Time efficient running – run less to run faster?

Running efficiency training ideas

Ever since the marathon boom of the early 1980’s, high-mileage training has been the accepted paradigm among middle and long distance coaches. But according to Bruce Tulloh, cutting back the miles and concentrating on quality is not only more time-efficient, it can also produce superior results for all but very elite runners.

In every walk of life there are trends, and in spite of our claims to open-minded scientific principles, this applies to training theories as much as to clothes or automobiles. Let’s take mileage, for a start. Back in the 1950’s, interval training was perceived to be the only way to success. Then along came Percy Cerutty, coaching Herb Elliott. Herb won the Olympic 1,500m title in a world record time at the age of 21, leading most of the way.

This was evidence enough for many people to switch away from boring interval training on the track and go running up sandhills instead. Almost simultaneously came the Lydiard system, based on running 100 miles a week, which was the basis of the gold medals and world records of Peter Snell and Murray Halberg, and this became the key to success.

The American physiologist David Costill established the fact that at up to about 80km a week there is a straight-line relationship between mileage per week and improvement in VO2max, which added scientific credibility to practical experience (1). From the start of the marathon boom in the 1980s, high mileage has been the theme of all middle and long distance coaching. Exceptions have been rare, partly because coaches have not dared to go against the trend, and partly because, for professional marathon runners with all day to train, mileage is the answer.

However, what applies to full-time marathon runners does not necessarily apply to those of us with less time to train. What Costill did not do (because there are too many variables involved) was to compare the results of, say, 50km per week of intensive training against 80km of steady running.

Tim Noakes, whose book The Lore of Running remains the bible of most distance coaches, sets out several basic principles, one of which is always do the minimum amount of training, which is not as paradoxical as it may appear (2). What he means is: do the minimum amount you need to achieve your goal. If you don’t reach your goal, you can always do more.

Let’s take a couple of examples. Steve Jones broke the world marathon record in a time of 2.08.05, and later ran a 2.07.13 marathon, on about 80 miles a week. No European runner has improved much on this time, even though some have gone to 150 miles a week or more.

Looking at the 5,000m and 10,000m distances, when I broke the European record for three miles, my average mileage for the previous ten weeks was 28 miles a week, including warm-ups and races. The training was hard, but it didn’t take much time, with sessions such as 15 x 400m with a 50-second recovery, or 2 x 2,000m fast.

An actual week of training during that summer is shown below:

  • Mon: warm-up, 2,800m time trial, on grass;
  • Tues: 6 x 880yd on track, averaging 2mins 10secs;
  • Wed: 8 x 700m on grass;
  • Thurs: warm-up, fast strides, 2 x 440yd in 56 and 58 seconds;
  • Fri: rest;
  • Sat: warm-up, 2-mile race.
  • (total miles for the week = 30)
In the following three weeks I ran fewer miles but had 10 races (mostly club races) where I led all the way. If I could run 13min 12sec for three miles on 28 miles a week, while working full-time, then this kind of training is going to be perfectly adequate for an athlete trying to break 30 minutes for 10k – and more than adequate for someone trying to break 40 minutes! You may argue that natural ability has a lot to do with these performances, but all anyone can do is fulfil their genetic potential. In my case, even though I doubled my mileage in later years, I merely equalled that time, never improved on it.

In 2004, a study was published which showed that a three-days-per-week training programme produced significant gain in aerobic power (3). The runners were put onto a training regime that consisted of just three carefully structured running workouts per week, and as a result showed a marked (4.8%) improvement in their VO2max. In a follow-up trial, 25 runners were put on to a three-days-per-week marathon training schedule. After 16 weeks, 21 of the runners started the race; all finished, 15 with personal bests, and four of the remaining six ran faster than in their previous marathon.

A trial like this is not, strictly speaking, scientific evidence, because the numbers were small and there was no control group. Several of them were first-timers, and we have no information about whether the participants were aiming for sub-three hours, sub-four hours or sub-five hours. Almost any group of runners will show improvement if they are part of a closely monitored programme, particularly those at the slower end. The fact that they showed an average of 8% reduction in body fat suggests that they were not very fit to start with. What was significant, though, was that the low mileage did not prevent them from running a full marathon. Based on their own ability, they were given schedules with one endurance session, one tempo session and one speed session per week. They were also encouraged to do two days a week of cross training, such as cycling or strength training.

