Run Training Overview: How to Approach the Most Common Race Distances

“You need more power!”

“No, you need to run faster!”

“What’s a tempo? Do I need to do those tempo things if I’m doing the marathon?”

“How many miles do I need to run a half marathon?”

“Are intervals and repeats the same thing?”

These are all questions every competitive runner (or intrigued would-be-runner) have asked their coach, the internet, or their friend who runs. Unfortunately, there are several myths and even more misinformation out there.

To set the record straight, we consulted with Dr. Pablo Borceguin, who leveraged his cumulative 15+ years of experience as a coach and distance runner to bring us the answer to common questions about training for a race.

The good news is that this post will give you the fundamental knowledge necessary to preparing for your next race, whether it’s one mile or a marathon.

So turn up the screen brightness, take a sip of your coffee, and put on your reading glasses (if you haven’t already done so) and let’s get to it. 

Training Terms to Know

Finish lineBefore I dive into specifics regarding what a training plan should look like, it is important to define common terms you will see and hear from running experts, coaches, and fellow runners. The terms are typically used to describe different physical aspects of training or types of workouts that you may see in your plan depending on the event you are racing. Unfortunately, these terms get used incorrectly all the time. 

Lactic Acid Threshold Training (or Tempos)

Lactic acid is a byproduct created by the body during intense exercise. Essentially, as the need for oxygen outpaces the presence of oxygen, your body produces lactate, which can be converted to energy without oxygen. However, lactate can build up in your bloodstream faster than the body can use it, leading to interference with muscle contraction and the familiar “burning” feeling from working out.

Lactic threshold training, also know as tempos or tempo runs, are specifically focused on improving the body’s ability to clear blood lactate (to prevent the exponential increase in blood lactic acid). By training your lactic acid threshold, you can run at a faster pace without “feeling the burn.”

Tempo pace is commonly measured as the pace you can hold for a 10-mile run. However, not everyone can complete a 10-mile run, and that’s okay! The distance can be adapted to the runner. A newer or less-trained runner can determine their tempo pace using a 10k run. 

If you’re uncertain if you need to know your tempo pace, or how to determine it if you can’t run 6+ miles yet, that’s a great question for a running coach. They can provide guidance on the role of tempos in your training and how to determine pace.

Maximal Oxygen Uptake (or V02 Max)

VO2 Max measures the most amount of oxygen the body can use. Humans breathe in oxygen, but only actually use a small portion of it. Essentially, you breathe in oxygen and then breathe out oxygen and carbon dioxide. Understanding how much oxygen you use indicates capacity for energy creation during exercise – the more oxygen you use, the more energy you get. Runners with higher V02 max can run faster and, generally speaking, more efficiently. 

Repeats vs. Intervals

On the surface, repeats and interval training workouts seem similar, if not entirely the same. Each serves a distinct purpose in running training.

Repeats are anaerobic, meaning that they’re performed “without oxygen.” During repeats, you’ll have a set distance (this can range from 200 meters to a mile or more) that you’ll run repeatedly, with a rest period in between each.

For instance, if you’re running mile repeats, after your warm up, you’ll run a mile, then rest for a minute (this can be an active rest like walking or jogging, or you can stop entirely). Then you’ll run the mile again, with a goal of hitting the same time as your first mile. Then you’ll rest again. Then run again. Then rest again. You continue this cycle for as many repetitions as your workout dictates.

These workouts focus on building power, speed, and running economy. In order to gain the anaerobic benefits, you’ll want to push the pace. You should be running at or above your race pace. Rest periods need to be short enough to keep your heart rate up. Repeats are generally fast and performed in shorter distances than intervals and tempos.

Interval runs are similar to repeats in that you’re working in a higher and lower intensity, only with intervals, you get a longer recovery time and you don’t take standing rest. High intensity or “effort” periods can be determined by duration or distance, and should be run at a tempo or race pace. Low intensity or “recovery” intervals should be run at a comfortable pace.

The focus of interval runs is to increase a runner’s VO2 max, and the runs are necessarily aerobic. Recovery intervals place higher demand on the body’s ability to use oxygen efficiently in order to maintain a jog while recovering from a high effort interval.

Phew! Now that we have all of the technical terms out of the way, let's get to the training!

