If you're new to running and haven't already done so, check out my article Running for Beginners: Everything You Need to Know.
This week I wanted to go through the most important things you need to know as a runner who has built up some time pounding the pavement or trails. By now you've probably got some personal best (PB) times for your chosen disciplines such as 5k, 10k, half marathon and maybe even a marathon. Now you want to get faster and beat those times or perhaps step up to the next distance. Then this article is for you. So let's get to it and look at everyone's favourite.... Shoes!
Footwear: As I talked about in my last article, the main priority when selecting footwear should still be comfort and fit. However, now we are looking at improving performance it is important to talk about a few other factors to consider when choosing your next set of running shoes.
- The weight of the shoe: Now before you all go out and drop £££ on buying the Nike Vaporflys, let me be clear. You still have huge amounts of performance to be gained from structured training and hard work and that should never be substituted for things like new shoes that MAY improve your performance. That being said, research does indicate that for every 100g you shave off the weight of your shoes you can increase your run economy by 1%. Meaning it takes 1% less effort to maintain a certain speed. So a lighter shoe could help you run more efficiently and therefore faster by a marginal amount.
- Barefoot running: So with lighter shoes meaning faster running, we should all run in barefoot/minimalist shoes, right? Wrong. Whilst 'barefoot' shoes will be typically lighter than more traditional shoes, they will also have less cushioning or even none at all. For most runners there needs to be a balance between cushioning to reduce the muscular demand of running, and the weight of the shoe to stay efficient. There is also a recommended transition period of 1 month per every 20 point difference on the minimalist index between your old shoes and your new ones. This relates to the stack hight (distance between ground and foot) and heel top toe drop (difference in height of heel from ground compared to toes). As mentioned, a lighter shoe will typically have less cushioning and therefore, a lower stack height and, potentially, smaller heel to toe drop. This will increase muscular demand especially on the foot, ankle and claves, which is why a reduction in mileage should be applied to allow the body to adapt to the new shoe. This should be at least 1 month in duration. If you go from something like a 10-12mm heel to toe drop to something like 4mm, you may need a lot longer to transition to avoid injuries. This is why I mentioned the Nike Vaporfly. They utilise a new foam cushioning made from PBAX instead of the traditional EVA which is much lighter whilst still offering protection and due to it's increased resilience, it can return up to 87% energy, compared to 66% found in EVA. So in reality, it's only a matter of time before we see this material in our favourite brands.
- Heel striking is dangerous. Again, another false statement. There is no difference in the risk of injury between heel striking and forefoot striking. It is also a myth that forefoot striking (associated with barefoot running) is more efficient than heel striking (associated with cushioned shoes). For a lot of people who naturally heel strike (like me) retraining gait can take years of conscious effort which can be undone as soon as fatigue kicks in anyway. Not to mention, it feels comfortable for me and I have suffered ZERO injuries in my 20+ years of running. There is even recent evidence to suggest that heel striking (in cushioned shoes) is actually more economical than barefoot running in the short term. This is due to the energy return you get from the foam within the shoe - something barefoot shoes don't have. However, that energy return can be offset over time, once your muscle have become stronger in barefoot shoes therefore allowing more of that energy return.
I may I have given the impression that I am in the 'anti barefoot' crowd. But really I'm not. I use minimalist shoes when I coach and train in the gym as it is great for building sensory feedback within the feet. What I'm against is people claiming absolutes with regard to barefoot running, stating that it is the best way for EVERYONE with no actual consistent evidence to back it up. If you heel strike, wear cushioned shoes, suffer no issues at your knees and feel super comfortable. Stick with them! Could you be more efficient with a lighter shoe? Maybe. But I'd argue your training and losing a few hundred grams in bodyweight will do more for your performance. However, if you do suffer chronic knee issues and you've explored all other avenues of strength training, mobility work, and smart training then yes, a minimlist/barefoot shoe could help you get out of pain due to them taking load off your knees and placing it on your feet, ankles and calves. But remember, the transition period still applies.
For more advice on grip and terrain when it comes to shoes check out my article here.
Kit: I'm literally going to copy and paste my beginner article for this section as I believe this applies to almost all runners anyway. So now you've got your shoes sorted, it's time to get the rest of your kit. Again, as a beginner (or for most levels actually) it doesn't need to be complicated or expensive. Here are some suggestions on the kit you need to get started.
