Top Lunchtime Sessions

Come February, the working week offers two equally miserable choices: run in darkness when you get up in the morning; run in darkness when you get home at night. However, you can turn this lose-lose into a victory by training in your lunch hour. Granted, it may only provide 30 to 40 minutes of actual exercise time once you factor in showering and grabbing a sandwich, but that’s still more than enough time to chase down your running goals. Give your training programme a boost (and leave your evenings free for EastEnders) with these effective and efficient lunchtime sessions.

Lunchtime Session One - Hit Your Race Pace

If you tend to start well in races of 10K and upwards, but then suffer a catastrophic blow- out before the end, this 4x4 session is for you. It’s the brainchild of Professor Jan Helgerud, from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, who believes many runners struggle to maintain pace on race day because they don’t train enough at race-pace intensity. His solution: four reps of four minutes effort interspersed with three-minute jog recoveries.

Helgerud compared different training sessions – ranging from steady running to short, sharp intervals – to see which resulted in the greatest increase in maximal oxygen uptake (VO2 max), the most recognised measure of fitness. The 4x4 was the most effective, resulting in a 7.2 per cent VO2 max boost over eight weeks.

Helgerud believes the session’s effectiveness is down to the fact that although all types of running (even slow plodding) encourage training adaptations in nerve cells, blood cells and muscle cells that result in improvement, speedier training encourages faster and greater improvements. And there’s even better news: unlike flat-out speedwork sessions, the 4x4 won’t leave you feeling drained. "It should take about as much out of you as running for the same length of time at a steady pace – that way you can do it several times a week."

The session

The key is the speed of the reps; as with races, you need to learn not to go off too fast. If you’re not sure what your rep pace feels like, use a track to run the distance given below in four minutes.

10K Time Half Time Marathon Time Rep pace (mins per mile)
35 1:20 2:45 5:55 (cover approx 1100m)
40 1:30 3:10 6:45 (cover approx 950m)
45 1:40 3:30 7:30 (cover approx 850m)
50 1:50 4:00 8:10 (cover approx 800m)
55 2:00 4:20 8:45 (cover approx 750m)
60 2:15 4:40 9:15 (cover approx 700m)

Lunchtime Session Two - Cut your 5K PB

Consider this: a team of coaches and scientists from the Institute of Olympic Sports and the University of Jyväskylä, Finland, found that adding plyometrics – fast, powerful strength training – to an endurance programme improved 5K performance more than endurance training alone.

Explosive strength-training workouts enhance performance because they reach parts that other training sessions can’t reach, say the researchers. Typically, these explosive strength-training drills improve neuromuscular characteristics and basic muscle power, rather than cardiovascular performance. But it seems that when coupled with endurance training, these enhanced factors have a positive knock-on effect on running performance, says researcher Leena Paavolainen. "Because the improvement took place without significant changes in the athletes’ VO2 max or lactate threshold, endurance performance must be limited not only by central factors relating to VO2 max but also by the muscle power."

In their test, the Finnish researchers found that devoting a third of a training regime to explosive drills, composed of various sprint and plyometric jumping exercises, helped boost 5K performance by as much as three per cent.

The session

This works great on its own as a quick lunch-time workout, or if you have more time, try it as part of a combi-session prior to a steady run. After a brief warm-up, perform the circuit below. Sprints and lunges aside, aim to get as much vertical height as possible. Give yourself 15 to 20 seconds rest between exercises. Repeat to exhaustion. Or the end of your lunch break.

2x30m hopping on one leg
2x30m hopping on other leg
2x30m bounding on alternate legs
2x30 of standing long jumps
30 seconds of squat jumps
30 seconds of lunges
4x30m sprint flat-out

Lunchtime Session Three - Pace yourself perfectly

This pyramid session, recommended by UK Athletics’ endurance coach Bud Baldaro, offers two-fold benefits: it provides the intensity you need for a short workout, while simultaneously teaching you how to run at your race pace. After performing this session once or twice a fortnight for two months, you’ll know exactly what 5K and 10K paces feel like, so that come race day you can hit the correct speed immediately, avoiding the nightmare consequences of setting off too fast or too slow.

Sessions like this are crucial, physiologically speaking, to improving your times. Your energy-production system is different when running at speed compared to running steadily. This session will encourage your body to get used to – and therefore become more efficient at – race pace. "When running at speed you burn pure carbs," says Baldaro. "Whereas when you do long and steady runs it’s more a mixture of fats and carbs. So doing this pyramid session will help your body get used to the different energy systems that you’ll use in a race."

Not sure what your race pace is? Check our race-time calculators. As long as you’ve completed any race or time trial, the calculator will use that to work out your approximate 5K and 10K pace.

The session

After a five-minute jog warm-up do the following repetitions with three-minute jog recoveries between each.

1 minute almost flat-out
3 minutes at 5K pace
5 minutes at 10K pace
3 minutes at 5K pace
1 minute flat-out

Lunchtime Session Four - Bullet-proof your body

Becoming injured is a runner’s worst nightmare. Fortunately, dedicating a lunch-time session every week to this circuit of bodyweight exercises designed by Gareth Cole, strength and conditioning coach at London gym The Third Space (, will help ward off running-specific niggles, such as shin-splints.

The session consists mostly of single-leg exercises, explains Cole. "Running is accomplished in a sling format. You only ever stress one leg at a time. So for injury-proofing you need to mirror that." Additionally, exercises are designed to integrate muscle groups rather than isolate them; combining several muscle groups promotes running-specific conditioning rather than bulk.

The circuit also pays close attention to correct biomechanics and posture. "Everyone thinks of the press-up as a chest exercise, but in fact it’s fantastic for keeping the spine and pelvis stabilised and in line," says Cole. "When you’re fatigued at the end of a long run or race, not having the strength to stabilise your posture throws your biomechanics out and that’s one of the most common causes of running injury."

The session

For each exercise, do three sets of eight repetitions (on each leg), allowing 60 seconds’ rest in between. Once you get used to the circuit, you should be able to complete the session in 40 minutes.

Single-Leg Squat
Stand laterally on a step with one foot on the step and the other foot over the edge. Lower yourself by slowly bending the knee of the active leg so that the passive leg stays straight and so that the weight is on the heel of the active foot.

Split Squat/Lunge
Stand with one foot in front of the other. Lower yourself by bending your knees but keep all the weight on the heel of the front foot. Keep your body upright and your head high with your knee over your toe, while keeping your heel on the floor.

Single-Leg Dead Lift
Stand on one leg with a very slight bend in the knee. Then lean forward from your hips until your upper body is parallel to the floor (like bowing) then slowly return to straight.

Press Up
Lie horizontally, face down, with your hands flat on the floor under your shoulders, and then lower and raise your body using your arms.

Single-Leg Calf Raise
Drop your heel below the edge of a step and curl your other leg behind it. From this stretched position push up as high as you can so you’re standing on your toes.

Single-Leg Bridge
Lie on your back with one leg straight and one leg bent (with foot flat on floor). Push with the bent leg from your hip so that your hips come off the floor and your knees are level. Keep your hips and ankles in a straight line.

Anterior Tibialis Raise
Sit lengthways on a bench with your feet over the end. Clutch a water bottle or dumbbell or something with a bit of weight between your feet. First point your toes forward as far as you can then bring them towards you as far as you can and repeat.

Reverse Press Up/Bent Over Row
Lie underneath a bar and and pull yourself upwards. Keep your back straight, your neck long and don’t scrunch up your shoulders.