Justin Robinson by Justin Robinson

If a little is good, a lot must be great, right? Unfortunately, this is the approach many runners take while training for a half- or full marathon. In terms of weekly mileage, though, more is an assured way to injury, burnout and/or slower running times.

A wide range of runners experience injuries that will take away time from training, with estimates ranging from 20-80%. And many runners experience pain that is greater than typical muscle soreness at some point during a training program (most commonly in the knees and low back). Among the factors causing injury and pain, which include poor running form, muscle imbalances, and a lack of prehab and rehab exercises, overuse is relatively simple to address.

It is encouraging to see that running groups and coaches are trending toward a “less is more” approach and recognizing that a quality training program outperforms a high-volume program. Granted, runners must log more miles while training for a marathon than for a 10K, completing a minimum effective dose of running produces better results while limiting injury risk.

Train With a Purpose

To avoid injury and progressively get faster, always follow a purposeful training program by setting a specific intention for every workout rather than aiming to fill a mileage quota.

Unless you are an elite athlete, your body can probably manage no more than two high-intensity training sessions per week (high heart-rate sessions). Thus, within the course of seven days, a quality program should include two high-intensity days, one to two endurance days, one to two strength days, one to two active recovery days and one complete rest day.

Generating a Quality Program (Why, How and What)

The initial steps in creating a quality training program are to complete a needs assessment and establish goals. This holds true for all programming: running, strength, fitness or nutrition. The second step is to develop a strategy for each day of the week (the “how”) based on those needs and goals.

A comprehensive running program should include training approaches sequenced in the following order, based on the day of the week:

  1. Strength
  2. High-intensity
  3. Active recovery
  4. High-intensity
  5. Active recovery
  6. Endurance
  7. Rest

The third step is to translate the approaches into workouts (the “what”):

MON: Strength training

TUE: Speed work (2-4 miles total)

WED: Active recovery

THU: Tempo run (3-5 miles)

FRI: Active recovery

SAT: Endurance run (3-20 miles)

SUN: Rest

In this example, the recovery runs have been replaced with active recovery sessions. These can consist of some combination of easy-to-moderate non-running cardio, stretching, resistance training, massage, yoga or Pilates. Ideally, plan workouts that tax different metabolic or structural systems on different days so that one system can recover while another is challenged. Doing the same workout three to four days per week does not provide enough variety for adaptation nor enough time for recovery.

The three most-important running workouts of a training program are speed work, tempo runs and endurance runs.

Speed Work

Definition: Speed work consists of interval runs performed at high-intensity, yet sub-maximal efforts. Speed workouts are typically completed on a track with intervals ranging from 400-1200 meters, with adequate rest. Note that speed is a relative term. For example, for a half- or full marathoner, speed is rarely anything faster than 1-mile pace, whereas a speed workout for a football player would include many short, maximal-effort sprints.

Goals: The primary goal is to maintain pace throughout each interval. The key is not to run the first interval as fast as you can, but to run the eighth interval as fast as the first. As you become more fit, shorten the rest between intervals.

Tempo Runs

Definition: Tempo runs are moderate-to-fast runs that provide a chance to increase fitness and maintain technique (i.e., improve running economy). Many coaches define tempo runs as “comfortably uncomfortable” running.

Goals: Find a route that is mostly flat or has rolling hills (save the steeper hills for interval workouts or endurance runs). Maintain your pace throughout the run or negative split the miles by running each mile at the same pace, or slightly faster (5-10 second improvement per mile). For example, if you are running 4 miles and each consecutive mile is 30 seconds faster than the previous, then you started out too slowly.

Start with a pace that can be maintained for about 2.5 miles. As fitness improves, maintain that same pace but increase the mileage, up to 5 miles. For experienced runners, a 3-4-mile tempo run pace should be slower than 10K race pace, but faster than half-marathon race pace. Longer tempo runs (8-10 miles) can also provide an opportunity to run at race pace during a training session.

Endurance Runs

Definition: Endurance runs are aerobic conditioning runs. Because the weekly program already includes two high-intensity running sessions, the long runs (usually on the weekends) should be aerobic and low-to-moderate in intensity.

Goals: These runs should be longer and slower than mid-week runs to train your body to endure greater training volume. Gradually increase the mileage or time spent running each week.

What About the 10-percent rule?

The 10-percent rule advises that runners should not increase running volume more than 10% from one week to the next. Truthfully, this is a rather arbitrary limit and may impede progress. An alternative approach is to build volume (or intensity) for two to three consecutive weeks and then back down. For example, increase mileage 10-15% from weeks 1, 2 and 3 and then decrease 10-20% for week 4. This idea of buildbuildrecover is referred to as a non-linear periodization model.

Regardless of your progression, do not attempt to make up for lost time. Attempting to cram in the previous two weeks of training into the upcoming week will not improve fitness, but will set up the body for failure.

When tapering for a race, maintain the intensity during workouts, but decrease the volume. That is, do the speed work and tempo runs while shortening the endurance runs and scaling back the cross training.

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