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Three Runs Per Week: The Secret To Success

  • By Neil Cook
  • Published July 31, 2013
Photo: Shutterstock

There are three key workouts that every runner should do each week. These are essential, must-do workouts. All of your other runs are optional. In fact, if you want to, you can create a training plan that includes only your three weekly key workouts and no other running.

The first run of the week is a speed session. Follow that up with a strength workout on Thursday evenings. And end the week on either Saturday or Sunday with a long run.

If you are a triathlete, this leaves lots of time to swim and bike. If you are just running, this leaves lot of time for recovery.

If you are a compulsive endurance athlete and cannot bear the thought of only running three times a week, here is your fourth workout: Do a tempo run on Wednesdays.

You might think that such an approach would make training easy. In fact, it makes it harder.

Most runners are middle-of-the-road runners. That’s why they’re middle-of-the-pack runners. They run too slowly to get faster and too fast to recover and get stronger. They tend to run everything down the middle. They don’t improve, and they don’t recover. That’s why I recommend doing only three runs a week. There’s time to recover and then run hard (again).

Those slow aerobic runs take an awful lot of time, train your mind to avoid pain, and slow you down. They keep you in your comfort zone. That’s great if you want to race in your comfort zone. But most people at least talk about running faster. You need to embrace the pain in order to get faster. Training in your comfort zone will keep you racing in your comfort zone. Of course we all start pushing beyond our comfort zone, but most of us reach a point where we decide we can’t get any faster, don’t want to work any harder, or just want to enjoy the moderate success we’ve achieved.

It’s important to warm up well for all of your key workouts. Do drills that elevate your heart and respiration rates, work your range of motion for running, and most importantly, mimic the running stride you need to use throughout the workout and during all of your runs (for example, hopping and touching one knee to the opposite elbow).

Speed Work
My approach to speed work consists of short, very intense efforts, typically not longer than 30 seconds apiece. Your shortest, fastest speed intervals can be 50-meter sprints. The longest, slowest speed session I prescribe is three by a mile at 10K pace with two surges during each 400 meters. Jog during your recovery, or better yet do butt kicks as recovery. The objective is twofold: learn to move your feet very quickly, and learn to use efficient running technique. Once every four to six weeks I have my athletes do a 3 x 1-mile time trial as a benchmark of improvement.

An entire speed workout, including warm-up, cool-down and recovery periods, takes 60 to 75 minutes.

Strength Work
Our strength work is lots of hill repeats. There is no better method of building running strength than running hills.

We do three types of hill work. The first involves running fast up a 200m hill and then run fast back down the same hill. These up-and-down intervals are done in sets of one to four. After each set, the runners do a 200-400m jog or 200-400m of butt kicks. We always keep moving and always come back to a drill that improves our technique. The complete workout comprises eight intervals with the following set counts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 4, 3, 2, 1.

The second hill session is a five-mile time trial on rolling hills. We focus on finishing faster than our average pace. It is critical not to slow down during this type of workout, so you may have to start out slower than you think you should.

The final hill workout is skipping. Skip up that 400m hill, turn around and do butt kicks on the way down. This is a very difficult workout, but it produces tremendous benefits in explosive strength and in running efficiency.

Long Runs
Our long runs always finish faster than they start and faster than the average pace we hope to run in our goal race. We break the long run into segments — two, three or four — and set a goal pace for each segment. The idea is to learn to run negative splits — that is, to finish faster than you start. We use this type of long run to build pace awareness, build mental toughness and improve fitness.

For example, a runner training to run a 1:40 half marathon might do a 15-mile long run with 5 miles at 8:00/mile, 5 miles at 7:45 per mile, and 5 miles at 7:30 per mile.

While we record pace and heart rate during these (and all runs) we avoid looking at our watches during the run. Instead we rely on our “feel” for the pace.

Tempo Runs
The term “tempo run” evokes all sorts of ideas. However, it’s really about picking a distance that is shorter than your goal race and running it faster than your goal pace. This would be your fourth run of the week. You do not need to, nor should you do a tempo run every week. Your level of recovery should determine whether you do this run. When you are well recovered on Wednesday, do a tempo run.

Finish all your workouts with a cooldown that will gradually bring your heart rate and your respiration rate back down to resting levels. This is also the time to do drills that will strengthen the muscles we rarely use during running.

About The Author: Neil Cook is a coach with the Asphalt Green Tri Club in New York City.

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