As runners, we all want to increase our endurance, but we’re often referring to different things. While the beginner often wants to go further – from two miles to four miles, then to six, more experienced runners don’t see much point in running further. (Isn’t 26.2 miles far enough?) Instead, they want to improve their speed endurance – the pace at which they can cover substantial distances.
Fortunately, you can have it both ways. You can follow training plans that build the length of your long runs, and others that improve your speed endurance. Thousands of runners have dramatically improved their endurance this way. Craig Beesley, a beginner runner, extended his longest run from 30 seconds to nearly three hours. Doug Underwood, a successful marathoner, wanted to lower his personal best from 3:50 to 3:30. And Deena Drossin, the American 10K and cross-country star, wanted nothing less than to run the marathon faster than a legend – Joan Samuelson.
All three runners achieved their goals. Each used a different method. Which raises the point that exercise physiologist Kris Berg explains in his recent article, ‘Endurance Training and Performance in Runners’, published in the journal Sports Medicine. “After decades of studying ways to improve endurance,” says Berg. “I’m encouraging runners to do what feels right.”
In other words, there are different strokes for different folks. Genetic researchers refer to ‘high responders’ and ‘low responders.’ Sometimes we need to take different paths to reach our goals. Read on and you’ll find seven endurance-boosting strategies that have worked for a range of runners. Not all will work for you. But one or more will, and that should be enough to significantly increase your endurance, which means you’ll run stronger and easier than ever before.
Plan One – Take one step at a timeIf there is one over-arching principle of building endurance, this is it. Call it gradual adaptation. That is, be consistent, be patient and build up slowly. This principle applies to all circumstances and all runners – the beginner who’s trying to make it around the block four times, as well as the 36-minute 10K runner who’s training for a first marathon with long runs that stretch to 12 miles, then 16, then 20.
The gradual-adaptation principle is deeply rooted in human physiology, and has worked for about a billion runners since Palaeolithic Man started stalking wild animals in East Africa 150,000 years ago. It still works today. Craig Beesley is proof of that.
When Beesley began running two years ago, he could only manage 30 seconds at a time, followed by four and a half minutes of walking. But he didn’t let his lack of fitness discourage him. He simply repeated the cycle eight times (for a total of 40 minutes), and made sure he did three work-outs a week.
Thirteen weeks later, Beesley was running 30 minutes at a time, and by last autumn he had completed his first half-marathon in 2:12. But Beesley didn’t stop there. He kept running outdoors through the winter months, despite temperatures that dropped to well below zero, and last spring added speedwork to his routine. By May, he was running long runs of two hours 40 minutes, doing six 400m repetitions in 1:45, and had set his sights on a first marathon.
A programme can’t get any simpler than Beesley’s, or any more successful. “I’ve increased my endurance and my speed, and I’ve done both without any injuries,” he says. “My family describe me as a very patient man. Patience combined with persistence is a great combination for success in running.”
What you should do Whatever your present endurance conditioning, build it slow but steady. We like a programme that adds one mile a week to your weekend long run, for example: five miles, six miles, seven miles. Every fourth week, reduce your mileage by missing out the long run. Rest and recover. The next week, start building again, one mile at a time: eight miles, nine miles, etc.
Plan Two – Run Yasso 800sWe learnt about this amazingly useful work-out in a casual conversation with RUNNER’S WORLD USA Race And Event Promotions Manager Bart Yasso, and first wrote about it nearly a decade ago. Since then, literally thousands of runners have told us, at pacing runs or in e-mails, that the programme has worked for them. With the Yasso system, you run 800-metre repetitions on a track in the same minutes/seconds as your hours/minutes goal time for a marathon. (So if you’re looking to run 4:30, do your 800s in four minutes and 30 seconds.)
Runners are drawn to Yasso 800s by Bart’s unforgettable name, the simplicity of the work-out and the word-of-mouth success stories.
Doug Underwood is a self-confessed Yasso fan. A runner for just three years, Underwood completed his first two marathons in 3:55 and 3:53, and then was bitten by what he calls the ‘London bug’. He wanted to achieve a ‘good for your age’ time for the Flora London Marathon, and was willing to train harder to get there.
