Avoid putting a spanner in your workouts with our simple guide to which sessions do what.
When I was five, I helped my dad demolish a wall. He gave me a hammer, I swung it, and it bounced off the wall and smacked me between the eyes. We’ve all been that kid, wandering into the shed and playing merrily with something that could knock you out. There are tools everywhere, but it helps to use the right one for the job – as you’ll know if you’ve ever tried to change a plug with a dinner knife. If you’re new to running, your first task is simply to make running a habit, but knowing the contents of the training toolbox means you can build from there. ‘When you’re starting out, understanding the benefit of each workout helps you become a more focused, committed runner,’ says Noel Jones, a UK Athletics-qualified coach with Bedford Harriers. What follows isn’t an exhaustive list, but it’ll get you started. Let’s tool up!
These train your body to cope with running for as long as you need, whether it’s your first 5K or a marathon. They offer the opportunity to test fuelling strategies, and to tackle your mental demons before race day. But remember – this is distance training, not speedwork – if you can’t talk, slow down – and enjoy exploring areas you don’t reach during the week.
As soon as you start to push your body, rest days become as important as leaning on your shovel with a brew. It’s called the adaptation phase. When you work a muscle, your body responds by growing extra capillaries to help supply it with oxygen, and to help remove waste products. So don’t feel guilty for sitting on the sofa watching Shrek – your body is busily repairing itself. Not only has running got you off that sofa, it makes you better at sitting on it.
Working your muscles produces lactic acid, which your body clears away. Your ‘lactate threshold’ is the point at which your body can’t tidy up fast enough, and your muscles struggle. A weekly run at this level will train your body to handle lactic acid more efficiently, combating that feeling of fatigue when you run at speed. Warm up for a mile, then build up the pace until talking becomes difficult. Three or four miles will do wonders, and a gentle trot home will help you recover.
Intervals also involve pushing yourself – but instead of one continuous push, they are broken down into smaller chunks of effort, interspersed with recovery periods. As well as helping endurance, they strengthen your legs, sharpening up your ability to run at speed, too. Choosing the right interval session is a whole socket set in itself – but whether it’s 20x200m, or 4x1 mile, choose a pace you can maintain throughout, and remember to warm up and cool down.
Running uphill puts your achilles and calves under pressure as your heels land below the level of your toes; and your hip flexors work harder to lift you to higher ground. An occasional hillier route with a few minute-long climbs will help your technique and strengthen your legs to improve your speed on the flat. It’s tempting to reach the top of a hill then coast down, but it’s the one time when gravity helps, so practise making the most of downhills too, and recover on the flat.
If you run more than three times a week, it’s not then possible to have a day off after each run. Recovery runs help your body cope with fatigue without causing injury. Wear your scruffiest kit, take the dog, or help Uncle Frank train for his first 5K – anything to help slow you down.