- Comfortable shorts/leggings/both
- Comfortable T-shirts/vests/long sleeve tops
- Comfortable socks
- Hat and gloves for colder runs
- Windproof/Waterproof jacket for wet and windy runs
- High visibility vest/head torch if running at night
It doesn't matter what brand you go for. They are all much of a muchness. I used to run in all Kalenji gear from Decathlon for years. It's well priced, lasts for ages and always did the job. I now use Alpkit gear which has been great, but I'm biased as I get discount for working there. Up and coming brands such as Validus and Run Through Kit are also worth checking out. Buy stuff that's comfortable and is within your budget. It all gets trashed at the end of the day.
What I will add to this is talking about backpacks/vests. You may now be increasing the distance of your long runs or training for your first ultra marathon (any distance over 26.2 miles) and so need to carry water and food. If you're running on arduous terrain far from a town or aid, you may also need to carry emergency supplies to deal with injuries or extra layers to account for changes in the weather. I live in the Lake District and whilst I'm a competent and confident runner, you never know what might happen on the mountains. So whether I'm running 6 miles or 20 miles, if it's on the fells I take a running vest and carry the following:
- Survival bag/emergency bivvy
- Spare long sleeved top
- Emergency food
- Waterproof jacket (if required)
- Hat and gloves (if required)
It might seem excessive, but I've literally come across an injured runner off track with no kit and borderline hyperthermic. If I hadn't found him when I did, it could have been a lot worst for him. At least with kit, he could have kept himself warm and protected from the elements whilst using a whistle to draw attention. If you're training for an ultra marathon, most have a kit list you must carry on you at all times, so it makes sense to train with such kit. When I did the Spine Challenger race, the MINIMUM kit required weighed 11kg!
Anyway I digress. Packs and vests. I use a Raidlight Ultra OLMO 5l vest which easily fits the kit list I mentioned before. Jayne uses a Salomon S-Lab 5l with the same success. Just like kit though, all are very similar and it comes down to personal choice of pocket locations and the fit of it over anything else. Check out innov8, Salomon, Decathlon, Ultimate Direction, Raidlight, Camelbak and Aiojie. You can also get waist belts from most of the above brands which are lighter but can't hold as much kit.
As I mentioned, my Spine Challenger kit list was extensive and certainly wouldn't fit in a 5l vest. Some ultra races are referred to as self supported i.e. you need to carry all your kit you need and in some cases all the food you need too. This is where backpacks come in. I've used the OMM Classic 25l for years including on Marathon des Sables and the Challenger. It's lightweight, robust and reasonably priced. Again though, shop around and try a few different brands on for size.
Bottles or Bladder? The last thing to consider with kit is whether your vest or pack carries water in bottles (usually mounted to the front of the body) or a larger bladder positioned at the back with a long straw to easily access the water with minimal faff. I've always preferred bottles. They're easier to fill up at aid stations and in the event of really cold weather, you can still get water out of them, even if the water freezes a little. With bladders, you have to remove them from the pack, navigate the opening system to add water and then faff trying to close it. In cold weather, it's common for water in the narrow straw to freeze meaning you can't get any water out at all.
Training: When it comes to training I'm first going to reiterate what I said in my beginners article as again, this applies to all runners.
Build mileage/distance gradually: One of the biggest factors that contributes to running injuries is doing too much, too quickly, before the body is ready to handle it. Take your time! Whether it be time based or distance based running, increase by a small amount each week. If you start to feel beaten up or run down, then you've probably progressed one or both of those variables too much, too soon.
- The majority of your runs should be at easy pace: Your main focus as a beginner should be developing aerobic fitness and endurance. Your pace should allow you to talk comfortably. If you can't, slow down! Speed will come later. If that means you have to walk, then walk. You are laying the foundations for long term health and running fitness. Trust the process and you'll keep injuries at bay and improve your fitness for a long time to come.
- Make sure you have at least 1 rest days per week: Running 3-6 times per week is more than enough to see results and get better at running. Even if you've entered a race and you feel time pressured, allow yourself time to rest. Training is a stress on the body that causes damage to our muscles and tissues and challenges our energy systems. Rest is where the body repairs this damage in order to come back fitter and stronger. Don't be afraid of rest days, they are just as important as training itself.
