Most running novices plot their early runs in terms of distance. "I used to be able to run X distance in school; I'm going to run that same distance today." Then they spend the next two weeks hobbling around like a broken grandpa. There's a better way.
It's natural that we think of our workout goals in terms of how far. In our daily lives we're typically just concerned with getting from Point A to Point B, which is certainly the easiest way to quantify your speed. But when you're starting out, forget all of that. Running is all about putting in quality time. Literally.
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At Team In Training, a group which trains athletes (often first-time athletes) for big races like the New York Triathlon and the New York Marathon in addition to raising awareness and funds for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, they won't even talk about distances for the first few months of training. Rather than focusing on an arbitrary distance goal, they take a more process-oriented approach. They focus on the duration of your run, instead of the length.
But why time? "First and foremost it's injury prevention," says Jason Fleischer, one of Team In Training's marathon coaches based in New York. "The damage that a four-plus hour run is going to do on your body could cause a lot of injuries." Instead, TNT has people get used to being on their feet that long, gradually. According to Fleischer, they currently see far fewer injuries than they did when they used to employed distance-based training.
The first running exercise they have you do is the Out and Back. It's very simple. You run five minutes in one direction. When your watch beeps, you turn around and run five minutes back. Then five minutes out and then five minutes back. It doesn't matter how hard you run or how far you run. Just that you run for that amount of time.
The worst thing about Out and Backs is that they're boring. You get the same half-mile (give or take) on repeat, until you're done. They're really not much fun, but they are extremely effective. For starters, when you're less stimulated by your environment, you focus more on yourself and your individual experience. You'll be more likely to notice when something hurts or is bother you, and you can adjust. It's a time to dial in on your form, which is especially important for novice runners.
You're also building up your cardiovascular system nice and slowly, getting your body habituated to being in a state of exercise for a sustained period of time. For most of us, it's easier to build leg muscles than breathing muscles. Yet, if your lungs are working more efficiently, they will provide your muscles with more oxygen, which will allow you to run better, longer. Think of it as long-term planning.
With Out and Backs you are shooting for consistency. If it takes you five minutes to get out, it should take you almost exactly five minutes to get back to the same point (which is why flat areas are preferable for this drill). As you add more sets, you will start zeroing in on your natural pace — one you can sustain over the course of several hours. Gradually, your speed will improve, but it's important to know your baseline for the next step.
Okay, so you've started to get a feel for your natural rhythm and speed, and you can run for half an hour to 40 minutes at a time without gasping for air at the end. It's time to ratchet things up a bit. No, we're still not going to talk about distance. Now we're talking about how hard you push. This is, essentially, Interval Training 101.
Work into your natural, I-could-do-this-all-day running pace and stay there for about 5 minutes. A good rule of thumb is that you should be able to carry on a relatively normal conversation at this pace. Then kick things up a notch. If we say your baseline effort level is about 50 per cent of your maximum, go to 60 or 70 per cent. Sustain that effort for one minute, then fall back into a effort level where you can recover (40 to 50 per cent, ideally, but listening to what your body needs is more important) and stay there for about two minutes.
Cycle between the one minute of 70-per cent and the two minutes of 40-per cent four or five times, depending on how you're feeling. At the end of each higher-intensity interval, carrying on a normal conversation should be pretty tough, and at the end of the two-minute recovery interval, you should be a chatty Cathy once again.
That's just one example of a very basic (and very common) interval. It's a formula, not a recipe, so you can tweak it however you like. You can try 90 seconds on and 30 seconds off. Or split it 50-50. You can vary how hard you push your intervals, running at 90 per cent, followed by walking at twenty. You'll definitely find your runs to be more taxing.
Interval training accomplishes a lot of things, but one of the key advantages is that it gets your body used to running at faster speeds. As you're speeding up, your muscles are working harder and require more oxygen. Interval running challenges your oxygen delivery system, which, over time, makes it stronger and more efficient, enabling it to get more precious O2 to your burning legs. As you continue along this path, your base speed gets faster, and your body will be habituated to working harder.
But wait, the race you're running is a certain number of miles, not a certain number of minutes. Eventually you have to think about distance, right? Yes, but assuming you've given yourself enough time to train, that will fall into place naturally. You do want to keep track of your progress, though, and luckily there's an app for that. Times a million.
Running apps like Run Keeper, Endomondo, or Map My Run, are all really easy to use. Fire them up, stick your phone in your pocket, and let them keep track of your route, speed, and distance. They all have the capability of giving you updates as you go, but resist that when you're starting out. Remember, you want to be listening to your body, not chasing arbitrary goals. Check your stats when you get back home. You may find it useful to use pair the app with a compatible heart rate monitor, so you can get some metrics to go with your perceived effort level.
After you've logged a bunch of runs you'll start to get a feel for the pace at which you'll probably want to run your race, and how close you are getting on the distance front. If it seems like you're way behind where you should be, add some more time to your workout, but don't put too much pressure on yourself. Even toward the end of training, Team In Training's longest marathon group runs are only about three hours.
"For the folks that are running 16 miles in 3 hours, they think, 'How will I ever get to ten more miles?'" says Fleischer. "A lot of people think that if they don't hit that 20 mile mark they won't be able to make it. It's not true." Time and time again, he's seen strong athletes burn out and have to start walking, whereas one of his first-timers (which makes up the majority of Team In Training athletes), whose bodies are used to maintaining a consistent pace, go steadily chugging by them.
Eventually, once your cardiovascular system and lower body are both primed, feel free to set yourself a distance goal, and see how you do. It's certainly a great tool for marking your progress, but don't get too invested in it, especially if your goal is just to finish your first long race. Stick with those timed, interval runs, though, as that's where you'll get the most bang for your buck. It also burns more calories than regular running, builds more muscle, and is one of the best things you can do for your overall fitness level. Good deal.
Note: When you're increasing the strenuousness of your exercise routine, there are, of course, some risks. Do your research and talk to your doctor if you have any concerns about how it might impact you.
Image credit: Runner from Shutterstock