The core of his programme was Yasso 800s. Since Underwood needed to run a 3:30 to guarantee a place, he ran his Yasso 800s in 3:30, building up to 10 of them in a single work-out, taking a 3:30 recovery jog between the fast 800s.
Underwood finished his qualifying race, in a time good enough for a race entry to London. “I credit the Yasso 800s with getting me there,” says Underwood, who also made sure to log plenty of long runs. “They are tough work-outs, but they do the job. If you can run 10 of them at your goal pace, you have a great chance of achieving your marathon goal time.”
What you should do Run Yasso 800s once a week. Start with just four or five of them at your appropriate pace, then add one a week until you reach 10. The first several weeks should feel quite easy. The last several will be hard, but hang in there. This work-out builds focus and concentration, as well as speed endurance.
Plan Three – Run long and slowMeghan Arbogast was already a successful marathoner five years ago, with a 2:58 to her credit. But, as she admits, there was a problem. “I was overtraining and killing myself,” she recalls.
But not any more. Since 1998, Arbogast has been training slower and racing faster under a programme designed by her coach Warren Finke. Finke believes marathoners should focus on consistent, easy-paced training runs that help them build endurance without getting hurt every couple of months. “A lot of runners train too hard, get injured and never reach their potential,” he notes.
The Finke programme emphasises ‘effort-based training’, and he believes in keeping the effort modest (at 80 per cent of the speed you could race the same distance) most of the time. “Most runners are probably training at about 90 per cent of their race pace,” says Finke. “Running at 80 per cent is pretty easy, but it helps keep you injury-free.”
The programme has certainly turned things around for Arbogast. Two years after beginning Finke’s effort-based training, she improved her marathon PB to 2:45. And last June she won the Christchurch Marathon in New Zealand with another 2:45. “I think I can keep improving,” says Arbogast. “The key is to stay healthy and keep gaining endurance.”
What you should do Do most of your runs at 80 per cent of the speed you could race the same distance. So, if you can race 10 miles at 7:30 pace, you should do your 10-mile training runs at 9:23. To convert a race pace to an 80-per cent training pace, multiply the race pace by 1.25. (To find a wide range of your equivalent race times and paces, click here.)
Plan Four – Make every work-out countWhen you’ve been running marathons for 25 years and have an advanced degree in exercise physiology, you should eventually learn a thing or two about training. Exercise physiologist Bill Pierce thinks he has. At the very least, he’s found a programme that works wonders for him. Pierce, 53, still runs marathons in about 3:10, not much slower than when he first stepped to the starting line more than two decades ago.
His secret? The three-day training week. Pierce follows the usual advice to alternate hard days with easy days, but he takes it to the extreme. He runs only hard days – three of them a week. On the other four days, he doesn’t run at all, though he lifts weights several times a week, and also enjoys a fast game of tennis.
In stripping his training programme to its essence, Pierce runs each of his three work-outs at a specific target pace and distance. One is a long run, one is a tempo run and one is a speed session. “I run at a higher intensity than some recommend, but I have found that this programme has worked well for me for many years,” says Pierce. “It reduces the risk of injuries, improves long-term adherence and still lets me enjoy the gratification that comes with intense efforts.”
What you should do Pierce does interval training on Tuesdays, tempo training on Thursdays and a long run on Sundays. For interval repetitions, he runs 12 x 400 metres or 6 x 800 metres at slightly faster than his 5K race pace. On tempo days, he runs four miles at a pace that’s 10-20 seconds per mile slower than 10K race pace. On Sundays, he runs 15 miles at a pace that’s 30 seconds per mile slower than his marathon race pace. And you can easily adapt these work-outs to your own 5K, 10K and marathon race paces.
Plan Five – Do plyometricsDeena Drossin had already joined the ranks of America’s all-time best female distance runners, when she first paid a visit to the US Olympic Committee’s strength and conditioning coach Zach Weatherford nearly two years ago. She asked him if he could devise a programme that would give her more leg endurance and quickness.
Weatherford said he wasn’t sure, admitting to Drossin that he had never worked with a distance runner before. “But let me think about it, and do some research,” he said.
