Steady running is the most important single training component for serious endurance runners. It looks like the least technical activity but it is also the easiest to get wrong. To a large extent the more time you spend running the better endurance runner you will be. Unfortunately, as they get aerobically stronger many runners push all their steady runs too hard with insufficient recovery. They are just lucky if they don’t break-down with over-training and/or over-use injuries. Often this can stop them ever building up the training volume to a level that gets the best out of themselves. Insufficient recovery also means that improvements to strength and coordination are never fully banked from more intensive workouts. The best approach in my opinion is to carefully manage the intensity of steady running by strongly differentiating between easy effort and medium effort steady runs and carefully controlling the use of the latter.
N.B. This guide mainly applies to a mixed training approach suitable for year round preparation for short and medium distance cross-country, road and track events. More advanced and specialised levels of competition and training usually require a more periodised approach, or a specialised programme which may have different compromises. Higher level middle distance track final preparation and competition periods, and ultra-distance events in particular may need a different approach. Effort levels and paces suggested below are for guidance only and some personal experimentation may be required to find the best result for you, but the principles should hold.
Types of steady running:
Easy effort steady running: To build and maintain aerobic endurance and enable recovery. (See also Shake-out, Recovery and Regeneration runs)
Medium effort steady running: To build and maintain aerobic capacity and improve aerobic endurance more quickly
Hard (and/or fast) effort steady running: Leave these to time-trials (including parkruns) and races
Easy effort steady running:
These are your bread and butter runs filling the gaps between races, harder workouts, and medium effort steady runs. Basically the effort level should be low enough that they do not hurt you. By doing a substantial volume of easy steady runs you will improve and support your aerobic endurance at the same time as allowing you to recover from the harder workouts and races. As you gradually increase your training volume the only limit is your time availability. These runs are perfect for double days, particularly as morning runs on workout and medium steady run days and because they are low intensity, shorter morning runs can be done fasted.
Effort level for easy effort steady running: Generally the duration should be less than an hour but once a week a long easy run of 90 minutes or more will develop your aerobic and general endurance even more effectively, particularly if the other training you are doing is hard. N.B. see my note below about replacing some easy effort long runs with longer medium effort steady runs if you are training for longer sustained distances such as half and full marathons.
With these runs, easier and slower is better. The minimum effort required to run with good technique is the level to aim for, and you should not normally be jogging. By running smooth and relaxed at all times, you actually reduce the risk of injury.
– If you have had a blood lactate test recently you are looking for an effort well below the lactate turnover point. In terms of heart rate monitoring aim for less than 70% of maximum.
– If you are running on the flat and don’t have the results from a recent blood lactate test or a HR monitor, I would add at least 2 minutes per mile (1 minute 15 seconds per km) to your most recent 5k race (or full out parkrun) pace. This increment is based on close observation of runners I have advised. At slower paces it is also important to maintain correct running technique and it may be necessary to run for less time until you have improved your technique.
Ideally, easy effort steady runs should be on flatter terrain, but if running on hilly terrain you will need to reduce the effort considerably on the climbs, and also try not to speed up too much (and not break stride either) on the descents. Jogging is actually ok for recovery on steep climbs because it maintains the forefoot spring and range of motion you need to run faster on the flat but watch your effort level carefully. If your plan is to do an easy run make sure it really is easy every time. It takes more self control to do that than pushing yourself.
Medium effort steady running:
One or two medium steady runs each week in addition to one or two harder workouts should be a staple part of any serious endurance runner’s base training. They take the added cardio-vascular capacity, strength, and faster pace coordination gains from the harder workouts and races and add much more specific endurance to your capability whilst still facilitating sufficient recovery. This makes a big difference to your ability to use the gains from your faster and harder training in all the predominantly aerobic distances from 1500m upwards.
For most runners two medium effort steady runs a week will be enough. Doing more is possible by replacing hard workouts and races, but is not as effective overall. In my opinion these medium effort steady runs are also more effective than incorporating additional shorter high intensity ‘tempo’ type runs, e.g. parkruns every single week, which although they are an effective training workout, should be used sparingly on the same basis as hard workouts and short races.
It is worth noting that if you are training for longer sustained races like half marathons or marathons you will gain additional benefit from extending one of these medium effort steady runs into your weekly long run once every couple of weeks, and taking out one of your shorter more intensive sessions.
Effort level for medium effort steady runs: In terms of duration per run I would normally recommend 60-75 minutes, or approximately 10 miles (16 km) if possible to reap the full benefit. Depending on your experience and current fitness this may feel pretty hard initially, so if necessary start with less and build up. However if the pace is controlled in relation to current fitness in the way described below and limited to one or two runs per week it will soon provide more benefits than fatigue.
The other key point with these runs is to try to relax and flow at the effort required rather than keep forcing the pace. It is essential that you maintain a smooth relaxed running style throughout. This will further improve your overall running economy and reduce the risk of injury from poor technique.
Speed improvements in particular will come from doing the shorter high intensity workouts and races properly rather than from pushing these steady runs. Run too hard on these medium effort steady runs in combination with doing high intensity workouts and you will definitely over-train quickly.
– If you’ve had a recent blood lactate laboratory test the right effort level for a medium effort steady run is between the lactate turn-point and lactate threshold. In terms of heart rate monitoring this is likely to be between 80 and 85% of your maximum.
– If you are running on the flat and don’t have the results from a recent blood lactate test or a HR monitor, I would add between 1 minute and 1 minute 20 seconds per mile (40-50 seconds per km) to your most recent 5k race (or full out parkrun) pace. This increment is based on close observation of runners I have advised.
– If running without some form of heart rate or pace monitoring, or in hillier terrain, try not to exceed the effort and breathing rate (especially on the climbs) that you know you can comfortably sustain for the full hour.
Finally, these runs will burn a lot more calories per mile than easy running and are at a high enough effort level to need effective pre and post session fuelling, so are best not done fasted.
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