Note from Matt: It’s officially the holiday season, our Christmas tree is up, and today I’m pleased as punch to publish this expanded, updated version of one of our most popular posts ever … which has nothing whatsoever to do with the holidays. (But for some some holiday hijinks that have nothing whatsoever to do with actionable fitness advice, check out our most recent podcast episode.)
In this updated post, author Doug Hay has added an eighth running workout to the original seven, expanded on many of the sample workouts and added several more, and included a “Putting It All Together” section — to help you not just read and nod along, but actually put this stuff into action and build a training plan around it.
With that, here’s Doug!
When did running get so complicated?
I ask myself that all the time, usually when frustrated by a tough workout on my training plan or a confusing training concept.
Running is such a simple act — exactly what drew me to it in the first place — until you complicate it with drills, exercises, and complex workouts.
Of course, it probably comes as no surprise that the workouts on your training plan aren’t there just to piss you off. They’re included to help you run stronger, faster, and for longer distances.
Unfortunately that doesn’t make it any less complicated, so today I’m going to break down eight common running workouts, and share examples of how the work, and show you how to structure a well rounded week of training.
The Importance of Variety
Before we start wading through the details, let’s first talk about variety. More specifically, why variety in your training is so important.
There’s a little running phenomenon I like to call “Single Speed Running,” where a runner logs nearly all of his or her miles at the exact same effort. Day after day. That speed is usually around 75 percent of max effort — not fast enough to really make your body work hard and adapt, but too fast to build much endurance or count as a “recovery” run.
Chances are it does, since that’s exactly what most runners do.
Not only does Single Speed Running keep you from getting stronger; it also significantly increases the risk of injury: our bodies need variety.
We need uber slow runs just as much as we need Lightning Bolt style sprints. The variety works the cardiovascular system and muscles in different ways, and makes room for both strength-building and recovery.
By understanding the importance of each workout, you’re more likely to begin incorporating a variety into your training, and in return, reaping the benefits.
But first, those workouts need to become less daunting and confusing … the goal of this post.
8 Common Running Workouts, Explained (With Examples)
Below you’ll find a description of eight common running workouts for endurance runners. With each explanation, I’ve also included examples of how to put the workout to use.
Let’s start with the easiest:
1. The Easy Run
I’m putting the easy run first because it’s often the forgotten workout. But it’s also one of the most important.
Running at an easy pace builds endurance, promotes proper form, establishes routine and base mileage, and facilitates recovery. This type of run should be your most common, making up about 65-80% of your mileage (the percentage will vary depending your running philosophy).
The easy run is your aerobic workout, staying within heart-rate zones 1 and 2. If you’re unsure where that is for you, ask yourself this question when you’re running:
Can I keep a conversation going, speaking in paragraphs with full sentences?
Ask it out loud if you’re really unsure … just maybe not when others are within earshot.
If the answer is yes, you’re running in that aerobic, or easy zone, where your body and muscles have the energy and oxygen they need. For most runners, this is also where they should run the majority of their long run miles.
- Workout: 6 miles at an easy, conversational pace. There should be no set structure or fluctuations in speed, but the hardest part will be resisting the temptation to speed up.
- Workout: 45 minutes at an easy pace. With this variation, distance doesn’t matter. You’re running for time instead of distance, so there’s no pressure to hit certain mileage.
2. The Tempo Run
The tempo run’s pace is often called comfortably hard. Difficult enough to require pushing, but comfortable enough to where you can sustain the effort. This is often around 85-90% of your max heart-rate, or just a hair slower than your 10K race pace, where short sentences are possible, but a full-blown conversation isn’t.
If you’re unsure of your paces, check out this pace predictor. It isn’t perfect, but will give you a ballpark pace to aim for.
We run tempo workouts to increase our lactate threshold, or that point at which your body switches from its aerobic system to its anaerobic system, and quickly fatigues thereafter. The higher your threshold at a certain pace, the longer you can sustain that given pace and build strength, speed, and endurance.
- Workout: 40 minute run with 3 x 5 minutes at tempo pace, and a 3 minute recovery in between. For this style workout, you’ll start the 40-minute run with an easy warmup, once warm, begin five minute tempo intervals with three minutes of rest, and repeat three times. Allow for time at the end to cool down.