 

Questions to Ask Before Starting to Trian

Before you put your shoes on and race to the nearest track to do your first repeat workout, there a few vital pieces of information you need. First and foremost, you need a training plan.

When selecting a training plan, you need to ask yourself the following questions: 

  1. How long is the race?
  2. When is the race? 
  3. What is your goal? Do you want to run at a specific pace, or do you just want to finish?
  4. How many days per week can you train? 
  5. What was your previous peak mileage (if any)? 

These are all important questions to ask yourself when training for any event. You will need a minimum of 2 to 6 months of training depending on your experience, goals, and race distance. For example, if you are training for the marathon, you’ll want to aim for the full 6 months to build the base you need. On the other end of the spectrum, if your goal is to run a competitive mile on the track, you can get away with 2 months of training to be able to competitively run shorter distances. Most training cycles tend to be grouped into 6-month training cycles.

Your targeted weekly mileage should be based on previous experience and consistent with the distance of your race. For example, a marathoner needs more mileage per week to be able to build enough endurance to finish the race, while a competitive miler may get away with far fewer miles per week (MPW) because significant endurance is not required.

 

Phases of Training

Most running calendars follow a specific periodization process to help structure training. While there may be some variation, most researchers agree on the following training plan progression:

  • Base: gradually building weekly mileage to create endurance (4-6 weeks)
  • Intensity: higher intensity at lower volume to create speed and aerobic power (4-6 weeks)
  • Race Prep: focused workouts that are more specific to your race, including “practice races” to prep you for your goal race (4-6 weeks)
  • Taper: dialing back the intensity and mileage to allow the body to fully recover for your goal race (2 to 3 weeks before your goal race)

This is one example of a periodization process; other processes may have five steps instead of four. Most plans, if not all, start with a base phase and end with a taper.

Lastly, and very importantly, there is no magic progression that will give you the best results. Different runners have taken different paths to a successful season.

Training for the Mile 

The mile is usually the staple mark for runners and non-runners to be able to identify how competitive someone is. Everyone has run the mile before – whether it was for PE in high school or for competition – everybody knows what it's like to run a mile. (Although, 4 laps on the track is 1600 meters; where a full mile is 1609 meters. If you know this, runners will know that you are a serious athlete or a running nerd.)

We all remember starting off fast on the first two laps during high school PE and dying on the third and fourth lap. To successfully and competitively run the mile, you need to develop an adequate combination of power, strength, speed, and endurance

In regards to training, athletes can get by on as little as 1 to 2 months of training. Moderate-to-low weekly mileages (20-30 MPW) are perfectly acceptable – although it is not uncommon for some runners to push their weekly mileage into the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s.

During the intensity phase of training, as well as race prep, runners should include a combination of repeats, tempos, and intervals with a heavier focus on repeats and shorter intervals. The focus in training for the mile is to develop your speed and power with repeats and improve your endurance with intervals. The speed and power will help you run faster while the intervals will decrease the likelihood of “dying out” on the last 2 laps.

Mile races tend to be more competitive just by the nature and history of the distance. These races usually attract faster herds of runners, and that level of competition is what makes the mile an intense race. It is important to acknowledge that most miles tend to be hosted at track events – although there are a few mile road races. There are mile walks, but most people have the capacity to complete a running mile with little training.

 

Training for a 5K

Happy RunnersThe 5k race has become an increasingly popular race for runners of all levels. Couch-to-5k programs are a great gateway to a more active lifestyle, and many charity or benefit events are a 5k distance. While a 5k is a walkable distance, you may feel tired from walking the entire 3.1 miles! This section will focus on the training necessary to be able to run most of the race.

Unlike the mile, the 5k requires more focus on building the proper base to be able to complete the running. Secondly, more competitive runners will focus more on tempos and interval training than on repeats. The focus of training for those who want to PR is to build the body’s capacity to hold a faster pace. This is accomplished by improving the body’s ability to clear out the stuff that makes you burn and run slower, namely, lactic acid. Going back to the different workout types, we recall this is accomplished with tempos and interval training. 

A weekly mileage of 20 to 30 miles per week is acceptable to build a strong enough base and allow you to complete the race feeling good. Although, it is common to see competitive runners push their weekly miles to 60+ miles per week for this race!

