4 tweaks to maximise your training gains

Photography by Chris Hinkle

Runners are creatures of habit: we tend to latch on to particular training strategies and persist with them until we get bored or burn out. If your routine feels stale, try shaking it up with science. Researchers are always working to examine how athletes respond to different training techniques, and sometimes these studies reveal effective new ways to challenge your body and build your fitness.

1/ Go backwards

Occasionally shifting into reverse may help your body burn fuel more efficiently on every run, according to a recent study. Researchers found that incorporating backward running into training for 10 weeks was enough to improve forward-running economy by 2.5 per cent in well-trained runners. This improvement occurs because the unfamiliar motion places a greater demand on the heart and lungs than moving forward at a similar pace.

Backward running – or any exercise that forces you to move in a direction other than straight ahead – will also strengthen your stabilising muscles and build coordination, says Courtenay Schurman, mountaineering conditioning coach with BodyResults. And reverse locomotion will target your quadriceps, making it especially helpful for runners who train on flat terrain (which taxes mainly the hamstrings). Another bonus is that your core gets a workout, as you will naturally try to maintain a straight back.

Do it: Start by adding five or six backward jaunts of 25-50m once or twice a week on a flat, low-traffic surface after an easy run.

2/ Hack your playlist

High-energy music (with at least 125 beats per minute) has potent pump-up properties, but slow tunes can also play a role in training. The authors of a new study found that when subjects listened to slow-tempo music right after a 20-minute treadmill run, their heart rates returned to a resting state more quickly than when they listened to livelier music. Researchers speculate that listening to slow-tempo music during the ‘off’ periods of speed or tempo workouts would have a similar effect. Psychologist and performance consultant Costas Karageorghis, author of Applying Music in Exercise and Sport, offers one explanation for this: when the body is heavily fatigued, heart and breathing rates tend to lock into the rhythmic qualities of music.

Do it: Make a playlist that includes one or two fast-tempo songs to pump yourself up before a high-intensity run, then add slow-tempo songs to play during the recovery portions. Karageorghis recommends songs that are 100-120 bpm for active recovery. Keep the music off while going fast to stay attuned to your sense of effort and form, he says.

3/ Walk hills

Beginners to our sport have long been using walk breaks to recover from their running efforts and to get used to staying out longer, but seasoned runners who are experimenting with challenging climbs can benefit from them as well. Research published in the Journal of Applied Physiology shows that walking up steep hills (inclines greater than 15.8 degrees) is more efficient in terms of energy expenditure than running up them at the same speed. Walking steep hills keeps your heart rate controlled and prevents you from hitting your anaerobic threshold, the point at which the body switches to burning only carbs for energy and lactic acid begins to build up, says running coach Rebekah Mayer.

Do it: At the foot of an unrelenting hill, break the challenge into three sections. Run the first third of the incline, then switch to a brisk walk. Once you’re two-thirds of the way up, assess your effort level, advises Mayer. If your breathing has steadied, you can run again, but if you’re still winded, continuing to walk briskly will help you conserve energy without costing you too much time.

4/ Train on empty

Coaches and scientists have begun to wonder if we ought to be completely fuelled during all of our training. ‘Low-glycogen training works by limiting carb availability within the muscle,’ says Trent Stellingwerff, lead physiologist at the Canadian Sport Institute. ‘This new stressor leads to the body adapting in a way that leaves it better prepared for optimising fuel usage in the future.’ The goal is to do a run in a glycogen-depleted state and, as such, the strategy brings a higher risk of overtraining and slower splits than a fully fuelled workout. For these reasons it’s a technique that needs to be introduced gradually and used sparingly – maybe three or four times during marathon training.

Do it: Do an afternoon or evening run and then come back the next morning for a long run that includes a slight increase in pace in the last few miles. This pick-up allows you to train at an up-tempo pace while in a fuel-depleted state, duplicating what you will need to do in a marathon. Eat your last regular meal (enough to fill you up, but low on carbs) more than 10 hours before your morning run. For breakfast, drink only coffee and/or water.