- Consistency is king: You don't need any fancy gimmicks. Consistent running is what will get you fitter and more resilient.
There are still huge gains to be made in aerobic capacity through increasing training volume and the distance of your long run. As with beginners though, this needs to be done gradually. What should be your longest long run? See below for GUIDELINES on what distance you should be aiming for in the last few weeks leading up to your race.
- 5k 8-9 miles - 10k 15-16 miles
- Half Marathon 16-18 miles
- Marathon 18-22 miles
- 50k Weekly mileage of 50-55 miles with 30-40% coming from a long run
- 100k Weekly mileage of 60-100 miles with 30-40% coming from a long run
So if you've not accumulated at least 400-500 hours of easy/zone 2 work in a year, there are still lots of improvements to be made to your endurance which will also help you run faster. This is because it will train your body to primarily utilise aerobic energy production at higher speeds, therefore minimising the build up of lactate within the blood. The lactate build up is what causes that heavy feeling in the legs and reduction in speed. So by improving endurance through easier, conversational running and increasing volume over time, you can slow down the feeling of the fatigue kicking in until later stages of longer runs.
However, there is another way to build endurance which focuses on what we call lactate clearance. There will become a point where lactate does begin to build up within the blood and muscles but we can train the body to become more efficient a clearing it quickly. This will offset fatigue kicking in. This can also be referred to as speed endurance. This allows you to hold those faster paces for longer periods of time. Before I delve into specifics, let me just quickly talk about another basic, but key training principle. Specificity. Simply put, to get better at a specific thing, you need to train for that specific thing. It is also accepted that the very specific elements we want to improve, should be implemented closer to the start of a season or in the case of running, close to your 'A race'. What that means is your lactate clearance workouts should be saved for the last 8-12 weeks of pre-race training. You want to maximise your fitness just before the race, rather than trying to hold onto it for months before the event and increasing your chances of injury. As an intermediate runner, adding 1 of these sessions per week is more than enough to improve speed and get that race PB. Here are some examples of a speed workout to get you started in each discipline.
5k: 8x600m @ goal 5k pace w/300-400m recovery jog between reps
10k: 6x1 mile @ goal 10k pace w/3-4 mins recovery jog between reps
Half Marathon: Run at 30 secs slower than half marathon pace for first mile. Increase speed by 10 secs/mile each mile for 5-6 miles
Marathon/Ultra: Run half the distance of your long run @ easy pace then add in 3-4 miles @ marathon pace, then easy pace for the remainder
Once you've done a couple of weeks of the above workouts, we need to look at progressing it. You should be aiming to spend more and more time at goal pace, with a reduction in the rest/recovery. Check out the progressions you can move onto when you're 6-8 weeks out.
5k: 6x800m @ goal 5k pace w/400-500m recovery jog between reps
10k: 2 miles @ goal 10k pace with 5 mins recovery jog then 4x1 mile @ goal 10k pace w/3-4 mins recovery job between reps
Half Marathon: Run at 30 secs slower than half marathon pace for first mile. Increase speed by 10 secs/mile each mile for 6-8 miles
Marathon/Ultra: Run half the distance of your long run @ easy pace then add in 6-8 miles @ marathon pace, then easy pace for the remainder
These are just examples. If you follow the progression of holding race pace for longer periods of time with less and less rest/recovery between, you will get faster. For the longer distance disciplines, such as half marathon and above, it's worth considering doing these sessions every other week, alternating with just a simple easy long run.
Remember Specificity? Well, that also applies to terrain, temperature, weather, kit and nutrition. So in the last 8-12 weeks of training, make sure you're training on the terrain that mimics your race, carrying any kit you need to have, in the weather you expect (where possible!) and practicing any nutrition strategies you may have. This means you'll be as prepared as possible. Check out my article on completing your first ultra for more hints and tips on fuelling for an ultra.
Finally, another consideration for training is de-load weeks. As discussed, increasing training volume is a key factor in improving endurance. We also know that we need rest to recover, and this can become increasingly challenging as your volume of training ramps up. Therefore, de-load weeks, where you reduce weekly mileage by about 30-50% of the previous week, allows that recovery to take place. You should incorporate de-load weeks every 4th week or every 3rd for older athletes. Then you should go straight back up to the mileage (or a little bit more) you completed in the pre de-load week.
