The Best Running Workouts to Transform Your Training

Your training plan should feature a variety of running workouts. (Image: Deby Suchaeri/Moment/GettyImages)

Much like anything else in life, the best way to improve your running is repetition. Training consistently (at least three times a week for 30 minutes) will improve your speed, strength and stamina, especially when you're first starting out.

But once you've been running for a little while — say, two to three months — you might feel ready to step things up a notch. Incorporating one to two days of harder running workouts a week can allow you to run faster and longer and feel better doing it. Just don't them on back to back days — and keep your other running days easy, performed at a casual, conversational pace, says Carl Leivers, a running coach in Atlanta.

Exactly which running workouts should you do? Each serves a specific purpose, prompting your body to grow and change in new ways. And how you incorporate them into your training depends on your current fitness level and goals. For most runners, doing a little something different each week is probably the best way to become a fitter, faster runner. In the end, though, it pays to go with what sounds fun to you.

"I think sometimes people get so wrapped up in what is the perfect physiological balance of different workouts that they forget the psychological end of it," Leivers says. "If you're excited about it, then you'll get out there and do it and you'll get good benefit from it."

Read on to learn more about your options and choose the ones that work best for you — or to understand the workouts already on your training schedule.

Long Runs

The definition of a long run is straightforward enough — it's spending more time on the trail or road than you do on any other day of the week.

Once you hit about an hour of continuous running, your body begins to transform into an endurance performance machine. You'll grow new mitochondria — tiny structures within your muscle cells that produce energy — and those you have will grow bigger, Leivers says. Plus, you'll sprout more capillaries, smaller blood vessels that supply your hard-working muscles with oxygen-rich blood.

When you first start doing long runs, keep your pace easy; the challenge comes from covering the distance, not from doing so at an intense pace, Leivers says. The goal is to finish thinking you could have run a little bit farther at that same pace.

How to Incorporate Long Runs Into Your Running Routine

Start extending one of your regular weekly runs by about 10 percent every other week, drop back down, then increase again. For instance, if you're running 30 minutes most days, make one of those runs 33 minutes on one Saturday. The next weekend, run 30 minutes again. Then, take it up to 36 or 37 minutes.

Keep going until your long run is at least 60 to 90 minutes long. Of course, if you're training for a half or full marathon, you'll want to run even longer — as long as 20 or 22 miles, in the case of the marathon — to make sure you can cover the distance, says Denise Sauriol, a coach at Run for Change in Chicago and author of Me, You & 26.2 - Coach Denise's Guide to Get YOU to YOUR First Marathon.

Another option? Take a long run off-road every once in a while, says Lucas Larson, general manager and coach at Heartbreak Hill Running Company in Chicago. Trail running offers all the same benefits as a regular long run, plus it strengthens your ankles and offers a softer surface, which can reduce strain on your joints. And, it provides a welcome change of scenery if you regularly run on a treadmill or on neighborhood or city streets.

Strides

Running faster can get you fitter, but because of the changes in your form and the high impact of feet against pavement, it can also result in injury if your body's not up to the challenge.

Incorporating short bursts of higher-intensity efforts, which Leivers calls strides, makes you a more efficient, economical runner. "They're also going to prepare your muscles and prepare your joints for the increased range of motion that you're going to have when you're running faster," he says.

How to Incorporate Strides Into Your Running Routine

Two to three times per week, near the end of a regular easy or long run, incorporate four to six 15-second strides. Start at your easy pace, then pick up speed so that by the last five seconds, you're moving swiftly, though not all-out. Avoid straining or struggling; keep your body relaxed and smooth. Walk or jog for a minute in between.

Fartlek

No, it's not the punchline to a middle-school joke. Fartlek means speedplay in Swedish. True to its name, this workout is a type of speedwork that aims to make swifter paces enjoyable, sneaking the hard work in under the guise of creativity and spontaneity.

"What you're doing with speedwork is challenging your body physiologically, stimulating it to adapt and improve," Leivers says. Fartlek runs also help runners overcome mental obstacles, Larson says. "A lot of runners are control freaks," he says. "If something happens and they go off plan, they freak out." Fartleks in which a coach surprises you with fast and slow segments breaks this down and makes you more comfortable being uncomfortable.

How to Incorporate Fartlek Into Your Running Routine

On a regular 30-minute run, target a tree, light pole or mailbox a ways ahead of you and pick up the pace until you reach it. Slow down to an easy jog for at least the amount of time it took you to reach that landmark. Then repeat.

If you're on a treadmill or simply want a little more structure, try a four-mile run. Warm up with an easy mile, then alternate between 30 seconds at a faster pace and 90 seconds at an easy pace until you hit the three-mile mark. Cool down for a mile, and you're done, Leivers says.

Have access to a track? Try one of Larson's favorites: After an easy mile warm-up, run at the pace you could sustain for a 5K — that's 3.1 miles — for 60 seconds. Mark how far you made it. After a walking or jogging rest, run the same distance in 55 seconds. Continue taking five seconds off until you're running the same distance in 35 seconds. "You'll wind up working pretty hard to rise to the challenge," he says.

