I’m not quite there yet, but I can imagine a time in the not so very distant future when I have to accept that I’ll never set another PR, and change my running mindset. There will always be age group awards, of course, and the general thrill of competition, but I’ve begun to imagine what it would look like if I were to eventually quit running for records and started running for health. Or, more specifically, what would my training be like if all I cared about was maximizing the health benefits of running?
Looking over some recent studies, I’d suggest that the answer is that it would look pretty much just like training for a fast 5k.
In other words, weekly workouts when running for health would include a close-to-even mix of high intensity intervals, weight training, and slow and steady running.
- Increasing VO2 max
- Increasing efficiency (and therefore velocity at VO2 max, or VVO2 max)
- Mitochondrial growth and activity (key for reducing the effects of aging, improving overall energy level and availability)
- Improving metabolic processing of fats and carbohydrates
- (Seriously True! When I doubled my mileage and cut down on speed work in preparation for a half marathon, I gained weight.)
- Burning energy after exercise
But, intervals are hard and can take a toll on the body, so most people suggest no more than two (maybe three) such workouts in a week. I’m capping out at two. One of those will certainly be my all time favorite, the 30/20/10.
Maybe the biggest danger of any workout is injury, and intervals might be especially dangerous there. If you get injured, you’re off the road for a long while, and any running is better than no running. So the top goal of any plan must be to stay healthy. How to do that? Strength training.
Strength helps when you’re young and is one key to speed (by improving economy), but when you’re… not so young, strength training is absolutely essential. Sure, it’ll keep you fast(ish), but more importantly, if you don’t do it you’ll lose muscle mass every year, and sooner or later—probably sooner—you’re going to be staying home and nursing an injury instead of getting in your miles.
So to my two intervals per week I have to add two strength sessions, with plyometrics, (probably on the same days).
Slow and Steady Running (marathon pace)
So far we’ve got four workouts, but only two days per week. What about the other five days? Well, most of those should be the slow and steady runs, which do a few things.
- They are “recovery runs” (kind of an oxymoron, but let’s ignore that), letting your muscles have a light day to adapt to the intervals
- They develop slow twitch muscles, adding capillaries and improving lactate clearance
- They prevent me from going insane. It’s nice to get up and know you’re scheduled for an easy run sometimes.
- There is increasing anecdotal evidence that top runners tend to spend a lot of time (70-80%) at this pace.
And Don’t Forget to Rest
I’ve come to believe in a five day per week schedule. When I get hurt or busy, I don’t even mind dropping that to four (maybe a walk or a bike ride instead of a slow run). But days off of running are sacred. Not only do they keep you out of the doctor’s office, they are when your body actually improves. Exercise stresses; rest builds.