Hey, fellow runner. Chances are, if you’re here, you’re in the market to create (or perfect) your ideal running training plan, right?
And, chances are, you probably know that running training goes much deeper than just running for the sake of getting in miles. In order to truly develop speed, strength, and endurance, you’re going to have to dive deeper than just running consistently throughout the week.
Consistency is certainly important — but achieving a well-rounded running performance background also requires variation; there’s no one workout that’ll help you improve every aspect of your running performance. (Just thinking about that feels exhaustingly ambitious.)
That’s why there are plenty of workout options to choose from; the key is to make sure that you understand what each type of workout offers and how you can best leverage it for your running training and goals… which is exactly what this blog is about, so let’s get to reading.
#1: Fartlek Runs
Let’s start with one of the funnier sounding types of running workouts — the fartlek.
The term is Swedish for “speed play,” which is a straightforward translation of what it is: playing around with how to run your speed workouts. More specifically, fartleks are a method of speed training that mix together fast and slow intervals without utilizing specific distances or intensities for each interval (otherwise, complete malleability).
Fartleks give you the chance to improve your body’s aerobic endurance without having to adhere to specific timing or pacing. While there’s nothing wrong with giving your workouts some structure (as you’ll read below), many runners could benefit from removing the underlying stress of hitting a specific time or distance. You can instead focus solely on developing aerobic capacity and efficiency without any distraction.
Since there isn’t really a set method on how to run a fartlek, you might be uncertain on how to get started… so here are a handful of examples that you could use as inspiration:
- Choose a running route and use your surroundings as markers for when to switch your pace (i.e., sprint to a stop sign, run an easy pace until a fire hydrant, then sprint again to the next tree, etc.). Using landmarks is technically the traditional way of running a fartlek!
- Alternate between hard and easy paces every couple of minutes (i.e., two minutes of sprinting, four minutes of easy running, three minutes of sprinting, etc.). Don’t fret about sticking to the minutes by the letter, but use them more as a general guide.
- Choose an overall time or distance and determine how many intervals you want to achieve throughout your run (i.e., over the course of 5 miles, run 8 recovery intervals). These can be as sporadic as you’d like!
This certainly isn’t an exhaustive list of how you can approach fartlek training, but it’ll give you a decent idea of just how varied they can be.
They typically serve you best during the early phases of your training, where you’re more geared towards developing that foundation of aerobic efficiency. Conversely, you could use them as moderately fast workouts to supplement tempo or threshold runs further into your training cycle. (And, for those days when you aren’t feeling super inclined to stick to the rigid structure of traditional intervals, the occasional fartlek can provide just the right change of pace — no pun intended.)
#2: Interval Runs
Now let’s review the interval run: the speediest run of the bunch. Interval runs are essentially the more intense, structured older sibling to the fartlek.
Running at higher intensities and faster speeds gives your body more opportunity to train its anaerobic system, which is ultimately what supplies energy to your muscles when your aerobic system can’t supply oxygen to your body at a fast enough rate… but running anaerobically can get to be too much if you have to keep up that pace for long.
That’s why interval training strictly focuses on running high intensities in short bursts. Traditional intervals involve running a specific distance at a specific pace, often paired with a set number of repetitions with short rest periods between each rep. Over time, these brief bouts of maximum running effort will help your body build resilience against fatigue and pain, ultimately improving your running economy and leading to faster running speeds and better capacity for high intensity.
Depending on your running goals and current performance levels, your interval runs may range in distance, but the overall structure will still have a consistent pattern. Here’s a generic example for what your interval runs may look like:
Running at a fast pace for 30 seconds.
Jogging or walking at a slower pace for 2 minutes.
Running at a fast pace for another 30 seconds.
Alternating this same pattern for a set number of repetitions.
Granted, these numbers are just placeholders — determining the specific durations, lengths, or frequency for your intervals requires more detail and expertise. (Although, it’s often recommended to dedicate about 8% of your weekly mileage to interval training.) And that’s where it helps to sit down with a coach or running specialist to determine your best pacing and distance.
#3: Tempo Runs
Phew… let’s take a beat and slow things down a peg.
Tempo runs are the perfect middle ground in your training: rather than running at a high intensity or sticking to an easy run, you get to train at a moderate pace.
Okay, maybe more of a moderate-hard pace (or “comfortably hard,” as most experts like to say). It’s a pretty specific pace to achieve and maintain, but for good reason: it’s all for the sake of lactate threshold training.
