race. Keeping your muscles loose and supple can also prevent trigger points that develop into injuries.
Hill Sprints – Max Intensity for Max Benefits
Hill sprints are a lot of fun, which is partly why I do them. I feel like Usain Bolt tearing up the track, except smaller and likely only half as quick. You may be asking yourself, “Do distance runners even need to sprint at max intensity?”
The answer is a resounding yes.
Hill sprints recruit as many of your muscle fibers as possible. It’s like weight-lifting for your legs. These intervals are so short – typically 8-12 seconds – that they’re considered alactic rather than anaerobic and teach your muscles to exert a tremendous amount of force very quickly.
At first these sessions have an inherent injury risk. After all, you’re sprinting at max intensity uphill. But after 2-3 of these workouts, they will help you prevent injury. The adaptations from hill sprints help you build stronger leg muscles in a specific manner. These are highly recommended for injury-prone athletes.
I first read about hill sprints in Brad Hudson’s Run Faster From the 5k to the Marathon, one of the best training books I’ve ever read. After incorporating them into my own schedule, I felt stronger, faster, and suffered fewer injuries.
Strength – Body Weight + Gym Exercises
I’ve always hated the gym. I’d rather spend 2 hours running on the trails than 30 minutes lifting weights. But over time, it’s become clear that to prevent injury, look better (hey, we’re all human right?), and maximize performance a certain amount of time in the gym is necessary.
Core exercises are one thing, but strength exercises like dead lifts, pistol squats, and lunges are immensely helpful for runners. Like Jay Johnson, I’m a firm believer that runners need to be good athletes before being good runners. If you can’t squat a good amount of weight, how will your legs hold up in a marathon?
I like to hit the gym at least once a week and focus on multi-joint, compound movements like bench press, pull ups, pistol squats, dead lifts, dips, and squats. Most runners don’t need more than this. Coupled with daily body weight exercises as in the ITB Rehab Routine and medicine ball exercises like hay bales, you’ll have all the strength you need.
A good rule of thumb that I use consistently in my own training is to do a dynamic flexibility warm-up routine before every run and a core or strength workout after every run. It only adds 15-30 minutes of extra training time to your day but dramatically reduces your injury risk. Plus, you just feel better throughout the day.
It took me almost a decade and a half to not only learn these training principles, but to adapt them to my current training situation and actually put them into practice. I hope you can do it much faster.
Like I mentioned at the beginning of this article, I want you to take action and implement one or more of these ideas into your running program. Go ahead, be a better runner.