If it’s your first time running a 5k, don’t worry about the time. Find a pace that is comfortable for you and try to beat that time the next time you race a 5k! For those of you wondering what the fastest men’s and women’s 5k time is, they are 12:37 and 14:11 -- which comes out to 4:04 and 4:34 minutes per mile, respectively. That’s quick!

Training for a Half-Marathon

The half marathon is like the mid-way point for those runners who have a goal to run a marathon, but not quite ready for the grueling 26.2 mile race. Don’t be fooled, a 13.1 mile race is still demanding! If a half-marathon is on your calendar for the year, follow these tips to make you successful!

Build your mileage! If you want to feel good about your half-marathon, you’ll need to put on some good miles; ideally 40 miles or more spread over 5 or more days. As mileage begins to increase, it is important to run the weekly mileage over more days to decrease the chance of injury.

In addition to more miles, it is essential to include a “long run” in your weekly schedule. Your long run should make up about 25%-33% of your weekly mileage. Ideally, you’ll want to include a 10- to 11-mile long run during the later half of the base phase or in the intensity phase. The long run will give you the training capacity to be able to complete your half marathon, not to mention provide valuable mental training for the stress of race day. 

If a PR is more important than just finishing, including tempos and interval training is a must. The half marathon requires a strong lactate threshold and V02 max to equip you with the proper training to give you more endurance. Repeats should also be included to improve running economy, but the emphasis should be on tempos and intervals. 

 

Training for a Marathon

Finishing a marathon is a huge accomplishment, regardless of how many walking breaks you have to take. The marathon is no joke. It requires a strong foundation of building mileage, a delicate energy balance, and a ton of willpower. The marathon will challenge your brain, body, and spirit. 

If it is your first marathon, you’ll want a minimum of 4 to 6 months of preparation, and it’s best if you already run at least semi-regularly. Next, building a strong base with long runs is essential! Research shows that runners who completed 3 long runs between 20-23 miles within 10 weeks of the marathon had a higher chance of finishing the race. The long run should be followed by a day off or a recovery run. Long runs are demanding on both the body and energy systems. 

The first part of your training should be base training – similar to all the other training calendars – with the goal of building your weekly mileage to as much as safely possible during the base phase. Some runners can get by on 40 MPW with 3 days of training, though that’s unnecessarily risky. It’s safer to run at least 5 days a week and build up the mileage to 50+ MPW. The fewer days you run, the more you should focus on building up mileage rather than performing specialized workouts.

If you’re looking to be more competitive, include lactic threshold training, marathon pace running, and a touch of intervals in addition to long runs. These types of workouts should be the bulk of your training season and can help to accumulate miles.

Marathon running introduces two additional considerations that weren’t required at the shorter distance. The first is that there should be one weekly long run that progressively becomes longer and peaks at 20-23 miles, although some runners do up to a 30-mile long run. Generally, a 30-mile long run is not necessary; it's overkill. A 23-mile long run plus the race adrenaline you get will power you through those last 3 miles during the actual race.

The second consideration is nutrition. Unlike the shorter race distances discussed, marathon runners are at risk for “hitting the wall.” Any marathon runner can tell you about it. It hurts, its dreadful, and some say that it can be inevitable. Fortunately, science shows that hitting the wall can be avoided with proper training and nutrition.

Carbohydrates are the runner's best friend to assist with building up the glycogen stores in the body, a tactic commonly known as “carboloading.” Once glycogen runs out, the body resorts to burning more fat, which is a difficult process for the body and cues the grueling feeling of hitting the wall. 

Research strongly supports the use of carbohydrate supplements and some sports drinks. Other products such as ginseng, bee pollen, and numerous herbs and plants lack scientific data to support their claims. Regardless, when it comes to deciding at which mile to consume a snack or sip a drink, a runner should practice through trial and error during their long runs. Training is the opportunity to experiment and identify what will work best for you come race day. 

 

Get to Training!

Each race distance has its own unique training specifics. For example, the mile will be more focused on speed and power while the marathon requires heavy endurance training and a focus on long runs. This article provides you with a basic understanding of what a training plan should look like for each of these distances without diving too deep. Scientists have written books with hundreds of pages of valuable information about each of these distances.

I strongly recommend a running coach to help you establish a running plan. Not only can a running coach provide you with a road map to successful training, he or she can connect you with other runners to help keep you motivated to train. Whether it's the mile or the marathon, we can all use a running buddy or two to push us through training. 

Race Training Overview

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