When runners want to get faster they often turn to intervals as the speed work of choice to build speed. Just how important is it to run hard interval sessions in order to build speed for long distance running?
Running long distances requires predominantly aerobic fitness. Therefore the vast majority of your training should focus on training the aerobic systems. Running hard, fast intervals that train the anaerobic system is only a small piece of the puzzle. Focussed development of aerobic fitness will give you far greater gains over the long term. As a distance running focusing on 400-800m speed makes very little difference to performance or sense if you haven’t already built a strong aerobic fitness base.
While runners new to running speed work often see improvements in the beginning this improvement quickly plateaus. Training the anaerobic system will give you good short term benefits in terms of fitness, however running is a long term pursuit. Often runners see diminishing returns as they continue to put out hard interval sessions at the neglect of aerobic fitness.
For most runners there is a better use of your time. If you aren’t a professional runner and have a career and family to balance with your running you don’t have unlimited time to run. This time has to be spent training the fitness systems for the races you intend to run. For this reason you should spend most of your time building aerobic fitness and strength to get you through the harder parts of your races.
If you were to spend all your time building aerobic fitness by running easy miles you’d have most of your bases covered. Spread these miles over undulating course so you adapt to running hills and build strength in your legs. Throw in a weekly long run and increase mileage as you develop your fitness you’ll have a great base of training for long term running success.
Once you have developed an aerobic fitness base then utilising tempo workouts in your training will give you the speed and running economy your need to improve your results. Tempo workouts can be described as faster aerobic running, yet not pushing the run into the anaerobic. The goal of running tempo workouts is to improve your aerobic threshold, by doing this you’ll be able to run faster over time aerobically and run more efficiently.
Think of two cars driving along the highway at 100km/hour. One car is able to do this at 3000 rpm and the other at 2500 rpm, the more efficient car is the one where the engine is working easier yet still able to travel at the desired speed. The same applies for long distance running, the easier you are able to run at your desired pace the more efficient you are.
Long runs are vital in building aerobic endurance. Every runner must have a plan to complete a long run weekly. Long runs don’t have to be super long, they should be specific to the race you are training for. If you are training for a 10km race you don’t need to be running three hour longs on Sunday, however if you are running a marathon a 90 minute long run won’t be enough. You can certainly start at 90 minute in the beginning of your preparation but these will need to build as your preparation progresses.
Common among better runners these days is to run their long runs or at least part of at a faster tempo pace. Usually close to goal race pace for the long run. These can give great benefit in training the body to be able to adapt to the desired pace. Training this way can also give confidence. Knowing you can hit your goal race pace fatigued at the end of your long run builds belief and confidence. This is typically marathon specific training and not really suitable for shorter distance or newer runners.
Newer runners should focus on getting through their long run. Pace is not important it’s the time spent on your feet running, building aerobic endurance that will give you the benefit.
Running hills regularly is a fool proof way to improve your results and your overall running performance. Regular hill workouts will give you gains in strength, speed, endurance and injury prevention. Every runner will benefit from running hills no matter whether you started running last week or are a seasoned veteran.
You can include in your schedule a regular hill repeats workout or if your prefer less structure run your long runs or aerobic runs over undulating courses. Ultimately it doesn’t really matter , but you’ll benefit greatly from running these hills.
While speed work has a place in a runners training, for the most part this is for better runners trying to seek that extra few percent of performance from themselves. For us everyday runners with time contraints focussing on the training that will give us the greater benefit is a smarter play.