Having a purpose for every run helps you get fitter, faster, and more focusedBy: Meghan G. Loftus
For today’s run, how far are you going, how fast, and with whom? If you're following a structured training plan, you know the answers. But plenty of runners make those decisions as they head out the door based on the weather, time constraints, and how they feel. If your goal is to improve, before lacing up your running shoes, ask yourself: What is the purpose of this workout?
"If you can't answer that question, why bother doing the run?" asks legendary coach and exercise physiologist Jack Daniels. If you want to get fitter and faster, having a goal for the day—and sticking to it—will develop the physiological systems that make you stronger. (Search: Strength training strategies for runners) Without it, you risk doing too much, too little, or just enough to stay in a workout rut. "You run a specific pace because you're trying to achieve a specific physiological adaptation," says Janet Hamilton, MS, an exercise physiologist and running coach in Atlanta. "Respect the purpose of the workout."
Here's how to reap the rewards of whatever is on your agenda.
More:: How to select—and hit—the perfect goal for you
Run long and slow. These runs force your heart and lungs to adapt to working overtime, which beefs up your cardiovascular system. The prolonged impact strengthens muscles, joints, and connective tissue.
Once a week, run one and a half to three times longer than you typically run. Every three weeks, increase the distance by two miles.
More: Answers to all your running questions are inside the Complete Book of Running—get yours today!
Run one of three types of speed workouts: short, all-out intervals; longer intervals close to race pace; or short periods of faster running (fartleks). These sessions all recruit fast-twitch muscle fibers, which helps build overall strength and power, says Terrence Mahon, head coach of the Mammoth Track Club.
Short intervals: Run 15 to 30 seconds all-out up a short hill. Jog down, then rest one minute. Repeat twice. That's one set. Do two to three sets, with three minutes rest between sets.
Long intervals: Run 400 meters (a quarter mile) at 5-K pace. Jog or walk one minute. Repeat two to four times for one set. Rest three minutes. Do two to four sets.
Fartlek: Run one to two minutes moderately hard, then run three minutes easy. Continue this ratio for a total of three to eight miles, including a warmup and cooldown.
More: How crazy is it to attempt speedwork without forethought or preparation?
Practice your overall race strategy, including your warmup and fueling, while running your goal pace and/or running a route that simulates the course. Doing so will help prepare your body and mind for your big day—whether you're looking to PR or just finish, says Hamilton.
If you're running a 5-K or 10-K, do a goal-pace run of half the race distance, plus an easy one-mile warmup and cooldown. Half-marathoners should work up to four or five miles; marathoners, between six and 13 miles.
Video: Train with proper form and technique
Leave the watch at home and forget about pace or mileage. When life overwhelms you, doing a difficult workout can be dangerous, says Barbara Walker, PhD, a sports psychologist at the Center for Human Performance in Cincinnati. Stress can cause physical symptoms like muscle tightening, and trying to do a tough workout could cause injury.
Hit the trails. A 2010 study published in Environmental Science & Technology found that exercising in nature improved self-esteem and mood. Off-road obstacles will also force you to slow down and pay attention to your surroundings, says Hamilton.
More: 8 simple strategies to ensure that your running remains the stress-reliever it should be
Be flexible. Depending on your running buddy, social runs can be a breeze or a challenge. Slower friends can help keep your pace in check on easy days, and a few faster friends can help you push your limits and boost your fitness. "Running with friends allows you to go farther and sometimes faster because you're in the middle of a conversation and suddenly you're at the end of a run," says Walker.
Plan to do your recovery runs with slower friends. If you're joining someone faster for a social run, make sure it's not your longest run of the week. "Set some guidelines with this person up front," says Walker. "You can only speed up so much before you end up hurting yourself."
More: Want to really challenge your friends? Train together for a half-marathon!
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