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Training for improvement

October 17, 2009

This is the first post in a series of a few, looking at what training techniques and theory I’ve found to be useful for my running. There is often next to nothing to back this information up and I’m not a sports scientist – or even a scientist – so don’t assume I know what I’m talking about.

Runners often identify watershed times for distances – for 10km it’s 40 minutes, for the half marathon it’s 90 minutes and for the marathon it’s 3 hours. These are aspirational speeds – the hinterland between the average runners that make up most of the race crowd and the elite athletes at the front of the field. This post looks at ways of breaking through these barriers.


Ask a runner how much they train and they’ll give you a weekly or monthly distance. For example, at the moment I’m running between 40 and 50km a week (about 46 this week, in case you wanted to know). Haruki Murakami, in his book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running specifically measures his training in terms of distance.

There’s even a machismo about the distance you train. Runners compare each other based on the benchmark of the distance they run each week. Runners often refer to needing to run 50 miles a week to get an easy sub-3 hour marathon, for example.

Distance in a training plan carries specific benefits:

  1. Long runs improve your body’s ability to manage long-distance races. The perceived wisdom that you shouldn’t run a marathon in training in order to train for a marathon is, ultimately, nonsense. Sure, it’s possible to run a marathon without having done a 26.2 mile training run, but there isn’t a cut-off point for the principles of over-training. Your race performance will benefit from training beyond the distance of the race – both because your body can genuinely manage the distance, and because of the psychological advantage of having mastered the distance before.
  2. Long runs allow you to focus on technique for longer periods. Over a longer period of effort, your body and mind become tired, and so your form starts to suffer. Getting used to running longer distances allows you to extend your focus and maintain a better technique over a longer period.

But does distance on its own really improve your performance? The simple answer is no. Look at it this way, if you were to sprint 50 miles a week in 100 meter reps, would you be able to run a sub-3 hour marathon? Similarly, if you walked 50 miles a week, would you be able to break through that threshold time? Maybe, but probably not. Distance isn’t the only factor at work here.


Most training schedules include speedwork. This is probably the most difficult thing to keep on top of if you’re training on your own – it’s hard to measure short distances meaningfully, and the variation of pacing and inevitable physical agony towards the end is more or less inexplicable to non-runners. Still, speedwork adds a few things to your training schedule:

  1. Increased lactate threshold. As you run faster than your race pace, lactic acid builds in your muscles. Recovery periods help train your body to remove waste products quicker.
  2. Increased capacity for speed. It sounds obvious, but running fast improves your ability to run fast… Speed stretches out your legs and allows you to focus more on technique.
  3. Improved recovery. Repetitions with short intervals between bouts of effort (eventually) shorten the amount of time you need before you can run again. This won’t necessarily be used in a race, but it can help you improve your stamina for distance if you modulate your pace.

Even so, distance and speed are not all that govern improvement. Many runners – particularly those with gym membership, but you might want to draw your own conclusions from that – use weights and strength training (after all, hill training isn’t long or fast). Surely this isn’t training junk?


Hills, weights and resistance training all require concentrated effort beyond the peak level of effort required for a given race. This is important because:

  1. Strength builds speed. Bulky muscle supports anaerobic exercise (think John Regis), but there are elements of distance races that are anaerobic. For example, the last 500 metres of any race of 10km or longer are likely to include an element of sprinting.
  2. Effort needs to be sustained. If you think about a 10km race, it might not be the longest distance you can mange (e.g. my longest weekly training run is currently 20.5km) and your average pace will not be your top speed. Getting your body used to peaks in effort will, over time, raise your capacity for effort over a longer period.
  3. Improved ability to manage anaerobic elements of races. Courses with hilly profiles require a mix of endurance and anaerobic strength – with hill climbs building lactic acid in your muscles, and flat or descending periods being used as recovery.

Translation into training

A three-point matrix for balanced training.

A matrix for identifying your training profile.

Ultimately, what this means for runners looking to improve their performance is that they need to achieve a balanced training portfolio. In thinking about my training recently, I’ve been considering the a model for improvement.

Within this matrix, 1 represents 100% relative to the target distance. Therefore, 2 in the matrix represents twice the distance/speed/effort of the target race.

Through this matrix, you can begin to map your training runs. This is useful because it starts to build a profile of your weekly activity. For example, a week’s worth of training might look like this:

Training profile for a long-distance training run.

Training profile for a long-distance training run.

Training profile for speedwork.

Training profile for speedwork.

Training profile for a strength session.

Training profile for a strength session.

Taken on their own, each type of training presents a very one-sided benefit. Taken together, though, they represent a balanced training programme, with both distance, speed and effort being tested above 100% of race speed each time.

Overall training profile.

Overall training profile.

This shows a relatively balanced training profile, with all aspects being stretched beyond 100% of the race. This should, in theory, build to an improvement in the race. Assuming this training profile looks like yours, you might want to consider adding a tempo run, which would help take the curve out of the Distance and Speed link.

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