The Running Lab: What is the purpose of your workout?

Updated: Mar 31, 2019


In my training experience, I believe that every workout should serve a purpose. If the run doesn't move you closer to your goals, why would you invest the time and energy? Let's test your training savvy. How many different types of running workouts are there?


That answer will vary depending on who you are talking to and which running theories they have studied. I believe that there are 5 basic buckets with variations in some of the buckets. The 5 main types of runs that I use in training plans break down to anaerobic power training, aerobic power training, threshold training, general aerobic fitness, and race specific workouts. This combination comes from Jack Daniels, Greg McMillan, my studies in physiology and personal experience.


Sprint Training or Anaerobic Power: This type of workout is a very short but fast burst of running most commonly used as a tool to help improve running form and work on quick leg turnover. Since the intensity is very high, the work to rest ratio is 1:2 or 1:3.


Strides are a great example of this type of workout. Strides are a great tool for post easy run form work. Strides usually take place over about 100 meters or up to about 30 seconds. Start slowly over the first 10-15 meters building up to about 90 % of max speed. Near the end, slow down over the last 10-15 meters and rest until fully recovered. Complete between 6-10 rounds depending on experience level.


The goal with this workout is to run with proper form. You are improving your neuromuscular coordination and making sure the right muscles are firing in the right pattern. The key is to be sure that you are fully recovered between repetitions so that you are always running with proper form. As your body hard wires this good form through repetition, you will find that it feels easier to run faster over time.


Aerobic Power: This type of workout lends itself to some of the more traditional track workouts or fartlek style runs that people are generally familiar with. The general goal of this workout is to improve aerobic capacity or VO2Max.


An example of this workout would be 5 x 5 minutes @ 5k race pace with 3 minute easy recovery. It is really important with this workout to properly warm up before you start the pace intervals. Your recovery interval should never be longer than your work interval for this category of workouts.


Threshold: This is a steady state run at or near lactate threshold with the goal of teaching your body how to efficiently clear lactate from the blood stream. Pacing for this type of workout should be your 1 hour race pace. Depending on your fitness level that could range from half marathon pace for an elite runner to 15k or 10k pace. Maximum time for this type of run according to Jack Daniels is 20 minutes straight or sets of shorter duration.


As your body adapts to this type of run, you will find that your overall endurance will improve. You can either do threshold runs as a continuous run or as cruise intervals. My personal favorite is the cruise interval option. A cruise interval workout looks like this:


15 minute warm-up / 15 minutes @ tempo / 3 minutes easy / 15 minutes @ tempo / 10 minute cool down


General Aerobic Fitness: This is your bread and butter easy pace long run, recovery run or general miles that you are using to fill in between quality workouts. To be successful running middle to long distance events, you need to accumulate some time on your feet at an easy pace to build your general endurance. This helps your body to adapt by making changes to your cardiovascular, musculoskeletal, and metabolic systems to support endurance racing.


Changes that happen in your body include stronger bones and muscles, an increase in cellular mitrochondria (this means more energy production), a stronger heart and lungs for improved oxygen transport, new capillaries for improved blood flow, and improved coordination between your nervous system and your muscles.


The easiest way to tell if your easy runs are easy enough is to run with a buddy and talk the whole time. If you get to a point where it is difficult to get full sentences out, you are running too fast. Length of easy runs can range from 30 minutes to 3 hours.


Race Specific Workouts: One of the keys to successful training is to utilize the principle of specificity. Some of your runs in the plan should include race pace miles so that your body is used to the feel of that pace. When you know from your training that your body is capable of running at your goal pace, you will feel mentally better on race day. You can either perform goal pace workouts as a midweek short run or as a fast finish long run. For the fast finish long run, use the first third to half of the run as an easy warm up and finish at goal pace. Finishing some of your long runs at goal pace helps to simulate how the later miles will feel with fatigued legs.


How does this work in training? That all depends on your goals, race distance, running history, reaction to training loads, ability to recover, and amount of time to dedicate to training. The mix of workouts will look different for each person based on the type of race they are training for. Each training cycle often contains 3-4 mini cycles with different emphasis. As you approach final race day prep the mix of workouts in your plan will change to ensure that you hit your peak right before the taper phase.


One really important to consider when selecting runs for your training plan is to be sure that you have a balance of work and rest. If you run hard every time you lace up you risk burn out and injury before you toe the line. Within each week, you should only have 2-3 quality runs mixed in with your easy and rest days. During your cycle, you should also rotate weeks of building intensity and endurance with cutbacks weeks for recovery.


Can you look back on your training and identify some of the different types of runs from this article?


Interested in learning more about specific pace workouts? One of my top recommendations for an easy read is "You Only Faster" by Greg McMillan.

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