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I didn’t get into running until I was in college, about a year after taking off my football pads for the last time. College is a time of experimentation for lots of people, only I chose being alone on trails instead of going to cool parties with hallucinogens, which probably tells you all you need to know about my popularity.
As I was finding my running way, I stumbled upon a book: Running Tough by Michael Sandrock. It listed 75 beastly workouts from professional runners, and over the next few years, I flipped through it so many times that the edges frayed before the spine broke entirely. It’s a great read by a fantastic author.
In retrospect, it probably wasn’t the best introduction to training methodology for an ambitious kid. Those pros had usually spent more than a decade getting strong enough to handle the workouts. All I had was naive stubbornness that could be confused for strength when squinting.
Stupidly, I tried a lot of the workouts. I did quarters like I was desperately playing the slot machines, fartleks until my feet bled. Often, it ended in injury or stagnation, since my body wasn’t ready to handle that sort of load yet. It took immersing myself in training methodology to learn that those big workouts are the final 1 percent of training. The 99 percent that comes before is way more important.
Commit to the 99%
Tons of runners follow a similar trajectory, thinking hard efforts need to be brutal to be effective. What I learned is that the big, brutal workouts are only effective if you first do lots of smaller workouts over a long period of time. You need to do the work to earn the right to do THE WORK.
A couple months ago, I wrote about some beastly workouts. But more important are the little workouts that make long-term development possible. Coolest of all: they won’t be so hard that the discomfort will give you the material to write a dissertation on nihilism (or decide to quit serious running altogether before you even get started).
The Benefits of Not-So-Beastly Workouts
Smaller workouts can provide stimuli that support adaptations of almost every physiological system that makes you faster over time. The first (and most important) is running economy, reducing the amount of energy it takes to go faster. Improving economy often requires faster running to be smooth and efficient, since straining too hard can recruit the wrong muscle fibers, reinforce neuromuscular pathways that are not as productive for growth and venture into less productive anaerobic energy systems.
Think about it this way. Imagine you have two workouts, 4 x 3 minutes fast and 15 x 3 minutes fast. Which would let you run faster with less effort? The answer is the little workout, due to reduced muscular fatigue and aerobic stress (plus less psychological stress). The 15 intervals would have other benefits, but learning to make faster paces more relaxed (physically and mentally) is not one of them.
The second big benefit of little workouts is reduced injury risk. Often, healthy runners can’t imagine being injured, and injured runners can’t imagine being healthy. But all of us straddle that line of injury just by choosing to get off the couch and put on running shoes. Staying on the fun side of the line requires erring on the side of less most of the time so you can do more some of the time.
That doesn’t just go for easy days, it also applies to harder days for most athletes. Doing too much in workouts can lead to excess fatigue and a breakdown in biomechanics that puts your musculoskeletal system at risk. So when in doubt, end an interval or two early today so you can keep doing runs for the next week (or six).
The final benefit is the most obvious: big workouts can suck. It’s easy to gloss over just how hard running can be at times, forgetting the moments when every cell in your body is screaming STOP YOU FREAKING CRAZY PERSON WE ARE NOT BEING CHASED. There is a time and place for pushing through those barriers, just don’t think that every workout has to involve a street-fight between your brain and body. Little workouts can get a lot of the benefits with fewer drawbacks. Plus, you can fit them in during a busy workday.
The ground rules for this article: each little workout has to be 20 minutes or shorter, including rest periods. With a 10 minute warm-up and cool-down of easy running, the whole run (plus time to get ready and do a sink shower) can be wedged into any one-hour block you have during the day.
- I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling VO2:
10 to 20 x 30 seconds fast/30 seconds easy
For athletes I coach (even ultra pros doing 100 milers), we rarely start a training block before nailing this workout. Most athletes will gravitate toward somewhere between mile and 5k effort during the fast portions, allowing them to spend a lot of time at fast paces without accumulating too much residual fatigue. Easy sections are at normal easy effort, rather than a slow slog. It’s a great intro workout because each interval is almost done as soon as it begins, and it can improve velocity at VO2 max, which is a good indicator of readiness for longer workouts for many athletes. You could even do this workout multiple times a week without much fear of breakdown.
- Sideways Butts:
3 to 5 x 3 minutes fast/1 minute easy
On a recent podcast, Dr. Shawn Bearden (a top coach and physiologist) mentioned that three minutes is an ideal amount of time for some athletes to optimize output before fatigue causes deterioration of workout quality. (The physiology is complex and needs to be its own article, so in the meantime check out Dr. Bearden’s work in the Journal of Applied Physiology for more details).
Anecdotally, I often see athletes bristle at intervals longer than three minutes (or self-select far slower paces than expected), especially as they are starting out with workouts. Do these intervals at an effort you could hold for 10 to 15 minutes for a strong velocity at VO2 max stimulus; do them at an effort you could hold for 30 or so minutes with faster recovery intervals for a good critical velocity and lactate clearance effort.
- The Final Countdown:
5/4/3/2/1 minutes fast with 1 minute easy recovery after each
On this ladder, I often have my athletes start around an effort they could hold for 30 minutes on the first two intervals, do the next two intervals around 10- to 15-minute effort and finish the last one as hard as they can while still staying under control. The descending ladder and progression of efforts makes it an easily digestible workout that is surprisingly filling for fitness. Stick to four intervals if you’re newer to structured workouts.
- The Futility of Our Endeavors:
4 to 5 x 2 minute hills hard with run back down moderate
Hill workouts are a great introduction to quality efforts because impact forces are lower on the hard portion, potentially reducing injury risk. Plus, it can help trail runners gain confidence on climbs, while preparing their legs for the eccentric loading of descents. On this workout, run up hard but relaxed, thinking an effort you could sustain for at least 10 minutes in one all-out push.
Here’s the trick: run back down the hill to where you started moderately, which will require your body to clear fatigue byproducts at faster paces and enhance the aerobic stress of subsequent intervals.
- Bump N Grind:
10 to 20 minutes moderately hard
Do this tempo anywhere from an effort you could hold for 30 minutes to one you could hold for 60 minutes. Just make sure you don’t go all-out and race the tempo, which will usually be counterproductive due to recruitment of the wrong muscle fibers and energy systems for longer-distance running.
The goal of all these workouts is to incorporate quality structured efforts into your running life without too much physical and mental fatigue. The not-so-epic days are the ones that create epic runners.
That story about Michael Sandrock’s Running Tough has a postscript that illustrates the point. Four years after I first opened that book, long after realizing that I wasn’t ready for those massive workouts, I was in the middle of a fartlek run in the mountains near Nederland, Colorado. The route connected the small town of Eldora with Caribou Hill, a 13-mile loop with a few accelerations at 6 a.m. on a Tuesday. As I passed through Eldora, a car came up beside me and flagged me down to ask for directions. The driver then asked about the run I was doing. I gave him the details of the fartlek and he said something that has stuck with me ever since.
“You’re putting in the work a lot like runners did in the old days. Keep that up.”
I was ecstatic. This guy clearly knew running well, and he was complimenting my Tuesday run, long before I had any race results or coaching background to speak of. Before heading up the trail, I shook his hand and asked him his name.
“I’m Michael Sandrock.”
—David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. His book, Happy Runner, is co-written with his wife Megan and available for pre-order now at Amazon.