Weatherford returned with several ideas worth testing, and the two have been working together ever since. “We started with core strength, and progressed to explosive leg plyometrics, always focusing on the basics, and doing quality sessions, not quantity. Runners already do enough quantity,” he says. “In her first plyometrics work-outs, Deena hit the ground like a flat-footed 15-stone man, but we kept emphasising, ‘get your feet up fast. Get your feet up fast.’ “
Drossin did rope skipping, running skipping drills, box jumps and even high-knee sprints. And then she ran the Flora London Marathon last April in 2:21:16 – a PB by more than five minutes and a new US record. “I really felt a difference in London,” says Drossin. “I’ve noticed a considerable change in my running mechanics. My feet are spending less time on the ground, and I’ve increased my stride frequency. In London, my legs did not fatigue at all during or after the marathon.”
What you should do Instead of running strides at the end of several easy runs a week, do a ‘fast-feet’ drill. Run just 15 to 20 metres with the shortest, quickest stride you can manage. You don’t have to lift your knees high; just lift them fast, and move forward a few inches with each stride. Pump your arms vigorously as well. Rest, then repeat six to eight times. Once or twice a week, you can also do five minutes of single-leg hops, two-legged bounding, and high-knee skipping, all on a soft surface such as grass or packed earth.
Plan Six – Run longer tempo runsWe admire runners who refuse to give up on their goals, and who keep trying various methods to reach them. By this standard, Patrick Noble deserves a lifetime achievement award. In 1986 Noble finished his first marathon in 3:17, feeling both proud and ambitious. “Let’s go sub-three,” he told himself.
Thus began the journey. Noble increased his training, and before long he had run 3:04, 3:01, 3:05 and 3:02. You can quickly see what’s missing from this list. A less-determined runner might have given up. Not Noble.
He kept running marathons – dozens of them. In the last two years, he ran his 49th marathon. No luck. His 50th. Ditto. His 51st. No, sorry. But last May, in his 52nd marathon, Noble broke through the three-hour barrier with a 2:58:23. And it was a new approach to tempo runs, Noble believes, that helped him dip below 3:00.
The conservative view on tempo runs suggests that you cover 20-40 minutes at a pace that’s 10-20 seconds per mile slower than your 10K pace. Noble pushed his tempo runs up to 60 minutes. “I think the long tempo runs gave me the extra strength I needed,” says Noble. “I also made sure to run very easy the day after the tempo runs, and watched my diet and even gave up beer for six to eight weeks before the marathon.”
What you should do Do a tempo run once a week for eight weeks. Start with a 20-minute tempo run at 10-20 seconds per mile slower than 10K race pace, and add five minutes to your tempo run every week. Be sure to take one or two easy days before and after tempo days.
Plan Seven– Run long and fastOkay, we know. This is the opposite of Plan Three. But it works for some runners, just as the long-and-slow approach works for others. A perfect example of the ‘high-responders’ versus ‘low-responders’ principle.
American elite runner Scott Strand is a recent convert to long-fast training. Last February, Strand improved his marathon personal best by more than four minutes with a 2:16:52 in the US National Championship Marathon in Birmingham, Alabama. And Strand believes that it was his longer, faster long runs that got him the result.
“I covered 18-23 miles in my long training runs,” says Strand, “and I did the last 9-14 miles at marathon pace or faster. That was much faster than my previous long-run efforts of 17-22 miles at whatever pace I felt like running.”
This kind of endurance programme, based on long, hard runs has been popularised in the last several years by marathon world record holder Khalid Khannouchi. Khannouchi does ferocious long runs – so fast and sustained that he gets nervous for several days before them. In days past, the only thing that mattered was spending two to three hours on your feet. But now it seems that, if you want to finish strong and improve your times in the marathon, you have to run hard and fast at the end of your long runs.
What you should do On your long runs, pick up the pace for the last 25 per cent of the distance. Gradually accelerate to your marathon goal pace, or even your tempo-run pace. You don’t have to attack your long run the way Khannouchi does, and you shouldn’t collapse when you finish. But you should run hard enough at the end to accustom your body to the late-race fatigue of the marathon.