The point about training is that it is specific to the event. If you want to run a 31-minute 10k (ie at five-minute mile pace) then you have got to become really efficient at running at that pace. You can work on your oxygen uptake and lactate tolerance by running at a faster pace, and you can work on your endurance, heat tolerance and mental strength by running longer distances, but speed endurance is what counts.

If there is a single session that I would nominate as the key to success at 5k and10k, it is ‘long rep’ training – sessions like 3 reps of 1 mile or 5 reps of 1,200m for the 5k runner, and 5-6 reps of 1 mile or 4-5 reps of 2,000m for the 10k runner.

10k programme

When you are preparing a training schedule, the objectives should always go at the top of the page. For a 10k runner these should be:

  • Increase aerobic fitness;
  • Increase speed endurance;
  • Maintain or increase endurance;
  • Avoid injury.

A time-efficient programme would look like this:

Week 1 (no race)

  • Tues: 10 mins warm-up, 10 x 45 secs uphill fast,
  • 10 mins warm-down;
  • Thurs: 6-mile run, including 3 x 8 mins fast, 2 mins jog (10k pace);
  • Sat: 10 mins warm-up, 2 x 15 mins threshold pace (2 mins recovery);
  • Sun: 8-10 mile run, starting slow, finishing faster.
  • Total mileage 24-26

Week 2 (racing week)

  • Tues: 1-mile jog, 2-3 mins stretching, 12 x 400m at 5k pace (60 secs recovery), 800m warm-down;
  • Thurs: 5-mile run, including 8 x 2 mins fast, 1 min slow;
  • Sat: 15 mins warm-up, 8 x 150m fast stride,
    5 mins jog;
  • Sun: warm-up, race 5-10 miles, warm-down.
    Total mileage 21-26

This programme would run for 8-10 weeks, with the idea of making each two-week block harder than the one before. In the racing week the focus is on performing well in the important races.

Marathon programme

For a marathon runner, the priorities would be:

  • Increase endurance;
  • Improve aerobic fitness;
  • Avoid injury.

A time-efficient two-week programme would look like this:

Week 1 (no race)

  • Tues: warm-up, 8 x 800m on track (90 secs recovery jog) at 5k pace;
  • Thurs: 10 mins warm-up, 2 x 20 mins at threshold pace;
  • Sat: 10 mins warm-up, 6 x 1 mile off road, (3 mins recovery) at 10k pace;
  • Sun: long run, 18 miles; 6 miles easy, 6 miles at marathon pace, 6 miles a bit faster.
    Total mileage 41 approx.

Week 2 (racing week)

  • Tues: warm-up, 5 sets of [600m at 5k pace/200m jog/400m at 5k pace];
  • Thurs: 8-10 miles run, with 6 x 5 mins fast interspersed with 2 mins slow;
  • Sat: 5 miles fartlek, off road;
  • Sun: warm-up, 10-mile or half-marathon race, warm-down.
    Total mileage 38 approx.

This programme would start ten weeks before the race, giving four turns of the two-week cycle, followed by a two-week taper. The long ‘progressive’ runs would be 15, 18, 18 and 20 miles in those four cycles.

The advantages of low-mileage training

Low-mileage training saves time – all the training is purposeful and there’s also less likelihood of injury through over-use. However, there are drawbacks including:

  • Decreased general endurance, leading to;
  • Increased ‘vulnerability’ – ie a more rapid loss of fitness when training is missed;
  • An increased chance of injury due to running hard on stiff muscles.

In defence of the low-mileage programme, it’s no problem to have an easy day if you are still tired or stiff from the previous session. All training programmes have to be related to the athlete’s physical status. The additional easy runs, which many athletes incorporate for therapeutic reasons, could equally be replaced by a walk, a swim or a massage. The running surface is also of crucial importance, because doing every session on the road will increase the chances of injury. Only two road sessions should be performed each non-race week, and using a treadmill in the winter or a synthetic track surface will help decrease impact stress.

Bruce Tulloh was European 5,000m champion in 1962 in a time of 14:00.6. The championship record is now 13:10, but the 2002 title was claimed in 13:38

1.Costill, DL (1986) Inside Running: Basics of Sports Physiology. Indianapolis: Benchmark Press
2. Noakes, T (1985) The Lore of Running. OUP
3. Furman Univ Human Performance Lab 2004, quoted in Runner’s World Feb 2006

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