Improve your running fitness in 2021

There are many areas which will influence our running fitness. We obviously need to build our endurance but we also need to incorporate speed work to produce the best performance benefits. Essentially we want to improve our bodies’ ability to perform at higher intensities and at a greater work rate. To achieve this we need to work through a range of different exercise intensities and durations. And we must allow for adequate recovery throughout our training.

Alongside ‘base’ training and interval workouts, running form and muscular strength are two very important components of training. These are often neglected by runners. We need to achieve the right balance between these training modalities to have the best impact on performance. Understanding the benefit of each and knowing how to incorporate these into your training will allow you to maximise your performance and reduce the likelihood of injury.

Essentially we want to improve our bodies’ ability to perform at higher intensities and at a greater work rate. To achieve this we need to work through a range of different exercise intensities and durations.

Make a plan

Once you have set yourself a running goal you can focus on the structure of your training. It is best practice to identify your strengths and weaknesses first, highlighting areas for improvement. You can then structure a plan to build on your strengths whilst supporting your weaknesses. Following a plan is going to keep your training more structured and keep you motivated to hit your fitness goals.

Have a look at ‘How to set effective running goals’ to push you in the right direction.

So let’s take a look at each of the four pillars of running training in turn.

Endurance work or base training

Purpose & Benefits

This is the foundation of your training – it involves running at a slow/easy pace to turn you into a more economical runner. 

The bigger the engine the faster the car”. Ongoing endurance (or base) work will improve your body capacity to run and hold faster pace when you’ll introduce speed to your training.  

Photo by ASICS

The importance of building an aerobic base cannot be overlooked when planning your training. Becoming more aerobically ‘fit’ is going to allow you to consume and utilise oxygen more efficiently. This occurs due to enhancements of your capillary and mitochondrial density, which allows your body to break down fat and carbohydrates more efficiently for consumption and use. Base-running also trains your body to use fat as the main fuel. This makes you more economical and reduces the effects of fatigue. Essentially, this will allow you to exercise at a greater intensity for a longer duration. It delays your body seeking energy from less efficient areas and causing faster fatigue. 

Plan your session

Endurance work, or base training, should be the cornerstone of your training. The majority of your training should be completed at a fairly comfortable pace. This type of training fully encompasses the concept “going slow to get fast”. Long, slow miles are going to have a huge benefit when you start to incorporate speed work into your training and when race time comes about. Pace wise, you should maintain an intensity of about 60-75% of your maximum heart rate, or a pace at which you can comfortably hold a conversation.

Including speed sessions can be daunting, especially if you’re new to running. Why not start with one session, and build from there.

Speed training

Purpose & Benefits

This is how you’ll secure your next PB. Many types of speed sessions exist, allowing you to improve your ‘race pace’ and consequently run your targeted distance quicker than before. 

Note that you do not need to run the distance you’re training for to improve your speed. If you’re trying to beat your 5k time, running a fast 5k every week won’t necessarily help you achieve your goal.

Photo by HOKA ONE ONE

Base training clearly has a huge impact on your aerobic capacity, but you cannot get faster without building up your speed. Speed training is where we start to introduce tempo or interval sessions. These sessions have shown to impact your ‘race pace’ most effectively. They have direct benefits to your aerobic and anaerobic energy systems; examples include tempo and interval sessions. During intervals sessions you work at an intensity above your standard comfortable work rate and repeatedly produce intense efforts followed by a period of rest. Tempo efforts require a sustainable uncomfortable pace, one in which you can only hold for an hour, maximum. 

Please read ‘How to run at race pace: The science and benefits behind intervals and tempo runs’ for a more in-depth review.

Plan your session

In a nutshell, speed training will allow you to run at a greater intensity for longer durations. The way athletes incorporate sessions into their training varies, and there is not one best-method to follow. Including speed sessions can be daunting, especially if you’re new to running. Why not start with one session, and build from there. I would advise trying to complete one speed session per week to really start seeing a benefit. Once you start understanding your capabilities and weaknesses, you can adapt and make-up your own workouts to really benefit your running and fitness. 

From an injury perspective, strength training builds the structures in the muscles and tendons, whilst improving the flexibility of ligaments. This allows us to be more robust against any potential strains or tears, and improves joint stability and control.

Strength and conditioning

Purpose & Benefits

Strength and conditioning exercises are key for runners to stay injury free but also to become more efficient and economical. Regular S&C work will consequently make running easier!  

Strength training should be a fundamental aspect of your training. There is an abundance of research detailing the benefit strength training can have on your sporting performance and reducing the likelihood of injury. The thought of adding in more training to the already daunting volume of training you may have ahead of you can be tiring in itself. However, it really is worth adding in some weekly strength sessions to keep your body in top condition.

Photo by HOKA ONE ONE

From an injury perspective, strength training builds the structures in the muscles and tendons, whilst improving the flexibility of ligaments. This allows us to be more robust against any potential strains or tears, and improves joint stability and control. Within a performance aspect, stronger athletes are more economical and utilise less energy at submaximal intensities. And make you more prepared to deal with and recover from exercise. 

Plan your session

These sessions do not need to be lifting heavy weights in the gym. Even a couple of 30-minute workouts weekly consisting of bodyweight and resistance-band exercises will help build the structures and complement your performance. Focus primarily on the lower body, glutes and core. These structures make up the foundation of your performance and working these will give the best transfer specifically to running. Again, this will provide you with another dimension to your training and have some massive benefits as you continue.

Running form

Purpose & Benefits

Sometimes focusing on what seems like minor details can actually lead to the best improvements and results. Do not undermine the importance of your posture and form – adopting the right one will turn you into a more efficient and economical runner (but this won’t happen overnight!).     

Photo by Mizuno

Running form is another aspect of training which is not considered by many. Your strength, flexibility and general movement mechanics will adapt the way you run. We all want to be kept injury-free and we all want to be as efficient as possible when running. This is where our form can play a big part. There are several considerations you should keep in your mind to help keep you running in the right way.  

Plan your session

You want to keep your ears in line with your shoulders, and keep your shoulders pulled back and down. This position will open up the chest and improve the posture in your upper body. This position allows you to be more efficient and powerful through your core, which will transition to a better economy and a more efficient movement throughout the whole body. Also, you want to ensure you are landing under your hips, and utilising the glutes as you are pushing through each step. Everyone’s gait is slightly different and whether you land toe first, mid-foot, or on the heel, everyone should have one thing in common – they land underneath their centre of mass. This is the most efficient position and reduces the likelihood of picking up an injury. 

Take a look at the article ‘8 drills to improve your running form’ for some tips on how to include this into your sessions.