- Workout: 90 minute run with 3 x 15 minutes at tempo pace, and an 8 minute recovery in between. A workout like this, with longer tempo intervals, is great for marathon racing speed.
- Workout: 60 minute run with 3 x 8 minutes at a tempo pace, and a 4 minute recovery, include hills during tempo sections. Tempo workouts can also include hill training, which is particularly helpful while training for a hilly race.
3. The Progression Workout
Start slow, finish fast.
Over the course of your workout, you’ll increase in pace by starting easy and finishing hard.
This progression in pace gives you a complete workout, using both your aerobic and anaerobic systems, without over-straining your body or requiring the same recovery time as a traditional speed workout.
- Thirds Workout: 15 minutes at an easy pace, 15 minutes at a comfortably hard pace, 15 minutes at a hard pace. In this workout, you’ll increase speed at every 15 minute increment throughout the run, starting at an easy pace and making your way up to a hard pace.
- Fast Finish Workout: 30 minutes at a comfortably easy pace, 10 minutes at a hard pace, 5 minutes all out. Here you’re maintaining the easy pace throughout most of the run, until the final 15 minutes when you increase to hard and then all out. This a great option for mimicking a late race push.
4. The Hill Workout
Hill workouts are often referred to as “speedwork in disguise,” because they offer many of the same benefits of a traditional speed workout, without having to run at top speed.
Running uphill is all about building that explosive power that promotes speed and improved running economy.
Running downhill works your quads, and builds strength in your tendons and joints.
Both are important to a well-balanced runner, so I recommend incorporating uphill and downhill days into training for any sort of hilly course. Just focus your workout on one at a time to get the biggest benefit and reduce the risk of injury.
Hill workouts can be done through hard, short sprints up (or down) a hill, or by running a sustained, gradual hill.
- Short Hill Repeats: 8 hill sprint repeats with light jog back down to rest, following a 3-mile easy run. This type of hill repeat will build explosive strength in the legs, and teach you how to attack shorter hills during a race.
- Sustained Hill Repeats: 5 x half-mile hill climbs on a gradual incline with easy run back down to rest. This is perfect when training for a hilly race, and builds endurance and strength on climbs and flats.
5. The Interval Workout
When you picture the quintessential speed workout, you’re probably thinking of interval training. A set distance, repeated a set number of times, at a set pace. Usually with a short rest period in between. Interval distances can be anywhere from 100 meters to a mile or more. Most marathon training plans focus on distances of 400 meters or longer, but the details are left to the workout creator.
Warning: Don’t piss off your workout creator. Interval workouts will likely be your most painful runs, the ones that leave you doubled over and gasping for air.
Most intervals are designed to build speed and strength by working your anaerobic system, or lactate threshold running, and focus on shorter distances of a mile or less. They can be run on a track or along a set loop.
- Workout: 8 x 400 meters on the track with a 400 meter light jog in between. Try to maintain a consistent pace for each of the 400 meter intervals.
- Yasso 800s: 10 x 800 meters on the track, with a light jog for the same amount of time it took you to run each 800 in between. The classic “marathon predictor workout.” I don’t believe it’s great at predicting race times, but it’s certainly a solid speed and endurance building option (and very tough).
- Workout: 2 x 1,000 meters with 2 minute rest periods + 2 x 800 meters with 90 second rest periods + 2 x 400 meters on the track with 60 second rest periods. In this workout you’re decreasing in the length of each interval, but increasing in pace.
- Workout: 4 x 1,600m with 120 seconds recovery in between. This is an endurance building interval workout. Aim to maintain a consistent pace for each mile, or increase slightly in pace over each interval.
6. The Ladder Run
The Ladder Run is a popular form of interval workout which climbs up, down, or both up and down in distance with a short (often 90 seconds or a 400 meter jog) rest period in between each interval. It’s a fantastic way to challenge yourself and mix things up, with a variety of high-intensity running paces and distances, all in a single workout.
On a track, increase in distance to the “top” of the ladder, or the longest distance interval, before decreasing back down. If you’re just descending the ladder, increase in speed as you decrease in distance.
