Running 101 (for Schralpers)

Train WreckAugust 3, 2009

Believe it or not, there are people out there are just starting to get into athletics for the first time in their lives. Some of them still find ski equipment intimidating, and fields of snow cold and loney. They stand by bewildered and call us “schralpers,” “nodiks,” and “stick twitchers.” They don’t get the inside jokes on  and think Team Today has something to do with Lymphoma and purple t-shirts.

We in the know tend to call these people “runners”.


(photo by Bob Stinson)

The other day a friend sent me a message on facebook asking for entry-level training advice for longer running races. He’s in his mid thirties, has been running for a couple of years without coaching, and is currently running 5-7 miles a day. This is a typical situation for a new runner that is reaching out and asking for help for the first time.

The following is my response, edited for clarity and audience…

Running 101

The biggest mistake that runners make as beginners is to run the same hard workout every day without taking enough rest. Most beginners just hammer out 4-7 hard miles every day and try to beat their previous longest or fastest run. Some times they even run every day of the week without taking a day off.

The first thing to remember is to make sure you put plenty of variation in your training, including at least one rest day a week. This means changing your workout every day, making sure to follow longer or harder days with easy days.

The basic strategy looks something like this:

  • Mon: long
  • Tue: hard
  • Wed: easy
  • Thur: hard
  • Fri: easy
  • Sat: long
  • Sun: off

This plan has you doing a different workout every day and gives you the opportunity to take a full day of rest each week. If you aren’t running 6 days a week, you can adjust the plan by turning the easy days into rest days and keeping in the long or hard days. It’s more of a framework instead of a plan, so you can play around with it as long as you follow the basic rules of the game.

Sometimes your life is just too busy to run on a set schedule, and no matter how hard you try you won’t be able to get your plan to work. For example, If the 7-day rotation doesn’t work for you it may work best for you to run for ten days then take two days off to spend time with family or on the house. The bottom line is all about experimenting and finding the best pattern for your lifestyle while following the guidelines.

“Long” days are meant to build endurance. On these days you should keep your speed slow so that you can run a long distance without getting your heart rate up too high. You should avoid hills and crazy terrain unless you can control yourself enough to walk them or otherwise take them really easy.

Hard days should be run harder, but also for less time. A common method is to run faster for short bursts with rests in between to get a little intensity in. We call this variation “intervals”, and they are always preceded and proceeded with a 15 minute easy warm-up or cool-down.

For a 5-K race your intervals would be something like 6×400 meters, 3×800 meters, 2×1600 meters, or some combination of the above. The goal is to run them all as fast as you can without dying in the middle while maintaining smooth, comfortable technique. Remember that 400 meters is once around a track.

If you are confused about how hard to run, just think of it as your chance to let go a little harder and have some fun. If you aren’t looking forward to the next interval, or even the next workout, then you are running probably running too hard.

For a longer marathon race you don’t have to stress about the short speed, but can throw in 3×10 minutes at a slightly higher pace to mix up the workout as long as they are all done with equal effort. Another trick is to go out and run your goal race pace for 7-10 minutes at a time to get a feel for it. You can use a calculator, a watch, and some mile posts on a bike path as a guide.

Here’s the biggest secret of all: If you are spending your workouts doing your favorite activities each day your body will magically gravitate toward the simple plan given above, and your new plan will be tailored just for you. This is because the basic schema above is organized around the most natural flow of activity for your (human) body. Your body wants to do that plan, but you just probably aren’t used to listening to it yet.

Cross Training

This brings us to cross training. A simple fact about running is that it is very hard on your muscles and joints, and straining injuries like tendonitis are extremely common with runners. Remember how your mom always said that driving faster isn’t faster if you get a speeding ticket? Just like driving, running harder doesn’t help at all if it gets you injured, so the best way to avoid injury is by relaxing and mixing up your sports each day.

If you like being in the mountains, get up in the mountains. If you like being on a bike, get on a bike. If you like it all, do a different activity each day. Personally, I’ve developed a love for nordic skiing, hiking, and running, so I hike one day, roller ski the next day, then run the other day. If you mix your days up like this, the workouts sort of fade away and you end up getting fit by just getting outside and having fun.

The idea is to rest one system of more delicate mechanical body parts while working another. So even though you’ve taxed your legs with with a couple of long runs, you might still be able to go for a bike or double pole the next day which will keep your heart pumping while using a completely different set of muscles. This gives your running muscles a chance to rest while still working your cardio system.

The trick here is that your heart and lungs (the cardiovascular system) can take a lot more abuse than your muscles and joints. This is because repetitive high-impact movements like running or double poling start to wear down those joints and muscles while the heart just keeps pumping away with zero impact.

Go try to injure your heart. I dare you.

Train What You Race

Generally speaking, you want to train by doing the same activities that you will do during your race. If you are running your first marathon, then don’t stress the speed work and just get out there and get as much mileage as possible on the same type of terrain that you will cover during the race. If you are running rugged trail races, make sure you are doing lots of rock-hopping and fast feet over rugged trails. If you want to run a 5K, run more short hills and only do one long day a week, all on the same terrain that you’ll run in the race.

This is called “specificity,” which is not to be confused with “boring repetition.” Train specific, but don’t forget to mix it up.

Training Chi

While its nice to have a little structure from a plan, the most important thing is to figure out how to get the sport to fit into your lifestyle so you can stay psyched and keep all of your different energies in balance. The best coach in the world can hand you a perfectly tailored plan on a magic mega-donic excel spreadsheet, but if you follow it like a programmed robot your fitness will start to look like a mega-donic excel spreadsheet instead of a soul searing, irreplaceable oil-on-canvas masterpiece.

Say it with me: “mega-donic.”

I’d say that cramming workouts in with a full time job is the biggest challenge for the average Joe runner. You come home tired and all you want to do is flop down on the coach for a moment of peace a beer and some Bob Marley. That’s cool, but trust me, the beer tastes much better after the run, and even Bob got of his keister to soccer. Just start out by put your running stuff on to go for a walk down your favorite path to reflect on the day. Chances are that walking for a mile outside at 5:30pm will inspire you to run, and by then it won’t be so hard because you’ll already be out there.

See? If you wanted to run but could figure out how to motivate yourself, chances are you just need to experiment and listen to your body to find the easiest path forward.

Running 102

As you start to zero in on a routine that works for you, you’ll get more used to your body’s phases and get better at taxing your body. While you progress you’ll find that rest is as important or even more important as the actual workouts themselves. This continues down the line to pro athletes where rest is by far the most critical part of the plan. If they miss a nap or get a bad night of sleep they won’t be able to get as much out of the next workout as they’d like.

So learn to listen to your body’s signals, and rest when you need to. Don’t force yourself to run if you manage to run for 8-10 miles and feel totally worked the next day. Go for a nice walk or slow hike, or whatever you need to do to reflect on that hard workout and feel good about the solid effort you put in. Your body will come around, and you’ll be twice as happy when you can do another hard effort tomorrow and look forward to even the next rest day.

Here are the top ten training tips from

Good luck!

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