Do you want to run better, run faster, run further ?
Whether you’re training to run a mile, a 5k or a marathon, whether it is to compete or complete, it’s only natural to want to run to the best of your capabilities.
I mean, does anyone take up running with the goal of moving as slowly as possible from A to B?
Otherwise, you might as well stick to walking, right?
Here I am going to share with you a few tips from a former international athlete who trained twice a day, worked with some of the best coaches and regularly trained with athletes who won medals at major global events.
There are so many aspects of running and training that can be analyzed to identify where perhaps improvements can be made and there are more ‘hacks’ and tips online than you’ll ever find time to read.
And then you need to take the time to filter out the value from the fluff. Articles that tell you to learn to breathe properly or wear lighter shoes won’t really help you much.
The content in this post focuses on training activities that are commonly used by pro runners, but are not often picked up by recreational runners and could well be new to you.
More importantly they can realistically be incorporated into your own training, regardless of your current level. However, this isn’t intended as a training schedule, because how you actually train will depend on your current level of fitness, your goals and your time frames.
Anyone who wants to improve their running can use these tips – it doesn’t matter if you’re training for a mile or a marathon.
I think it’s fair to say that many recreational runners get into the habit of just running the same old sessions, week out and then wonder why they don’t improve as much as they’d like. To get better at running, you certainly need to just do more running and you will see improvement – to begin with, at least.
But if you repeatedly do exactly the same type of limited training, not only will you reach a plateau in your performance, your body will end up lacking a lot of ‘robustness’ because you use the same muscles all the time and neglect others.
This can lead to structural weaknesses that might not only prevent progression, but also lead to injury.
A classic example of this is the road runner who trains at the same pace all the time on flat, concrete surfaces.
Place this runner in an off-road or cross-country scenario and the likelihood of a sprain or pulled muscle occurring is much higher, simply because the body is not used to being taken through those different planes of motion – uphill, downhill, cambers, uneven ground, etc.
The following training activity suggestions will mix things up and add new elements of stress to your body that simple road running neglects. Not only will these tried-and-tested training activities make you more robust generally, but they will also help you to improve as a runner, whether you are training to compete over a mile or complete a marathon.
Remember, these activities, although used by pro runners, are not exclusive to pro runners and you can definitely incorporate them into your schedules and reap the rewards!
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A public athletics stadium with grandstand seating is the perfect venue for this type of session, so if you live near one, get your butt down there and make use of it!
Step running involves, er . . . running up steps.
You simply run around the stadium, but instead of running around the track, you run up and down the steps. And it’s an awesome workout.
If you don’t have a stadium near you, look for some steps in a park or downtown somewhere. You don’t need to find huge flights of stairs, but enough for 5-15 seconds worth of effort will suffice.
Hardly a secret in the running world, but often avoided, which is a shame, because running up and down hills, whether you incorporate them into a longer runs or use one hill for a series of repetitions, makes you stronger. Period.
Hill sessions build up leg strength and employ muscles in a different way to when you run on flat ground. They can be really tough and will also make you stronger mentally.
I can definitely attest to the benefits of running frequently over hilly terrain myself after re-locating from a relatively flat part of the UK to a hilly area. While I was initially frustrated that I couldn’t find a route that didn’t involve running up numerous hills, it wasn’t long before I’d acclimatised, becoming stronger than ever and was never daunted by the prospect of having to run up a hill again.
In fact, I even recall competing in a race after having trained on the hills for a year or so and after the race, people talking about the big ‘killer’ hill on the course and remember thinking, “What hill?” I’d barely even noticed it!
Many people use a set distance for their time trials, but you can also work to a set time.
Plan a route that you know will take, let’s say, 30 minutes for this example and then set off at race pace and start your stopwatch on a countdown from 30 minutes.
Remember exactly where you started, the exact route you take and where you are when the countdown alarm goes off and next time you do this session, you have a finishing point (and distance) to beat.
A note on the route: it does not need to be flat and in fact, the more varied it is, the better – road, mud, grass, hills and gravel are all good.
Having said that, I would choose a route that is not affected too much by weather conditions – the reason being, you want a route where the conditions underfoot are comparable from one day to another. If you set a route on a fine, dry day and that route becomes very muddy or slippery after rain and on a day you want to repeat the session, you wont be able to make a fair comparison to your original benchmark. It’s not a massive deal, because you’re still training, but it is worthy of consideration.
There is nothing revolutionary about time trials in training, but mentally, it is another way to approach a race-type situation within the context of time, rather than distance. Running hard when you’re not sure how long it is going to be before your countdown alarm goes off adds an interesting dimension to the session too. Give it a try!
If you are training to run the marathon distance, you are going include runs of, or close to, that distance in training (at least, you should). But have you considered running that far if you are training for 5-10k?
Actually, “super-long”, slow runs can be very beneficial to performance over the shorter distances too.
Physically, you may feel that you are not capable of this, but don’t let that put you off, because I am talking about just being on your feet – be it running, jogging or walking – continuously for 2-3 hours. It all counts!
From a technical point of view, what you are aiming for is a state where you deplete your body’s glycogen stores, so that it has to switch to fat metabolism as the primary energy source. This will test and train your body to run more efficiently on low glycogen stores and help to improve the latter stages of your races.
