When first starting running, I opted to follow structured training plans found online in order to build up to a 5k distance and progress onto a 10k. Once I’d hit these goals, I remember feeling somewhat lost and bewildered on how to begin training on my own. New runners can easily get swept up in the monotonous schedule of running the same distance, numerous times a week at a similar pace, hoping to keep seeing improvements. However, in order to train more effectively to reach those desired goals, there are things new runners should consider adding and changing in their plan. Here, I’ll share with you the staple elements that I would highlight to those near the beginning of their running journey to implement into their weeks. These are the areas I wish I had understood earlier on in my journey, probably helping avoid an injury or two, and have found to be the most effective on performance once regularly incorporated.
Initially, running alone will begin to strengthen some key muscles within your body as it adapts to this new form of exercise, but this will halt once a steady pace is achieved during your runs. Having muscle imbalances, often formed through sedentary daily lives, create increased work for the body as we run, frequently resulting in injury if unresolved.
Strength training helps to correct these imbalances and weaknesses, allowing us to run more efficiently with less risk of injury as our muscles perform longer before becoming fatigued. In particular, strengthening your core helps to improve your running form and ability to maintain this form for extended periods of time, resulting in more efficient running and translating into a faster overall pace. A study from the American College of Sports Medicine found implementing strength training to significantly improve running efficiency as well as the time it took for individuals to reach exhaustion at maximal anaerobic speed. Therefore, spending 20-30 minutes a couple of times a week making use of those dusty old dumbbells, or even your own body weight, could prove beneficial in seeing real pace improvements. Admittedly, and regrettably, it took me two minor knee injuries and a sprained ankle to fully appreciate the importance of evening out muscle imbalances through particular strength exercises to correctly support your body during running.
In terms of where to start with strength training, focusing on targeting the key muscles that keep you balanced and propelling forward when running is key. There are plenty of effective, running focused strength workouts available online; here is one consisting of body-weight strength exercises that can be performed anywhere with either no equipment or adding resistance if you wish. A final note on strength training is to ensure these sessions are spread out from your high intensity runs in order to allow your body to fully recover and make sure neither session is compromised due to lingering effects of fatigue.
Keeping it slow
Probably the most important area for new runners to get to grips with is learning to run the majority of training runs at an easy pace. I know for a long time, especially as a beginner, the concept of heading out the door for a run that felt ‘easy’ and ‘slow’ seemed extremely counter intuitive. If you’re not pushing yourself you won’t see improvements, right? Nope. Very, very wrong. Slow, easy runs build the strong foundations for a runner which is essential when you want to see improvements in performance and speed further down the line. Other types of training (discussed below) are built upon these easier ‘base-forming’ runs, with even elite-standard endurance athletes claiming to run most of their training during the year at low intensities.
Our aerobic system is our bodies essential energy system that uses oxygen and burns fats, proteins and carbohydrates. Improving on our aerobic threshold means we are able to run faster and for longer before crossing over into our anaerobic system, which cannot be sustained for long periods of time. Therefore, easy runs should be at a pace that is maintainable for extended periods of time and provides our muscles with plenty of oxygen, meaning it doesn’t feel difficult or leave you panting for breath.
As a new runner, using heart rate can be a difficult method to keep track. An easier way to judge if your easy runs are roughly at a correct pace is through the understanding that you should be able to easily hold a conversation with somebody throughout the run, talking in sentences without gasping for air after every other word. If you cannot, then you’re running too fast, even if it doesn’t feel particularly quick. This is an area I am still greatly improving on myself, struggling to run at a pace deemed ‘easy’ enough to be improving on my aerobic system. It is also something I wish I had more knowledge on when I was first starting out instead of continually pushing myself each session just to feel like “it was worthwhile”.
Varying your sessions
Following on from my previous point, it is still encouraged to vary up your weekly, or bi-weekly, sessions, especially once you have been running for a couple of months and are beginning to see improvements in your base fitness (sub-aerobic threshold). Generally, there are four main variables you can alter to change up your runs which are speed, time, distance and the resistance (e.g. hills vs. flat terrain). Whilst we all know variety is the spice of life and changing things up can increase your enjoyment and motivation for the sport, it also benefits our performance.
Alongside these base-building easy runs, your training programme should also try to incorporate some faster sessions. Short, sprint interval sessions, a form of HIIT, help to build body strength as well as develop better running form due to the automatic adjustments made by our bodies to help us sprint more efficiently. Research has shown athletes to reach higher gains in endurance running performance and improvements in speed after six weeks of applying sprint interval training compared to only continuous running, showing concurrent aerobic and anaerobic improvements.
Tempo runs are another form of higher intensity session which aim to build upon on our anaerobic threshold which allows the body to run at faster speeds before fatigue and lactic acid take over. This doesn’t mean they should be a flat-out sprint but at a pace that feels relatively taxing that you could maintain for around 60 minutes. Tempo runs closely replicate what happens during long-distance racing since they are high intensity with no rest-periods, highlighting the significance of this form of session as a runner progresses from fundamental training to targeting long distance racing. For a more detailed plan on how to incorporate Tempo runs into your training as a beginner, give this post by Runner's World a read which includes a four week progression plan for 'tempo-newbies'. Just remember to include a thorough warm up and cool down when embarking on any form of high intensity session.
Implementing these areas into your training is sure to increase its effectiveness and encourage greater pace and performance improvements than continuous running alone. Personally, learning more about these elements showed me many areas for improvement within my own training as well as the mistakes I made when first 'getting into' running. Hopefully this post has offered some useful insight, especially to those new to running, and helps at least someone to do some further research or see a new PB sometime soon. Let me know in the comments!