3-week running workout cycles to make you fitter, faster and stronger

The first time you do a workout, you face a number of challenges, from understanding the logistics to knowing your body’s limits. The second time, you start to hit your groove. By the third, your mind and body know what to expect – and you’re ready to crush it. ‘You’ve put yourself in an uncomfortable situation three times in a row, and now you’ve got a handle on it,’ says running coach Randy Accetta. That’s the theory behind Introduce, Improve, Perfect, or IIP - the term for three-week training cycles coined by Accetta and Greg Wenneborg, head coach at Pima Community College, in Tucson, Arizona, US.

It takes your body about three weeks to adapt to a training stress. ‘Beyond that, you get diminishing returns from that workout,’ says Wenneborg. So repeating similar hard workouts three times maximises the benefits – such as speed, stamina or endurance – you reap from each one before you move on.

What’s more, IIP – which Accetta pronounces to rhyme with ‘deep’ – offers a huge boost in confidence. Making minor upgrades each week clearly demonstrates your progress. Here’s how to
 apply IIP strategies to three common types of workout.


1/ Intervals

Accetta uses three-week cycles 
of fast repetitions to help runners hone the pacing, breathing patterns and mental toughness needed to race well. Typically,
 the longer the race, the longer
 the intervals – for instance, marathon runners may run repetitions of half a mile at 5K or 10K pace, or three-plus miles at marathon pace. Meanwhile, 5K runners might go as long as a 
mile at race pace, then incorporate faster bursts as short as 200m 
to improve speed and turnover. Each week, they progress by increasing the number or length of repetitions, boosting the paces, or altering the rest intervals.

Try it: New to faster running? Accetta recommends jogging a mile to warm up, then running 400m faster than a jog, followed by 400m slower; repeat six times. Start conservatively and finish a little faster, if you can. Do this session three weeks in a row – 
by the third, you should see improvements in both your consistency and your speed.

More experienced racers can begin with ten 400m repetitions at their goal 5K pace, with 60-90 seconds of jogging in between. In week two, increase the number of repetitions to 12 at the same pace. In week three, run 12 again, but make each repetition a few seconds faster – taking as much recovery as you need in between efforts to hit your targets.

READ: How interval training works


2/ Hill work

Powering up an incline builds strength, challenges your cardiorespiratory system with less impact than track workouts and prepares you to race well on courses that aren’t flat. Jabe Hickey, a certified coach in Boulder, Colorado, uses IIP with her training group of primarily new runners – and keeps hills on the schedule for most of the year. Improve and perfect your hill skills by changing the amount
 of time you spend running uphill or resting between efforts, increasing your repetitions or seeking out a steeper incline.

Try it: Pick a long hill with a gentle incline (about two to seven per cent). In week one, do eight repetitions of running 40 seconds uphill at a comfortably hard pace; walk or jog 20 seconds back downhill to recover. In week two, run a minute and a half uphill and jog about 45 seconds downhill eight times. In week three, bump up each of the eight uphills to three minutes, with a minute and a half of recovery

READ: How to run up (and down) hills


3/ Tempo run

You can improve your stamina by running at a tempo pace – an effort of about seven or eight
 on a scale of one to 10 – for a little more time or distance each week. You can also run the same course and aim to cover a bit more distance, pick up the pace slightly or just feel more relaxed while doing it. Running at this ‘comfortably hard’ pace will improve your body’s ability to clear some of the waste products produced during forceful muscle contractions so that eventually you’ll be able to sustain the harder effort for longer and feel less fatigued, says Accetta.

Try it: In week one, warm up for 10 minutes, run 10 minutes 
at tempo pace, then cool down for 10 minutes. Add five to 10 minutes of harder running to
 the session each week. Or keep the duration constant – say,
20 minutes – and aim to cover slightly more ground each week without increasing the effort level significantly, says Wenneborg.

READ: What is tempo running and how do I do it?