A word of warning though: take some energy gels or snacks with you for a quick sugar hit, just in case you can’t handle it. There’s nothing worse than being in an extreme state of low blood sugars 5 miles from home and finding that your body won’t get you there.
Been there, done that. Wasn’t pretty.
The benefits of cross-training have been acknowledged and accepted for decades, but still many runners shy away from it. Most people who train to run half-marathons and marathons on steady running alone are not generally very robust structurally.
Through repetition, their bodies become very well-equipped to run the distance – awesome cardio and lung capacity and endurance, but the limited range of movement involved in this activity often results in weaknesses elsewhere.
Knee instability is a common example, which can lead to pain and injury.
Cross-training in activities that engage different muscles and put your body under different stresses and ranges of motion can help prevent this problem.
Rope jumping can be an awesome alternative when injury prevents you from running, but it is also fantastic as a cardio, strength and plyometric workout within a normal training schedule when you are not injured.
This form of exercise also improves proprioception, which can help the development of a more efficient running technique.
You can use rope jumping as a session in its own right or as part of a warm up or a tabata/circuit session.
Circuits / Tabata
Circuit training gives you the chance to do a hard aerobic session and work parts of your body that are often neglected by runners – the upper body in particular. If you’re short on time, but up for a high-intensity workout, tabata could very well fit the bill.
Related: 7 Of The Best 10-Minute Workouts
Sand dune workouts can be brutal and will challenge you far more than a plain old session on the road will ever do – and I mean both mentally and physically.
Dune sessions can help develop strength, speed and endurance as well as your core body strength.
You’ll improve your fitness on so many levels and as difficult as it is running on sand, it is much more forgiving impact-wise than the road or even the track.
Using a flotation belt such as an Aqua Jogger and running in deep water is often used by athletes when they are carrying an injury and rehabilitating.
However, this type of training can also be used as a form of aerobic cross training when you are not injured.
For people who already have a high level of fitness, research tends to indicate that training with an Aqua Jogger is more suited to maintaining fitness than building it. But, this should not deter you, since it can be effectively incorporated into a comprehensive training schedule as a recovery session in place of an easy run.
Mentally, it can be a good break and physically, it reduces your total weight-bearing activity, which your joints will love you for. Remember: part of the secret of improvement is consistency. The most successful runners are generally those that can avoid injury and illness the longest, as it enables them to train more consistently.
Sprints + Press Ups
Yep – sprinting and doing press ups (push ups).
This can be a REALLY intensive session that pushes your body to its limits. What you do is sprint at around 90% of your max for 100 metres, decelerate and do 10 press ups. Then get up, turn around and run 100 metres back and repeat until exhaustion.
How many repeats you do, how many sets and how much recovery depends on your fitness levels and how much you like pain.
If you’ve never experienced the wondrous pleasure that is lactic acidosis before, this could be your introduction. Have a sick bucket close by.
Off-road running (sometimes called trail running) will take your feet and body through ranges of motion never achieved on a flat road. This is important, because it helps to make your body become much more robust and less likely to get injured – unless you step on a tree root and twist your ankle, so you need to take extra care and attention for any potential hazards when running off-road. With reward comes risk!
If you live in the city, getting to run away from the concrete and the traffic can be a great boost mentally, which in itself, can being some unexpected training performances.
This area of training is hugely overlooked by the average recreational runner, but there are big improvements to be gained from incorporating this kind of session into your training.
Plyometric training increases muscle power, which in turn will make your muscle fibres more efficient. The sort of plyometric exercises you should be trying include drills, such as bounding, high knees and butt kicks and for more advanced and intense sessions, you can try things like depth jumps, box jumps and hurdle hops.
They don’t have to be done in a completely isolated session and you can incorporate them into a warm-up or sprint drills quite easily. You can find some examples here.
Weights + Running
Many runners may include some weight training in their schedules, but I know that not so many use weights to overload muscles and take them into glycogen depletion through squats or step-ups with weights BEFORE a running session.
This can lead to some leaps in performance, but you really need to be careful, as this is an advanced form of training that can lead to injury if your body is not robust enough to handle it.
NOTE: This should only be attempted by runners in good physical shape already.
There are many other types of training you can do to both complement and enhance ‘traditional’ runners’ training. I know that many runners are scared that other forms of training will mess up their progress and goals, but that could not be further from the truth, unless the cross training you do prevents you from running the next day.
Back in the days when I was focusing on becoming a faster runner myself, I tried Muay Thai boxing as one of my cross-training activities. While it is an incredible form of training in so many ways, it didn’t work for me, because I’d often get the crap kicked out of my thighs, which led me to actually being physically unable to run properly for several days afterwards!
As I am sure you can imagine, this was sort of counter-productive, so I ended up ditching that particular activity.
Of course, if you are training to be good at running long distances, the emphasis should still be on running long distances, but don’t ever be afraid to mix the type training you do, as the more robust and versatile your body becomes, the more stress it will be able to withstand and that means you’ll reduce your risk of injury, which will then enable you to train more consistently, which is one of the keys to improving performance.
Go out there, train hard, mix it up, enjoy and let those improvements start happening!