Two weeks ago, the inspiration for this series or articles was the unseasonably warm weather that brought more winter runners and beginner runners out of the woodwork. Wouldn’t you know it, in typical midwest fashion, we have been hit with all of winter in the time frame of two weeks. Maybe it’s time to set some weather related left and right limits on what is acceptable to run in. How cold is too cold? For me, if there is wind blowing harder than 10 MPH, 25 degrees is my cut off for outside running. If there is no wind, I will run outdoors down to 20 degrees. Anything colder than that and I go to the indoor track at the Mokena Park District facility. After a couple minutes of warming up, 20 degrees really isn’t that bad. After all, when my cousin and I started our run in the Grand Canyon in November, it was 15 degrees at the top of the South Rim. It’s good for you to acclimate somewhat to colder temps.
Now that we got that out of the way, the main point of this article is to give some ideas and resources on how to provide some variation to running to keep it interesting. Most beginner runners pick up the sport and start running long miles at a low intensity. There is a time, place, and purpose to that and I encourage it. Developing an aerobic foundation is important not only for running performance but also for health (lower resting heart rate, lower blood pressure, etc). After some time of long slow distance (LSD) people often times become bored, tired, or both. At that point, it is time to begin adding some variation to training.
Long slow distance is incredibly effective at developing aerobic capacity, especially at first. However, after long periods of time doing solely long slow distance, people tend to hit a plateau in performance (and often times stop losing weight and even begin to gain weight). Not to mention that the long miles have a tendency of adding up leading to achy joints and sometimes overuse injuries. The next step that is often overlooked is beginning to improve your anaerobic capacity and lactate threshold. Lactate threshold is the point at which your body switches over from aerobic energy systems to anaerobic glycolysis. This generally happens at a higher heart rate. I’ll spare you the physiology as to what is occurring and make a general statement saying that this is the point where your legs and muscles begin to “burn.” (Yes, I know that is over generalized, but this article is meant for beginners, not PhD candidates in physiology).
Time to pick up the intensity. Here are a few of my favorite ways to do that:
-10x30 second hill sprints with 2 minutes rest
-6-10x200 meter sprints with 1-2 minutes rest
-4-8x400 meter runs with 2 minutes rest
-2-4x800 meter runs with 3-4 minutes rest
-20 minutes: at the start of each minute, sprint 100 meters
-Fartlek (yes, thats a real word). Go out for a long run and intersperse high intensity intervals followed by active rest of jogging. For example, go for a 30 minute run starting with a 5 minute warm up at a slow pace, followed by the remaining time do 1 minute hard run followed by 1 minute slow jog. Repeat until the 30 minutes is up. That is one example of about 1,000 different ways you can perform this workout.
Beginner runners (and even intermediate runners) often times avoid what is referred to as “speed work” because it can be very difficult and uncomfortable. However, elite runners understand the importance of incorporating this type of training on a regular basis. The benefits of this type of training include improved running efficiency, increased muscle and improved body composition, improved lactate threshold, and often times improvement in rate of weight loss (let’s face it, isn’t that why most people begin running?). If you are looking for good running programs that mix aerobic and anaerobic efforts, check out runrx.
The next level individuals must go to is strength training. Elite runners understand the importance of strength training. Muscle and strength is important. It improves insulin sensitivity, increases basal metabolic rate, decreases chance of injury, and makes you look better. Strength training is avoided mainly because of a fear of “bulkiness” and a lack of general knowledge on where to begin. Here are a couple good resources: lift heavy run long, and stronglifts. Both of these programs will take you from beginner to intermediate and help you fall in love with strength and teach you how to correctly approach it.
The primary reason I am so adamant about strength training for people beginning a fitness program (besides the health benefits) is that very very few of us have the potential to be elite runners. Sorry to say but it is what it is. Most humans respond very well to programs that blend base levels of strength and base levels of endurance. We are not specialists by nature. Our ancestors were able to run long distances, lift and carry heavy objects, climb objects, and moved upwards of 4-6 miles on a daily basis. When it comes to general health, a lot of evidence is pointing towards training programs that mimic that level of functional work capacity. Strength often gets ignored by new years resolutioners, but it should carry as much importance as anything else. If your goal is to run a sub 3 hour marathon, your training should reflect that, but if your goal is to improve overall health and fitness variation is your best friend.
Last, let’s face it, this time of year is not conducive to a lot of running. I just checked my weather app and it is 7 degrees outside. 7. That’s too cold. Not to mention there is nearly a foot of snow on the ground, which leads to a game I like to refer to as sidewalk roulette. 50% of sidewalks are cleared and the other 50% aren’t. The game gets really interesting when people neglect salting their sidewalks! Not a fun game to play. This time of year, I’ll typically break out the row machine and do a lot of those aforementioned interval workouts. Another favorite of mine is heading up to Lemont and doing some cross country skiing. I have never tried snowshoeing but that may be next on my list. Our area also has some fantastic crossfit gyms that spend a lot of time developing proper programming and individual attention.
To sum up, variation will not only improve your overall health and fitness, it will keep you interested in training and running for the long term.