Six Secrets Of Successful Runners

In the weeks leading up to April's Boston Marathon, in which he finished third, American elite runner Ryan Hall logged hundreds of miles over the mountainous roads of Mammoth Lakes, California. The workouts that mattered the most? His weekly tempo runs, which got as long as 18 miles.

"I knew they were going to get me ready for the big show and tell me where my fitness was at," says Hall. "And they were definitely something I got nervous for, which was great practice, because you're going to have all that nervousness before the marathon."

Elite runners know that it's the most challenging workouts that build the speed, power and efficiency they need to get across the finish line — hopefully first. Of course, intense workouts aren't the sole domain of hardcore racers – they're for anyone who wants to get faster and stronger.

But while professional runners like Hall might have several quality sessions in a week, chances are you're struggling to fit one in. Which makes it even more important that your hard day really counts. Here's how to set yourself up for success…

Elite Secret # 1: Get Strong

It's strength and conditioning, particularly around the ankles, knees and hips, that separates elites from mere mortals, according to British distance legend Liz McColgan, who has set up a new elite training facility in her home town of Carnoustie, Scotland.

"When you're tired, the first thing to go is your form – when I was gearing up for big races I'd almost focus more on this than my running. It means you're strong even when you're exhausted, particularly towards the end of races," she says.

DO IT YOURSELF: Three times a week spend five minutes doing each of the following exercises:

  • Stair step-ups Ascend two to three large stairs very slowly, then step back to your starting point, contracting your glutes, quads and calves as you do.
  • One-legged squats Using your back foot for balance, lower your front leg so your upper thigh is parallel to the floor. Keep your knee behind your front foot. Press back to the start position.
  • Walking drills Mimic an exaggerated running action as slowly as possible, driving your knee and hip through and keeping everything in line. "Once you've mastered these, start holding light weights in your hands,"
  • says McColgan.

Elite Secret # 2: Get Loose

Elite runners take their warm-up seriously. "You need to spend at least 20 to 30 minutes warming up, jogging two to three miles interspersed with dynamic strides and drills," says Richard Holt, elite coach at momentumsports.co.uk.

"You want optimal flexibility and power from the first step – come the end you'll actually have more energy reserves as you'll have run more efficiently." This longer routine gets you in the zone. "You can run through a mental checklist of your race strategy as you warm up."

DO IT YOURSELF: Start your warm-up prep the night before. "Write down a realistic timetable of where you're hoping to be and when, speak to the race organisers about parking and other logistics, and block in quality time to spend doing a slow, gradual warm-up," says Holt.

And even when you're not racing, don't think you can dive straight in to a run – you're just as likely to tear cold muscles and ligaments in weekly speed or tempo sessions, so factor in a 10-minute warm-up then, too.

Elite Secret # 3: Pace The Workout

Going out too fast in both training and racing is the undoing of many talented runners, says Dave Saker, middle-distance coach at the University of Bath. "Marilyn Okoro, who I used to train, did a 56-second first lap in the recent indoor 800m World Championships and completely blew up," he explains.

Get into the habit of 'feeling' pace – try running at threshold or race pace without looking at your watch. "It comes through experience, but being able to switch up or down according to how your body feels is what separates winners from losers."

DO IT YOURSELF: Always treat your first interval as a tester to show you can hit your splits, and up the pace later in the session when you've got a better feel for the run, recommends Saker.

"Psychologically, it's better to be consistent than to burn out," he explains. "If you can make a habit of finishing hard, it'll stand you in good stead in a race. Likewise, starting in a controlled way will also provide an excellent platform to build on."

Elite Secret # 4: Run With Purpose

Elite runners never forget their purpose, says endurance coach Martin Yelling (active-futures.com). Each run has a focus, which increases motivation, gives training structure and ultimately improves times. "They know where they are going, for how long, and how it is taking them a step towards their primary objective," he says.

Yelling tells his runners to ask themselves, 'Why are you running today?' each time they go out for a run. There is a range of credible answers: 'to focus on my recovery pace', 'to nail that extra rep', 'to run somewhere different' or 'to practise my pace change'. "One thing is always clear though: every run has a purpose," he says.

DO IT YOURSELF: Next time you head out for a run, ask yourself why. If you're struggling for an answer then it's time to review your training and preparations and look at your reasons for running.

