The Three Workouts All Runners Need

How to avoid one of the most common mistakes among beginner runners.

Benya Clark
Oct 11, 2020 · 5 min read

Are Your Runs Too Repetitive?

It makes a certain sense to believe that the harder you push yourself, the more you’ll grow, but this isn’t actually the best way to improve as a runner. Running at your top speed too often will quickly wear your body down. The inevitable fatigue will reduce the quality of your workouts, and will likely lead to injury as well.

The better option is to actually run most of your runs at an easy pace. If you’re unsure whether your pace is “easy,” try talking while you run. At an easy pace, you should be able to carry on a full conversation throughout your entire run. You can also use running calculators to determine an estimated easy pace.

Easy runs should make up as much as 80% of your total weekly running, especially when you’re a newer runner. These runs will continue to improve your aerobic ability, but they won’t put excessive strain on your body like constant-fast running would.

It can feel tough to run so slowly at first, especially if you’re used to pushing yourself on every run. When I was a newer runner, I hated slowing down because it felt like I wasn’t really trying hard enough.

One of the things that helped me learn to stick with easy runs was a conversation I had with a friend. He pointed out that running hard every time was actually the lazy thing to do. It was a way to do what felt “serious” without actually taking my running seriously.

If you are serious about improving as a runner, you have to incorporate slow runs, even if it feels counter-intuitive. Ever since that conversation, I’ve treated my easy runs just like any other workout by taking staying seriously the goal of staying on my target easy pace.

Speed Work

Any good training program will have a mix of three types of runs: easy runs, speed work, and long runs. It’s only by including runs from each of these categories that you can reach your maximum potential as a runner.

I’ve always considered speed work the most fun type of running. It’s a broad category that includes a variety of different workouts.

The first speed work that most new runners should try are strides. Strides are short (30 second) runs at approximately your 5k pace. Since these are so short, they can be easily added to the end of an easy run. Just three or four strides at the end of a run is enough to start seeing big increases in your overall speed.

After mastering strides, longer intervals will also be extremely helpful. Many runners use running tracks to practice intervals ranging from 200 meters to a full kilometer. If you don’t have access to a track, they can also be run on a road.

An even longer version of speed work is the “tempo run.” These are runs of around 20 minutes at approximately a 10k pace. Many runners complete a tempo run once per week.

There are a variety of other types of speed work, but strides, intervals, and tempos will form a great starting base for any newer runners.

The purpose of this speed work is to improve your top speed. These workouts develop your body’s ability to process oxygen, increase your blood flow, and strengthen your muscles. You get a variety of adaptations that simply would not occur if you only ever ran slowly.

Long Runs

Exactly how long these runs should be is going to depend on a few factors. In general they should be longer than the length of your target racing distance. If you are training to improve your mile time, your long run might be just three miles. If you’re training to improve your 5k time, your long run would likely be between 10 kilometers and a half-marathon distance.

The only exception to this rule is once you’re racing the marathon distance or greater. Marathon racers typically cap their long runs around 20 miles to avoid injury.

Another way that people determine their long run distance is by aiming for a percentage of their total weekly mileage. A common guideline is that the long run should make up no more than 30% of your total weekly mileage.

It’s important to note that for beginners who are only running three or four times a week, your long run will almost certainly exceed this. (At three runs a week, you’d have to exceed it, since each run must average 33% of your weekly mileage.)

During a training block, the long run typically increases by a little each week. For marathons, the increase can be as much as a mile or two.

As for speed, some runners maintain an easy pace during their long runs, but most training plans recommend going a little bit faster. Your pace should roughly split the difference between an easy run and a tempo. You should be able to speak a bit as you run, but not able to carry on a full conversation for the entire run.

Variety Leads to Success

The best way to ensure that you’re getting a good mixture of these different workouts is to follow a training plan. There are many free ones available, including plans from well-respected coaches like Hal Higdon.

If you prefer not to follow a specific plan, another starting point would be to add a weekly long run, and one day of speed work per week. For newer runners, this is almost certainly enough to see massive improvements in speed and distance.

By combining easy runs, speed work, and long runs, you’ll develop a complete, well-rounded running program.

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Benya Clark

Written by

I’m a lawyer and teacher from North Carolina. I write about sobriety, mental health, running, and more. Buy me a “coffee” at ko-fi.com/benyaclark.

Runner's Life

Runner's Life is a publication for advice and stories from the intersection of running and life. By runners, for runners.

Benya Clark

Written by

I’m a lawyer and teacher from North Carolina. I write about sobriety, mental health, running, and more. Buy me a “coffee” at ko-fi.com/benyaclark.

Runner's Life

Runner's Life is a publication for advice and stories from the intersection of running and life. By runners, for runners.

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