Do you want to get faster? Most runners do! While increasing your speed is not the only measure of progress, it is a goal that many runners strive for. Many runners equate speed workouts with running faster and assume that the harder and longer the intervals, the better the workout. But is that true? What are the most effective running workouts?
In 2019, a study was published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research that looked at the most effective running workouts used by world-class long-distance runners. The researchers collected training reports from 85 runners over the course of seven years and ran a statistical analysis on that data.
What did they find?
Easy Runs and Total Running Volume Matter Most
The most effective of all running workouts? The easy run! Dr. Stephen Seiler pioneered the theory that approximately 80% of your training should be done at an easy effort. This 2019 study further supports that theory; the researchers found that the highest correlating factor to running performance (measured in IAAF race scores) was not hard workouts, but easy runs and total running volume. How much? On a scale of 0.0 as lowest possible correlation and 1.0 as highest possible, easy runs were 0.72 at three years and 0.68 at 7 years. Total running volume has the highest impact, with 0.76 at three years and 0.75 at seven years. (The study defined as >100km/60 miles per week – remember that is for world-class runners.)
The relationship between total running volume and easy runs makes sense. If you want to run more without getting injured, you need to ensure that most of your miles are done in an easy zone (below the aerobic threshold).
Why does that work? Both easy runs and higher weekly mileage (with a high percentage of runs at easy pace) improve endurance. Endurance is the basis of performance for long-distance runners. In the marathon, for example, performance is often not limited by your speed; it’s limited by your ability to endure the faster pace for such a long distance.
Remember though: high mileage is only as good as your body’s ability to maintain it. Everyone has a point of diminishing returns. You want to find a total volume that allows you to (1) progress, (2) not get injured, and (3) not burn out.
Tempo Runs are the Best Workouts for Long-Distance Runners
After easy runs and total weekly volume, it wasn’t big exciting track workouts that correlated to performance. No, the most effective running workout was the simple yet effective tempo run (a sustained moderate to moderately hard effort). These tempo runs were progressively overloaded throughout the years and as a result, improved performance more the longer they were included in the training. At three years, they had a correlation of 0.50; at seven years, they had a correlation of 0.57.
Why? Tempo runs mimic the demands of racing with prolonged efforts. Specificity is one of the largest principles in exercise science. Here, tempo runs show how applying that principle of specificity improves performance. Once you have endurance, you want to be trained to be able to hold faster paces for a longer period of time.
Short Intervals Improve Performance More Than Long Intervals
You would think that mile repeats are a more effective workout than 2-minute repeats, right? After all, it’s easy to deduce that longer equals better. However, when it comes to the long-term effects of training, shorter intervals offer more benefits. The correlation of short intervals to performance was 0.55-0.56 over 3-7 years; for long intervals, the correlation was only 0.27-0.22 over 3-7 years.
Why? There are multiple reasons. First, short intervals (30 seconds to 3 minutes) improve VO2max (or, more specifically, your velocity at VO2max) and running economy. Secondly, the recovery demands of short intervals is less than that of long intervals; the shorter the recovery, the more you can push subsequent training and the better you can adapt.
Now, this does not mean that you never should do long intervals. All workouts can have a place in a sound training program. But what this does mean is that when it comes to running faster, don’t always default to mile repeats. Rather, include a variety of hard workouts, make most of your runs easy, and focus on running more rather than just running faster workouts.
You Should Vary Your Workouts
The biggest takeaway? Vary your workouts over time! Easy runs, tempo runs, short intervals, and even long intervals are interplay with performance. Don’t just repeat the same track workout every week. Run very short and very fast; run moderately hard for longer periods; and most of the time, run easy.
Yes, some phases of training may involve an emphasis on different workouts more than others. You may do mostly short intervals during a base-building phase in summer. You may do more tempo runs and longer intervals during the final six weeks of marathon training. The variety should be apparent when you step back and look at training over the course of months and even years.
Also remember: no single study is gospel. Exercise science – including run training – is an evolving field. You work with the evidence you can while remaining open to progressions in the field.
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What are your favorite running workouts? Which do you do most often?