Knowing how to properly train for a race can be a bit daunting. Whether it's your first race or twentieth, proper training leading up to a race can greatly impact the outcome on race day. The Running Cycle, presented in this post, will provide the basic outline of what a training schedule should include and in what order to do them. Basic examples of workouts will be provided for some of the phases within the running cycle; more in-depth workouts will be posted under the ENABLE page of my site in the future.
The Running Cycle consists of four individual phases: BASE, STRENGTH, SPEED and RECOVER. The overall training cycle, not including recovery, will last anywhere from 16 to 18 weeks and can be followed by runners of all skill levels. For this post I will be using effort as the unity of measure the intensity each workout in the above phase should be run.
Putting in a solid base of miles is the bedrock of a distance runner and sets the tone for the remainder of the cycle. BASE miles are the cumulation of many miles conducted over numerous runs and should be spread over a period of 4 to 8 weeks depending on your previous training. Those new to running or experienced runners coming off a long injury should lean towards 8 weeks of base. If you’ve been running regularly for the past 6 months or have just ended a cycle and starting over, 4 - 6 weeks will be sufficient.
Training runs for base miles can be as short as 20-40 minutes or as long as 2-3 hours. Base miles should be run at 50-60% effort; meaning, you should be able to carry on a conversation without getting winded. Beginning runners should start with the 20-40 minute runs, three to four days a week for the first 3-4 weeks. Then, increase the time or distance of the fourth run by a mile or two for the next two weeks. Gradually increase the distance or time of your weekly and long run by adding intermittent walk breaks for the remaining weeks of the phase. The weekly runs for an experienced runner can be 30 - 60 minutes with the long run starting at an hour and building towards 2+ hours. Follow-up at least three of your weekly runs during this phase up by doing six to ten 15 second sprints.
During the base phase it’s important to listen to your body. As you add on miles you will begin to feel tired and you’ll probably experience some aches and pains. Proper stretching, icing, and rolling of the muscles should be done on a regular basis. However, knowing when you should rest or back off for a bit can help prevent a major injury. For help in knowing when you should stop or take it easy for a few days, click here.
The STRENGTH phase consists of 4 to 6 weeks and is focused on building muscle, stamina and mental toughness. When you think of strength and building muscle, you probably think of weight training. Weights are a great tool to be used in building muscle; however, body weight exercises can be effective and do not include a gym membership. Runners should focus on building/toning the muscle groups used in running: arms, shoulders, abs & back, quads, hamstrings and calves. If needed, personal trainers are an option to help put together correct exercises that'll work the muscles needed. There is also great information on the web with different workouts for runners, if you don't want to hire a trainer or go to a gym (below are links to a few workout options). Whichever option you choose to build muscle, I recommend doing strength exercises at least twice a week throughout this phase and to continue doing them throughout your life as a runner.
Strength Workout Option Links
One of the best ways to build "running" leg strength is to incorporate hills into your training. Beyond leg strength, hill running can bring many other benefits to your running. Hills can be implemented on a standard run by choosing a route that includes multiple hills or pick one good hill and do repeats. You should do one hill workout per week during the strength phase.
If you choose to add hills during a standard run, increase your effort to 70-80% as you climb the hills then tone it back down to 50-60% effort. Try choosing a route with at least 4-5 hill climbs throughout - you may have to double-back and run each hill twice if there are not many hills in your area. If you choose hill repeats, choose a hill that takes at least 2 minutes to run up, if possible. Start by doing 5-10 sets of 1-2 minute runs up the hill at 70- 80% effort. Jog back down the hill where you'll then start the next repeat. If all you have is a short hill in your area, just increase the number of times you run up and the intensity. If you have no hills in your area at all, adapt and find a tall building, parking garage or some bleachers in a stadium and run up and down the stairs; or, you could use a stair climbing machine or treadmill if needed as well. Try changing up your hill workouts by varying the distance or time of the repeat and the amount of recovery. Click here for more hill workout options. While running up hills, focus on good form - stand tall with a slight bend, keep your eyes out in front of you (not looking straight down at the ground), drive your arms back and forth (not side to side - your hands should not cross the center of your chest), and increase your turnover by shortening your stride.
