Different training plans and coaches may differ in the definitions of certain types of run. You can google “tempo run” and get a myriad of definitions. It can be confusing to novice and experienced runners alike. This guide defines the different types of running workouts so that you approach your training with confidence.
Easy runs are the bread and butter of endurance training. The intensity is <70% of your VO2max or at an effort easy enough to carry on a conversation. In terms of pacing, a good rule of thumb is 1-2 minutes per mile slower than marathon pace or 2-3 minutes slower than 5K pace (or more!). However, easy is truly an effort and may vary day to day. Your easy pace will likely be slower after a hard workout than on fresh legs.
Generally, easy runs last anywhere from 30 minutes to 75 minutes. Once you are over 90 minutes, the physiological adaptations are that of a long run and recovery takes longer. If you want to fit in more volume, doubles (two runs per day) allows more volume with less glycogen depletion and muscle breakdown
After easy runs, strides are one of the foundational types of runs. Strides are short accelerations that improve running economy and top-end speed. These are not all-out sprints! Strides are typically done after easy runs, 1-3 times per week. You should do strides on a flat, smooth, straight surface. (Read here for more on how to perform strides and include them in your training.)
Just as the name indicates, hill workouts involve running up a hill at a hard effort. Hill workouts can range from very short hill sprints (15-20 seconds) to long uphill climbs. The recovery in between often involves jogging or walking down the hill. Generally, you want to find a hill steep enough to be challenging, but not so steep that walking is more efficient. In terms of gradient, this is approximately 4-8%.
Hill workouts count as a type of speed workout, meaning that you only do one per week at most. Generally, hill repeats are lower impact than flat-ground speed workouts. However, if you are prone to ankle/Achilles issues, hamstring problems, or SI joint pain, you may choose to avoid hill repeats.
When most runners talk about speedwork, they mean interval sessions. Interval training is simple in theory, yet can be complex in programming. Interval workouts include timed segments of hard running, with segments of slow running, walking, or standing in between each (plus a warm-up and cooldown). The recovery intervals allow a higher volume of high-intensity running in a single session since the recovery intervals allow the body to clear out some metabolic byproducts that cause fatigue. Interval workouts improve velocity at VO2max, aerobic power, and running economy, which make a runner faster over time.
Interval workouts can be manipulated by changing the intensity of the intervals, duration of the hard segments, snd duration of the recovery intervals. In some senses, interval workouts overlap many of the different types of running workouts. You can have intervals at threshold pace, moderate-pace intervals in long runs, etc.
Fartlek runs are a more relaxed variation of an interval run. You can structure fartlek workouts (such as 6 x 2 min on/2 min off) or do them unstructured (running hard to a landmark, then easy to the next). The common thread is that fartleks are not constrained by precise pacing or distance as some track sessions can be. (For more on fartlek workouts and how to structure them, reference this guide.)
Tempo runs are a broad term for a prolonged duration at a moderate to moderately hard effort. You can do tempo runs at marathon pace, half marathon pace, or hour-race pace – any moderate effort where a majority of the energy contribution is still aerobic. The pace is dose-dependent; longer efforts will be slower (near marathon pace) while shorter efforts will be slightly faster (near hour-race pace).
Specifically, threshold workouts last 20-30 minutes (done continuously) or 20-40 minutes (if broken into intervals with short rest) and are paced at approximately one-hour race effort. Threshold runs improve your lactate threshold by training at an intensity just hard enough that you produce lactate from anaerobic glycolysis – but not so hard that the lactate accumulates rapidly. At this moderately hard intensity, your body adapts to more efficiently shuttle lactate from the bloodstream to the muscle cells (which is can reuse for energy production) and clear the accompanying metabolites (hydrogen ions) that are responsible for fatigue. Lactate threshold is a significant performance predictor for long-distance runners, so these workouts are staples in most training programs. (Read more and find some sample workouts here.)
Progression runs occur when the intensity increases at some point during the second half of a run. The faster segment can span a few minutes or multiple miles. Additionally, the intensity can vary, although it should always be dose-dependent (faster progressions should be shorter) so that the workout does not turn into a race-like effort. You can structure these runs in terms of duration and intensity (such as a 14 mile long run with final 4 miles at marathon pace) or pace them more intuitively (a gradual progression to a moderate effort on an hour-long run).
Long runs are another foundational workout. As the name suggests, they are the longest run of the week. Physiologically speaking, a run becomes a long run somewhere around 90 minutes for trained runners. (For novice runners, 60 minutes will begin to elicit similar adaptations). These adaptations include increased lipid metabolism, greater oxygen delivery to working muscles, and an improved ability to handle biomechanical loads.
Generally, long runs will be 25-40% of overall weekly mileage. (For low mileage runners preparing for long-distance races, long runs may constitute more of weekly mileage)
Long runs are most often done at an easy, conversational effort, which leads to significant aerobic adaptations. Experienced and injury-free runners can incorporate segments of faster running into long runs. Long run workouts are beneficial when training for a half marathon, marathon, or ultra, in order to stimulate the specific demands of race day. (Read more on long run workouts in this article.)
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What’s your favorite type of running workout?
This is a great breakdown! I think the most confusing workouts for many runners are tempo/threshold runs. They really need to be done as prescribed to get the most benefit from them!
I’m actually getting more comfortable with ‘easy’ runs. I always do my long runs too fast, but running the trails has taught me to slow down. I’m enjoying these runs so much and it’s no surprise that I had some fast finish times on my races early last year. You can teach an old dog new tricks…
Just this morning I had “speed repeats” on my plan. We went to the track and did 4 minutes at 3:55min/km pace, followed by 3 minutes of light jogging. I needed those breaks!
I feel that intervals combined with easy runs make a huge difference to my training.
It’s been eons since I’ve done any speed training. Hoping to rectify that this Spring!
I actually really like strides (I can be fast for a short amount of time, LOL!) and fartleks (same thing!) a lot. When I’m training for something I’ll do the rest, but some I like better than others, for sure.
Very nice rundown (haha see what I did?)
There are so many different kinds of runs, with so many purposes.
Thanks for sharing!