- Up and Down: 400 meters x 2, 800 meters x 2, 1,600 meters, 800 meters x 2, 400 meters x 2, with a 400 meter light jog in between each interval. This is an incredibly tough workout, which tests and builds both your endurance and leg speed.
- Down: 1,600 meters x 2, 1,200 meters x 2, 800 meters x 2, 400 meters x 2, with a 400 meter light jog in between each interval. As you decrease in distance, you’ll increase in pace.
7. The Fartlek Workout
Ah, the classic Fartlek run. If you’d like to make fun of the name, be sure to pair it with a Jack Daniels joke.
The word fartlek means speed-play in Swedish, and that’s exactly what the workout is. An opportunity to play around with different speeds and distances in a single workout. This was my favorite workout day when I ran cross country in high school, and not just because of the name.
In a sport that requires plenty of structure, the Fartlek run allows your creative juices to flow. The workout is simple as this:
Intermix fast running with slower running, and vary the pace and distance of each interval. It could be as flexible as randomly picking a street corner, tree, car, or lamp post to sprint to, or run at a tempo pace for three minutes, followed by an easy pace for four minutes, and a sprint for one minute, and so on. There are no rules, other than to have variety in your paces and distances.
- Unstructured: 5-mile run with the final 4 miles consisting of Fartlek intervals. This is probably the most approachable workout here (other than an easy run), since you have the freedom to do as you please.
- Structured: 1-mile warmup + 3 miles, including four to six 5-minute surges each followed by a 2- to 3-minute period of easy running + 1-mile cooldown. If you need a little more structure to stay on track, this will still allow for flexibly and play, but is defined by set intervals.
8. The Long Run Workout
But for most people, that’s where it ends. They view long runs as only an opportunity to go long, not fast. I believe strategically planned long runs throughout your training are a great opportunity to work on late race speed, mimic the final push on race day, and toughen your mind to push through the fatigue.
By adding a workout element to you long runs, you’re giving them more structure and added benefit.
Now a few quick rules I recommend:
- Don’t run a long run workout every week, but instead begin to integrate them into your training once you’re already comfortable with the distance.
- Limit your long run workout pace to below a tempo pace, preferable somewhere around your marathon race pace.
During a long run workout, you’ll either increase from an easy pace to your marathon race pace, or alternate between the two.
- 1-2-3 Workout: After your warmup, run 1 mile at marathon pace followed my 1 mile easy, then 2 miles at marathon pace and 2 miles easy, 3 miles at marathon pace and 3 miles easy. Alternatively you can structure this with kilometers instead of miles.
- Countdown Long Run Workout: Take the difference between your easy pace and race pace and divide that by the number mileage of your run. Increase your pace or “count down” by that set increment each mile, so that by the end of the run you have steady increased your pace from easy to race pace.
Putting it all Together: What a Sample Training Week Actually Looks Like
Now that you’ve got the workouts down, let’s explore what a sample training week — which includes a number of these workouts — could look like. I say could, because training structure depends entirely on your distance and pace goals, skill level, and where you are with your training.
But let’s assume you’re training for a marathon, and roughly 10 weeks into a 16 week training plan. Here’s what your plan could look like:
- Monday: Rest.
- Tuesday: Tempo workout — 70 minute run with 3 x 15 minutes at tempo pace, and an 8 minute recovery in between.
- Wednesday: Easy workout — 45 minutes at an easy pace.
- Thursday: Track workout — 2 x 1,000 meters with 2 minute rest periods + 2 x 800 meters with 90 second rest periods + 2 x 400 meters on the track with 60 second rest periods.
- Friday: Rest.
- Saturday: Long run workout — A 17 mile countdown long run.
- Sunday: Easy workout — 30-45 minutes at an easy pace.
As you can see, this schedule includes a lot o the variety mentioned above — both in distance, pace, and the types of workouts.
Challenge Yourself With New Workouts
Remember how we said variety was so important earlier?
Now’s your opportunity to take action. It’s easy to get caught up in a monotonous, comfortable rotation of just a few workouts and paces.
Mix it up. Try something new.
The variety just may increase your speed and strength, and reduce your risk of injury.
Which happens to be every runner’s dream come true.