Understanding why you are doing a particular run at a certain time in your training really gives you a firm handle on your running. It gives you ownership of your training and that breeds an ambitious commitment to better performances.

Elite Secret # 5: Create Real Incentives

Every runner knows the trick of mentally breaking up long runs into shorter, more manageable chunks, but British elite marathon runner Mara Yamauchi takes it one step further.

"If I'm doing a 40km (25-mile) long run, I'll wear an elastic band on my wrist and flick it every other kilometre, or I might leave little treats like jelly beans under bushes at key kilometre points," she says. "You're actually looking forward to your next marker, and trying to remember what you've got planned at each one is a great distraction, too."

DO IT YOURSELF: "If you haven't got the time to prepare your route with treats, do shorter laps of the same route so you can pick up an energy bar at the same point every few kilometres, or simply carry a small packet of sweets with you," she says."These might seem like a distraction, but they'll give you a great energy boost – and you'll associate mile and kilometre markers in races with that boost, and naturally start lifting your knees and heels better."

Elite Secret # 6: Recover - For Real

Respect the easy day. Going too far or too fast in the days between tough sessions won't let your muscles repair sufficiently or give your body enough time to replenish glycogen levels.

"I've learnt to run what sometimes seems stupidly easy in between my key session days," says Liz Yelling, top British finisher in the 2004 Olympic marathon. "This allows me to have a quality session that gets the best from my body when it matters most."

And take a complete rest day every week. "As well as keeping my body in one piece, it keeps me mentally and physically refreshed," she says.

DO IT YOURSELF: See the bigger picture. You might head out on a scheduled easy day and feel good enough to pick up the pace, but don't. Even pushing yourself slightly harder can drain your reserves ahead of the quality session or race you know is coming up.


Quality control: Elite workouts, recast for mere mortals

Gut-wrenching speed sessions matter the most for runners who race for a living. Toned down and adapted, they can also help with the goals you have – whether that's fitness or a marathon PB. Here are five elites' favourite workouts, and how you can modify them.

RYAN HALL: Tempo Run

The Workout An 18-mile tempo run at five-minute pace through hilly terrain.

Your Move To get used to both the 'comfortably hard' feeling of tempo running and negative splits, start by going out for 15 minutes at a conversational pace, then turning around and returning along the same route a minute or two faster. Increase the time by five minutes, or one mile per workout, until you're performing tempos of four to six miles.

LIZ YELLING: 20-Minute Ladder

The Workout "When I am fit this workout looks like: 20 minutes easy; 20 minutes at 30 seconds slower than marathon pace; 20 minutes at marathon pace; 20 minutes at around 15 seconds per mile faster than marathon pace, finishing with 20 minutes easy," says Yelling.

Your Move Start with five- to 10-minute intervals at the same paces as Yelling. Do this once a month, gradually building your mileage.

MARA YAMAUCHI: Long, Mixed Intervals

The Workout On road or the track, run a fast 1km interval at 10K pace, rest for 90 seconds, then run a 2km interval at half-marathon pace. Rest for 90 seconds, and repeat the set twice. "This is a hard session, but is excellent for speed endurance," says Yamauchi. "The variety of lengths helps to break it up a bit – 1km feels short after a 2km rep, and 2km feels nice and slow after the speed of a 1km."

Your Move Repeat as above, but running at half-marathon and marathon pace.

MARTIN YELLING: Acceleration Run

The Workout Run 45 minutes at a gradual, incremental pace that finishes with the final five minutes at half-marathon race pace. Then do 5 x 4 minutes at your target 10K race pace, with a two-minute jog recovery between. Finish with a gentle 10-minute cool-down.

Your Move Start with 20 minutes, finishing the final five minutes at your marathon race pace. Then do 5 x 4 minutes at your target half-marathon race pace, with the same length of recoveries and cool-down.

LIZ MCCOLGAN: Mile Repeats

The Workout Run 10 x 1 mile at a 4:50-4:55 pace per mile, with 30-second recoveries in between each repetition.

Your Move Run 6-8 x 1 mile, at goal race pace, with 60- to 90-second recoveries. "It's best to do this two weeks prior to a race to test your fitness and get a realistic feel of what your pacing should be," advises Liz.