If you aren’t familiar with what your lactate threshold is, here’s a brief overview: when you exercise, your body produces a byproduct called lactate. It functions as a supply of extra energy for your muscles when your body can’t supply oxygen fast enough (just like your anaerobic system). The downside is that our bodies can often produce more lactate than they can use, and all that excess build-up can interfere with your muscles’ ability to contract and cause fatigue or burning sensations in your body.
But, there’s good news! Tempo runs were specifically designed for clearing the excess lactate from your bloodstream; they essentially push you to run fast enough for your body to produce and utilize lactate at a consistent rate, thus keeping your lactate levels steady throughout your workout.
Finding your tempo pace can be a bit of a balancing act, since you should still be pushing your efforts more than an easy run, but it should still be easy enough for you to maintain that pace for a longer duration of time. (If it gives you any frame of reference, Jack Daniels suggests that your tempo pace should take about 85-90% of your typical running effort.)
The toughest part about it is that everyone’s tempo pace is different, so it’s difficult to pinpoint an individual’s pace without more hands-on guidance. But, that hasn’t stopped people from finding some close (but imperfect) methods for measuring their ideal, estimated tempo pace:
- The fastest pace you can sustain for a 10 mile run
- The fastest pace you can sustain for a 10k run
- The fastest pace you can sustain for 20-60 minutes (20 for beginners, 60 for advanced runners)
Again, none of these methods are an exact science, but they’ll give you a solid estimate for what pace allows you to run as fast as possible for longer durations.
As for the distance of your tempos, there isn’t one set number you have to adhere to (again, it’s all dependent on your training needs). The only real requirement is to make sure you run that steady tempo pace without taking a break for the planned time or distance of the workout.
#4: Recovery Runs
If you couldn’t guess by the name alone, recovery runs are slower and shorter workouts meant for — that’s right — recovery.
Running slower may feel counterintuitive for your ultimate goal to run faster, but it’s all about the big picture; you need to ensure that your body has enough time to recuperate between all your other intensive training. Getting in enough recovery is especially important on the days following your higher intensity workouts, like intervals or long runs.
That’s one of the best parts to recovery runs; they allow you to recuperate without having to take a hit to your weekly mileage. While it may be tough to slow things down after an especially intense session, taking it easy the next day is imperative for preventing overtraining and injury.
Granted, just because you know what it’s for (and why it’s good for you) doesn’t necessarily mean it’s easy to do.
Theoretically, recovery runs should be easy, but it’s more mentally difficult than physically. Many athletes tend to feel antsy or unproductive when they make time for rest days, so recovery runs are a decent alternative to making sure you’re still moving on the days your body needs a bit of time to recuperate. (That said, that doesn’t mean you can replace all your rest days with recovery runs! Full on rest days are still necessary.)
But generally speaking, recovery runs are the easiest to execute — all you have to do is run a relatively short distance at your easy running pace. And just like all the previous workouts, “short” and “easy” is relative to your training plan and fitness level, so recover at your own pace!
#5: Base Runs
These types of runs are all about natural pacing and moderate distances, meaning they aren’t going to be your toughest or most challenging workouts. They are, however, the most frequent; base runs take up a majority of your weekly training mileage, since they’re sort of like your “average” running workout.
But being average doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its benefits. (Why else would you have to run them so often, right?) Just like recovery runs, the base run’s main purpose is based off its namesake: establishing a solid base for your running.
Base runs are what get your body accustomed to the biomechanics and habits of running — and the more your body adapts to the physiological necessities of running (i.e., lactate management, energy utilization, aerobic / anaerobic capacity, etc.), the better your execution.
While you’ll want to monitor your pacing to ensure you aren’t going too fast or too slow, you typically won’t have to think about how quickly you’re moving. In terms of distance, your base runs shouldn’t be particularly long; keep them relatively short to moderate in length. This will ensure that you’re still clocking in enough mileage for your weekly training without draining your body of energy from a moderate workout.
Since you don’t have a specific pace or time to hit, your base runs can be one of the most optimal times to dial in on your running form. Base runs are another method of training that might not feel super productive at first, but learning how to run (and how to run better) is all about working for the long haul; with consistent and proper practice, your body will undergo significant improvement in its endurance, aerobic capacity, and overall running economy.
#6: Long Distance Runs
You can think of long distance runs as extended versions of your base runs; you’re still going to run at that natural pace, just for more miles. The specific distance and duration for your longer runs will vary with your current level of endurance — and endurance is the name of the game, here.
