Every runner who’s scraped rubber for two consecutive steps realizes there’s no magic pill in distance running. Do the work; reap the rewards. I’m not the first and won’t be the last to write a post on aerobic training for runners (take a look at our recent post on racing for a few more examples).
The rule-all, always works, everyone must do it factor for distance runners is (big reveal!) aerobic conditioning in training. Hands down. It’s not as obvious of a conclusion as one would think, if you consider how the vast majority of runners train.
Follow me a moment as I outline this.
What Most do Wrong
They are great when you’re gearing up for the final push toward your peak competition. Otherwise, outside of the highly self-aware and carefully intentional athlete, they are likely more of a hindrance than a help. And they are NOT aerobic conditioning.
Too hard too often.
A well-known Olympian from our area likes to tell the story of his middle school years and how he trained. He had this 4 mile loop he would run from his house. Every day he would try to run it faster and faster. Naturally, that would be a silly strategy for anyone with long-term aspirations. Incidentally, a great many runners do similar things (trying to go longer every day, further every run, a little faster each time, etc.).
The most common symptom of this issue is runners running approximately the same distance most every day. But the other side is running about the same pace for every run. Both are problematic.
Why Those are Wrong
Very smart people, who have done research over long periods of time, consistently agree on the physiological happenings of the primary categories of training (like aerobic and anaerobic). I’m not a science person. I don’t do my own research, so I suggest reading their stuff (top recommendation is Healthy Intelligent Training by Dr. Keith Livingstone, but I also find a lot of value in Steve Magness’s work).
I will synthesize one fundamentally essential idea from all of the fancy science: for distance runners (and even middle distance), everything else you do depends first on your aerobic capacity.
The reason the list above is wrong is because none of those things are effective at building aerobic capacity in training. To completely understand why, you probably need to read the science. The truth of it is that there is a very small list of best ways to build aerobic capacity. And for a distance runner, the vast majority of what you do in training should come from that small list. Let me break it down.
The Three Guiding Principles For Aerobic Training
1. Build volume slowly over time.
Speed is not nearly as important as distance. Running longer every day doesn’t work either. The common sense approach (popularized first by Lydiard) is to do something like every-other day long/short with every 3rd or 4th long being a little longer than the previous two or three (the traditional long run).
2. Vary distance and effort.
To oversimplify, just don’t do the same distance and effort two days in a row (or if you do, definitely do something different on the third day). Fans of the 80/20 rule will cringe at what I am about to say, but it needs saying. You should be running closer to 50% of your runs at a harder effort than simple easy running. That said, harder efforts include things like simple fartleks and long runs. I am NOT advocating for interval workouts every-other day, as you hopefully have already realized from above comments.
3. Avoid extreme efforts.
The fact about growing aerobic capacity is that it is done most effectively through regular moderate-effort runs. In the opposite extreme, if a run is too easy, then it may have little or no actual benefit to your fitness. When building aerobic capacity, the best course of action is to make sure every run is quality. To do that without over training, harder efforts need to be moderate enough that they do not require serious periods of recovery after the fact.
At this point, I want to do the practical thing and give some examples. Bear in mind, however, that we do NOT condone people trying to take and replicate someone else’s examples of training. If you do want some support in crafting your own version of this, we are happy to consult with you about your training.
How it Looks
Consider this example of a very common week of training for me and Andi. (I am outlining both to show how it can scale. We do very different volumes while implementing exactly the same concepts). Also, nearly everything I am sharing is informed by or directly references principles founded by Arthur Lydiard and captured in Dr. Livingstone’s book.
Andi’s Week (50-65 miles)
Monday: 10 miles, 30-45min STEADY
Tuesday: 4-6 miles EASY
Wednesday: 12 miles, 30-60min STEADY
Thursday: 4-6 miles EASY
Friday: 6-8 miles, fartlek/striding throughout
Saturday: 14-18 miles EASY to MODERATE
Zach’s Week (85-100 miles)
Monday: 10-12 miles EASY
Tuesday: 14-16 miles, 60min STEADY
Wednesday: 10-12 miles EASY
Thursday: 14-16 miles, 45-60min STEADY
Friday: 10-12 miles, fartlek/striding throughout
Saturday: 18-22 miles EASY-MODERATE
Sunday: 8-12 miles EASY
EASY = low end of aerobic threshold (based on EFFORT, not pace)
STEADY = (borrowed from Lydiard/Livingstone) the effort is something in the high end of aerobic threshold, usually a little slower than marathon pace effort
FARTLEK/STRIDING = we do a short, fast stride every 3 or so minutes over the course of the run (up to 10 total)
*It is worth noting that neither of us actually run consistently uniform weeks. We are adapting constantly because of schedules and kids. Additionally, these weeks represent what we are doing at our highest sustained point of training. We take at least 6 weeks to build up to that point.
Some Lessons Learned
Understanding how especially nuanced and contextual these things are, I’ve included one more contemplation on how we adapt the concepts.
1. Training Based on Effort
Trying to train based on effort instead of tangible things like pace is hard. Heart rate monitors are helpful, and some of the newer tech in things like foot pods are even better. However, any kind of external measurement is a kind of handicap that ultimately reduces a runner’s ability to effectively self-regulate. Keen self-awareness beats reliance on external data every time.
2. Sustaining Higher Volumes
For Zach, the focus is much more on sustaining higher volumes and longer moderately hard efforts.
3. Focusing on Consistent Quality
For Andi, health has prohibited her from extending herself as much. She focuses a bit more on consistent quality and a bit less on length of individual runs and weekly mileage.
4. Containing Efforts
Zach repeatedly needs to remind himself (check out his July 30th run on Strava for an example) to contain his efforts. He must fight the urgency to run faster and harder on workout days.
Andi feels the need to race a bit more than Zach does simply for the enjoyment of it (we do both love racing).
5. Maintaining Steady Efforts
Steady efforts almost always feel too easy, and that’s a good thing. Most of the time, when I finish a steady run done properly, I feel like I can just keep going and going at that pace. That’s kind of the point.
6. Evaluating Soreness
Soreness is not actually a good thing. In most instances, soreness as a result of hard efforts is indicative of some degree of acidosis in the muscles. This is what happens when you run too hard – lactate threshold kind of idea. This is not including things like tight muscles and potential soreness from injury-related things.
7. Considering Effort Variation
Effort, whether easy or moderate or steady or otherwise, is always a spectrum. Effort varies based on a multitude of factors like sleep, time of day, hydration, temperature, terrain, etc. It makes no sense to think that because I ran 5:41 pace for an hour a week ago, that I should be able to automatically do that or better this week. I don’t really care whether I run 5:30 pace or 5:50 pace so long as the effort falls within the window of the intended effort for that run.
Other considerations worth mentioning:
- Running surfaces. We recommend at least 1 or 2 runs/week on soft surfaces like grass, trails, etc.
- Type of shoe. Neither of us ever train in racing shoes on a regular basis. There is some merit in wearing a more aggressive shoe now and then for things like fartlek days.
- Nutrition and hydration. Zach almost never takes any kind of aid. He rarely even water during workouts, the exception being some long runs, and so many other ancillary details.
Ultimately, the importance of effective aerobic conditioning for running training simply cannot be overstated. Raising aerobic fitness is the key to raising the fitness ceiling. Even so, it is inglorious and unattractive and takes time. Lots of time… for long periods of time, when done properly. (A good marathon training cycle really should be a 6-month endeavor.)
So if nothing else, follow those three simple guiding principles. You’ll be well on your way to a powerful aerobic base on which to grow your fitness during training.