Progression Run

The concept here is to start out easy and increase your speed over time. This type of workout gets you moving quickly for a sustained period of time, which builds stamina, without the mental strain of trying to reach and hold a specific pace, Leivers says.

Another perk of the progression run is that it helps you practice the art of pacing. It's common to start these workouts out a little too quickly and find you can't keep increasing their speed. If this happens to you, chalk it up as a lesson learned and start out at an even more relaxed effort next time, he says.

How to Incorporate Progression Runs Into Your Running Routine

Start with four miles. "Run the first mile at whatever pace feels easy for you that day, then work off of that pace rather than having a preset pace in mind that you're going to hit on each of these miles," Leivers says.

Aim to go a little bit faster — about 15 to 30 seconds each — for the next three miles. You can also go by time, running 10 to 15 minutes steady, then speeding up every five to 10 minutes until you reach 30 to 40 minutes. You should finish feeling challenged but like you could have run another five minutes at your fastest pace if you had to.

Tempo Run

Minute for minute and mile for mile, tempo runs are among the most beneficial workouts runners can do. They improve what's known as your lactate threshold — the point at which your body switches from your aerobic to your anaerobic energy system, Leivers says. The higher your lactate threshold, the more efficiently your body burns fuel. This means you can hold a faster pace with less effort.

The trouble with tempos is that they're incredibly difficult to perform correctly, he says. Even experienced runners often have a hard time dialing in the correct pace — and staying focused long enough to maintain it. Faster isn't better in this case. You should be right at, or slightly slower than, your lactate threshold pace to reap the benefits.

To get it right, monitor your breathing, Leivers says. You should be breathing harder but still controlled; you might be able to speak a few words or a sentence, but you wouldn't want to talk about anything complicated. If you've completed a 5K or another race recently, you can use an online pace calculator to get an idea of your tempo pace, though it's not foolproof, Leivers says.

How to Incorporate Tempo Runs Into Your Running Routine

Tempo runs get a little bit easier if you break them up into chunks. After a warm-up, run a quarter-mile at a tempo pace — again, it should be comfortably challenging — then jog an equal distance. Repeat eight to 12 times.

Or, do 800 meters — a half-mile — with a minute rest in between, and repeat four to six times. Once you have the hang of pacing, you can try a sustained tempo run. Run an easy mile, then 20 minutes at tempo pace, then a mile easy to cool down.

Intervals

When most runners think of interval workouts, they picture fast repetitions for a set distance on the track. These types of sessions improve what's called your vO2 max — the efficiency with which your body can deliver oxygen to your muscles.

While this does play a role in how fast and how far you can run, it's less important than factors such as your lactate threshold, Leivers says. Plus, holding fast paces for an extended period of time increases your risk of injury.

For this reason, he refers to them as "the seasoning on top of the meal," rather than the primary ingredient of a running program. "The amount of mental energy, physical energy and recovery time it takes afterward are all high," he says. "It's a useful tool, but it's definitely not something to be rushed into, and even if you're a very experienced runner it's something to be used sparingly."

How to Incorporate Intervals Into Your Running Routine

When you're first starting out with intervals, make the fast portions add up to no more than a mile total, Sauriol says. After you warm up, run a quarter-mile at a pace she calls "need oxygen" — where those would be about the only words you could say. Rest for three to four minutes, then repeat four times. Try to keep your pace consistent between all the repetitions (if you can't, try starting more slowly next time). Each week or two, you can add repetitions until your fast running totals about 4 miles.

Intervals can be a bit longer if you like — many marathon runners regularly log half-mile or mile repetitions at this faster pace. Just make sure the amount of time you're resting in between intervals is at least 50 to 75 percent of the time it takes you to run them. For instance, if it takes you four minutes to run a half-mile, walk or jog for at least two to three minutes before you do the next one.

Hills

Running on an incline builds leg strength and power, as your muscles respond to the challenge. And because running uphill feels harder even at slower paces, it's a slightly safer way to do high-intensity running than intervals on the track, Leivers says.

Downhills pose their own challenges, working your muscles in what's called an eccentric contraction — where they must exert force in a shortened position. If you're not used to them, these movements can cause a significant amount of muscle soreness the following day or two.

Descending also places additional strain on your tendons and joints. With practice, however, you'll strengthen all these structures — which can improve your running even when you're back on flat ground.

How to Incorporate Hills Into Your Running Routine

Leivers prescribes two types of hill workouts to his runners, with two different purposes. The first, hill repeats, are the type that build strength and power. After an easy warm-up, run uphill as fast as you can for a short period of time — 30 to 90 seconds. Jog back down, then repeat.

The other type of hill workout is better for preparing for a race on a hilly course. Leivers calls them "organic hill repeats." Instead of heading up and down the same hill, find a three- to four-mile course that's full of inclines and declines.

As you run it, focus on staying strong uphill by maintaining the same pace, which will feel harder given the slope. Then run easy on the downhill. Preparing for a race with a lot of downhill portions, like the Boston Marathon? Try the reverse and run easy on the uphills, then focus and run strong on the downhills.

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