Even though you’re only running at your average pace, adding that distance and maintaining the same pace throughout is a huge boost for your endurance. You’re basically training your body to adapt to longer durations of running to make sure it can handle that next race without a problem.
Plus, with more endurance and familiarity with long runs, your body’s also able to build better muscle and heart strength while also training its aerobic and anaerobic systems further. All of this will ultimately add up to more physiological and biomechanical efficiency.
And there’s more good news… determining your best long-distance distance is pretty simple: while maintaining your natural running pace, just keep going until you start to feel the exhaustion setting in.
We know, we know, it doesn’t sound like a perfect method, but it’s a simple enough way to gauge how far you can go with your current endurance (and an easy method for measuring your progress over time). This will very much depend on how much or how often you’ve trained for endurance before, so don’t beat yourself up if your long runs aren’t as long as the next person’s.
It may take a bit of time to find and adjust to the right distance, so it can be helpful to work your way up to the full distance over time. Once you’ve adjusted to the length, you can start implementing weekly long runs into your standard training regimen.
#7: Hill Repeats
Okay, we know — running uphill isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but people wouldn’t do them if they weren’t worth all the effort.
Interestingly enough, hill repeats are often used as an (occasional) alternative to doing speedwork. They’re typically best run in short bursts with hard effort, similar to how you’d run intervals, except speed isn’t your primary goal this time.
You’re instead meant to exert your effort towards the incline. Running intermittent hill repeats will certainly help improve your aerobic capacity and tolerance against pain or high-intensity fatigue, but it also comes with an additional opportunity to build explosive power in your leg muscles. Speedwork will also improve your muscles’ explosiveness, but you can imagine how pushing yourself uphill will place extra load on your legs and promote extensive explosive power from the repetitive strides on an incline.
(Plus, running uphill often means that you have the added bonus of running downhill, where you get to develop some extra strength for your joints, tendons, and quadriceps muscles.)
But as much as you definitely want the incline to create a challenge, be sure you aren’t overextending yourself by running steep hills. Ideally, it’s best to run on hills with a gradual, steady incline; somewhere between 4 to 6 percent is a moderate enough increase to work your muscles without going overboard.
As for the structure of your repeats, follow a similar pattern as you would with intervals: keep your sprints around 45 seconds long, and break them up with 2 minute recovery bouts between every repetition. It’s typically suggested to run 10 reps, so you can reserve the rest of your route for a thorough warm-up and cool-down run.
#8: Progression Runs
Last but not least, let’s review the progression run and why it’s the perfect solution for achieving the “best of both worlds” in one workout session.
Here’s the basic idea: you start out slow (like easy pace slow) and gradually build up your speed over the course of your run so you wrap up your workout at a much faster pace. How fast you end up running by the end of it is kind of up to you; you could build up to a marathon pace, or finish up at a high intensity pace like you would for your threshold or interval runs.
The primary benefit to running with progressive pacing is that you get to train both your aerobic and anaerobic systems in one run — and, as long as you’re really pacing yourself, you won’t have to worry about overworking your body or needing the same amount of time to recover as you would after doing some full-on speedwork.
And while running with a gradual increase in speed doesn’t sound all that hard, achieving a steady, progressive pace can be quite the mental feat. Most runners have the tendency to go all in when they dive into training, and learning how to mold your pacing habits to specific workouts can feel like a drag… but progressive runs are great for emphasizing the focus on your pace and strengthening the discipline to control your running speed.
The time or distance that you run is the dealer’s choice; pretty much all you need to do is ensure you have that element of progression, and that you do it gradually enough. As a rough example, you could run 4 miles at a natural pace, 2 at a marathon pace, and 1 at an interval pace.
If you’re particularly antsy with slower running, or you tend to push yourself a little too much for your fast pace, you could benefit greatly from regularly implementing progression runs (even shorter ones) into your training plan. And even if you do have a decent handle on pacing, it doesn’t hurt to throw in a “two-birds-with-one-stone” type of run for a well-rounded training week.
Get to Running!
And there you have it: 8 tried-and-true running workouts, and why each of them are worth including somewhere within your training plan.
Regardless of what kind of runner you are, if you’re looking to improve your performance, revisit your training plan and assess what runs you’re currently doing and how they may (or may not) be the most beneficial for your current goals and capacity. But even if you aren’t dead set on beating your next PR or figuring out how to maximize your running efficiency, including a variety of workouts will prevent your training from feeling stagnant and keep you motivated to take on new challenges.
So what are you waiting for?? Lace on your shoes and get to varying those workouts!