Hopefully that gives you a good insight into what is required to improve as an intermediate runner.
- Run 3-6x/week slowly increasing distance week to week
- Keep majority of runs at easy pace
- Add in speed/tempo work in last 8-12 weeks of training 1-2 sessions per week max
- Train specificity in the last phases of training to be fully prepared
- Take at least 1 rest days per week
- De-load week every 4th week (3rd week for older athletes)
- Consistency is king
Just like the beginners, it doesn't need to be complex or complicated. Structured, smart training is the way forward. However, outside of what I've just talked about, there are also some other things you should be incorporating into your training to reduce the risk of injury and aid running performance and they are:
- Mobility work
- Strength training
- Other restoration strategies
Warm-up: Something even more experienced runners often neglect, a warm-up helps prepare the body for the work you're about to do. Spoiler: slow running is not a warm-up for faster running! We need to prepare the muscles, joints, nervous system and heart and lungs so they're in optimal condition to perform. It doesn't need to be complex and need only last 5-10 mins, but it NEEDS to be done. See below for a video on a basic running warm-up. Do this before EVERY run. The shorter and faster the run, the more important the warm-up becomes. Perform each exercise over a 15-20m distance. Focus on quality over speed.
Cool-down: Again, often overlooked by a lot of runners, the cool-down is beneficial to kick start the recovery process post run. Gone are the days where we need to be stretching for long periods of time after we run. However, static stretching can be beneficial in helping switch our nervous system from 'fight or flight' (parasympathetic) to 'rest and recovery' (sympathetic) by carrying out a few key stretches for 15-20 seconds each following a pulse lowering phase of easy jogging/walking for 2-3 mins. Focus on key areas such as the calves, quadriceps and hamstrings for your stretches.
Mobility Work: It is widely accepted that range of motion (ROM) is at the foundation of athleticism. The better range of motion you have, the more potential you have for efficient movement patterns.
The results of efficient movement patterns:
· Higher performance output
· Lower energy expenditure
· Reduction in injury through overloading of a particular joint or muscle
The use of structured warm-ups, mobility circuits and emphasis on correct technique all contribute to achieving the aim of improved movement quality.
The figure below shows the pyramid of athleticism. You will see movement quality is the foundation. Building performance on top of poor movement quality is a sure-fire way to limit your performance potential and increase the likelihood of injury.
Aim to complete these exercises as often as possible. They can be used as warm-ups for your strength training days, recovery post run or on your rest days. These exercises can help improve your range of motion and therefore, the efficiency of your running. Check out the video below. Perform 10-12 reps on each exercise circuit style for 1-2 sets. Focus on quality of movement over speed. It may also be worth looking at including some foam rolling into your routine either as a warm-up or as part of recovery on rest days. Check out my article here.
Strength Training: Whilst runners don’t need to strength train to get strong, they need to strength train to improve their performance. It is now commonly accepted that the stronger runner, with all else being equal, will be the fastest runner. Whilst strength isn’t a predictor of performance, we can safely say those at the top of their field have a strong correlation between performance and strength.
Running by nature is a repetitive movement, done over and over and over, all the while overcoming the resistance of the terrain and gravity to propel us forward. During this repetitive motion, we can experience huge amounts of impact forces through our muscles and joints. Strength training can increase the ability of connective tissues (ligaments and tendons) to absorb such impact forces, minimising overuse injuries on joints. In addition to improved ligament and tendon strength, it also improves bone density which can minimise the instance of stress fractures which can be common for ultra-distance runners. Posture also plays a huge role in running biomechanics. With improved upper body strength, we can ensure better postural alignment allowing for efficient arm swing, which works to keep the pelvis stable during each stride. Sufficient strength will also allow your body to apply more force into the ground to propel you forward. This means it will take less energy to carry out the same number of strides, thereby improving your run economy.
Strength training is hugely important to minimise the risk of injury. As mentioned, the body has to deal with huge impact forces over and over again which can lead to imbalances or compensations due to weak muscles fatiguing or lacking range of motion to move efficiently. These imbalances can lead to injury over time. Strength training through full range of motion can strengthen the key musculature involved in running, such as the hips and low back. All of this will help to minimise the build-up of such imbalances.