Fartleks, or speed play, begin to introduce speed into your training. Fartleks can be done on road or trail and are quicker periods of running with periods of recovery (walking or jogging) in between. Fartleks do not need to be structured, they can be as simple as running hard from one telephone pole to the next, then jogging to the next pole as a recovery and repeating the process five to ten times. Or, a more structured example workout would be 5 x 2 minute pick ups with a 1 minute jog/walk in between. If your quicker periods of running will be zero to two minutes, run them at 85-90% effort. If the quicker effort will take anywhere from three to five minutes, run them at 80% effort. You can arrange a Fartlek workout in a wide variety of ways. One way is by varying the time or distance of the quicker period run. Another way is to vary the number of quicker periods and the amount of recovery. Start by having at least five to 15 total minutes of faster paced running for the first 3 weeks; then, increase to a total of 20-25 minutes for the remaining weeks. Experienced runners, if you feel you need more minutes of faster running, increase the total minutes as you feel.
Tempo runs are the last portion of the strength phase and consist of a specific time or distance ran at 70-75% effort. 70-75% effort should feel comfortably hard - you should not be able to carry a conversation or speak multiple full sentences while running; if you can, you’re not going quick enough. Beginning runners should start with tempo runs of 10-15 minutes and gradually build to 30-40 minutes. Experienced runners can start with 30-40 minutes and build to 50-60 + minutes. Tempo runs help build mental toughness as you learn to hold pace while feeling fatigued. These are great runs to play with different mantras or phrases, such as “I won’t quit”, to help you mentally push through discomfort. Tempo runs should be done every-other-week in conjunction with your long run and will continue on through the speed phase.
During the Strength phase you should do one hill run and one fartlek run each week along with one longer run. The other days should be slower recovery runs of 20-40 minutes at 50-60% effort or light cross training. Cross training could include bike riding, walking, swimming, racquetball, Pilates, etc.
SPEED is the third phase of the Running Cycle and consists of 4-6 weeks. In this phase intervals, which are specific distances run at a high percentage of effort with periods of rest, are introduced into training. You should do at least one interval session a week taking the place of Fartleks and hills. Experienced runners can do up to two interval sessions a week. There are so many options when it comes to the the types of interval workouts you can do; but, for this post I’ll keep it simple. Beginning runners should begin with a set of 7-8 x 400 meters (one lap on a track) run at 85-90% effort followed by 1 - 1.5 minutes of rest; 3-4 x 200 meters run at 95% effort followed by 1 minute rest; 3-4 x 100 meters run at 100% with 30 seconds rest in between. Another option for beginning runners would be 2 x 800 meters run at 80% effort with 2 minutes recovery; 4 x 400 meters run at 90% effort with 1.5 minutes recovery; then 6 x 100 meters at 100% with 30 seconds recovery between each. Keep with interval sessions, such as the above, for the first 3 weeks. Then gradually increase the number of sets per distance.
Experienced runners can begin this phase of training with more intervals. An example interval session would be 10-15 x 400 meters at 85-90% effort with 1.5 minute recovery between. Another session would be 1 x 1 mile at 85% effort with 3 minutes recovery; 2 x 800 at 85% effort with 2 minutes recovery; then 4 x 400 meters at 90% effort with 1.5 minutes recovery; 4 x 100 meters at 100% effort with 30 seconds recovery.
Speed is the last phase before your race. In the last week before your race decrease the amount/total miles of running but keep the intensity of the speed work. For example, you would do on 3-4 x 400 meters at 90% effort and 1-2 x 200 meters and 2 x 100 meters at 100% with 2 minutes recovery between the 400s and 1 minute recovery between the 200s and 100s. You would not do your long run this last week as the race will take its place. Other runs during the last week should be shortened by 50% and run at 50-60% effort.
RECOVERY is the final phase of the Running Cycle and may be one of the most important phases - this phase should last at least 3 weeks. Once your race is over, it’s time to give your body a break and allow it to heal and recover; plan on doing no running or crossing training during the first week off. Instead, get a massage and/or chiropractic adjustment, your body may thank you. During the second week do 2-3 cross training days with one run of no more than 30 minutes - keep the intensity low on the cross training. For the third week, continue with the cross training for 2-3 days and no more than two runs of 30 minutes or less.
Three weeks of not much running may seem a little extreme; however, you and your body need it. Continual training can lead to injury and burnout - the recovery phase can help in prevention of both. Use this period as a time to re-energize and get excited about training for another race. If after three weeks you feel ready to just start running again or to begin another cycle, go for it. However, if you still feel tired and find your motivation to start training again lacking, take another week or two of cross training until you feel ready to run again.