You should be looking to add in at least 2 strength sessions per week but I would argue 3-4 would be better in the earlier stages of training. Decrease amount of sessions once you get closer to race day. These are best done post run or at least on the same day as running so that your rest days are complete rest and recovery. See below for a couple of strength routines from my training book Strength for Runners. I have included an easier session (due to current situation) that requires just some mini resistance bands with the ones I use found here. However, to truly maximise strength we need to use external load through the use of dumbbells, kettlebells and barbells. I have also included a couple of my level 2 sessions from my Strength for Runners program.
Hydration: Dehydration is often overlooked when it comes to the implications for training, especially in an age of addiction to coffee. Try to hydrate before your caffeinate and aim to drink 2-3 litres per day. Simples.
Supplements: There are no supplements that you specifically need to take as a runner (unless you're treating a medical condition of course). However, some people may benefit from vitamin D, Iron or magnesium supplementation if they are really struggling with sleep or general fatigue and there are no other underlying factors such as lack of recovery or a good sleep routine. The most common one is a recovery drink post long run. I personally use Sport in Science (SIS) REGO post long run to get some carbs immediately but there are many great brands out there that will do the same thing. Another supplement to consider is fish oil. I wrote an article on the benefits of it here. If you're getting a good balanced diet and eating enough calories to support your goals, you shouldn't really need any supplements.
Sleep: Hormonal balance is a delicate thing and one of the biggest disruptors to that balance is a lack of quality sleep, not to mention the effects lack of sleep can have on your recovery. Aim to get 7-9 hours of sleep per night in a dark, cool room. Stop using screens at least 30 mins before bed in order to start to unwind or use an app like f.lux to alter the background colours of the screen. Find out more on the importance of sleep here.
Other Recovery Methods: I'm not going to spend too much time on this as the answer is very similar for all of them. Research is lacking in it's validity, however anecdotal evidence suggests some people see benefits from such methods. These include:
- Ice baths
- Hot/cold therapy
Now I personally use compression leggings post long run as I 'feel' that it helps. That could be a psychological thing or it may actually be doing something. Who knows. However, if you're thinking my training is missing one of the above, I must start doing it, I wouldn't bother. If you're already doing it and you feel it works, then keep at it. Nothing is going to aid recovery better than quality nutrition, sleep and correct training load with adequate rest days. If you must do something else to help with recovery, get a sports massage from a qualified therapist once per month. Simples.
Off-season: This is purely something to consider as a runner. I get that most runners NEED to run all year round for well-being etc, however if you find that you're struggling to keep the love for running or stay consistent with training after a tough race calendar then an off-season could be an option. Simply put, take some time away from running whilst enjoying other endeavours such as training in the gym, going on more hikes and enjoying the outdoors or spending some time developing cardio through swimming and cycling. The point is an off-season could give you the physical and mental break you need to develop the love for running again. It could be couple of weeks away from it or it could be a month or so. I took about 6 weeks off from running after finishing my first 100 mile race as I just wanted a break. I still trained in other forms and when it was time to start running again, I had a renewed excitement to get out on the trails and build my mileage back up.
When should you have an off-season? Now that depends on when your main races are and when you want to enjoy some time off. Winter would be a logical point to avoid running in the dark and cold, or take some time in summer to just enjoy hiking in the glorious summer weather (abroad of course). There are no rules, I just find it helps to keep your love for running for years to come.
- Make sure you have the right kit for all environments so that you can't use it as an excuse to miss your run. Raining? You've got a waterproof jacket. Dark outside after work? You've got a high visibility vest and head torch. All of which don't have to be expensive. Alpkit do some super cheap head torches that will more than do the job.
- Set out your running clothes the night before so it's the first thing you see when you get out of bed. Put them on, even if your run is later in the day (and you're obviously not going to work first) as it's another step towards being ready to get out the door.
- Don't compare yourself to others! This is YOUR running journey and you run at your pace based on what I talked about earlier. Track your progress and see yourself getting fitter and faster. It may be slower than others, it may be harder than others, but it's about you and no one else. Trust the process, and enjoy the journey of finding out more about yourself mentally and physically.
- Accept that it will be uncomfortable! You will feel sore and tired, that's part of training. However, soreness isn't indicative of a good session! You shouldn't be looking to feel sore all the time. Dull aches and stiffness tend to be something you don't need to worry too much about. However, sharp, stabbing pains or pain even when you're not running should not be ignored. Never run through pain!