“I can't run,” “I hate running,” “I always get injured” and so on. Having coached hundreds of athletes I have heard it all when it comes to running. So many times I get asked, “How do you run so fast?” I can tell you, it wasn't an overnight occurrence. It took a long time to build up the foundation, speed and fitness to be able to run mile after mile at a strong effort. I find, in the athletes I coach, that many are unrealistic when it comes to running. The athlete thinks he or she is capable of running a lot faster than they really are. When they go out for a run, they take it out from the onset at this “aggressive” effort and top out early on in the run, become injured, or get frustrated and quit. Whereas, if that athlete was realistic with their ability, they would be able to complete the run, feel accomplished, stay healthy and remain consistent, which leads to gains.
Here is an example. An athlete puts on their shoes and heads out the door for an hour run at a pace of 8 minutes per mile. The athlete makes it 2 miles (16 minutes) and they start to feel winded, their shins start to hurt, their energy level starts to wane and the negativity creeps into their brain. This athlete took the run out too hard from the start. Starting at 8 minutes per mile was too aggressive for their current ability level. No matter how much the athlete wants to run 8 minutes per mile, their body is not ready or able to run 8 minutes per mile. The body has not adapted physically or aerobically to run this pace consistently yet. Maybe, if this athlete went to the track and ran 400 meter repeats, they could hold this pace for short stints but not for the longer efforts. If the body has not had a chance to adapt to the stress of 8 minutes per mile, it will absorb more stress than it can handle and injuries are more likely to occur.
The body is amazing. It adapts to the stress it is placed under over time. The problem is, we (as Type A athletes) want to jump over the process and instantly run the faster paces. In running this leads to injury. The faster paces equal more stress on the body. If you weight 150 pounds and have a running cadence of 90 steps per minute, this means every minute your muscles, bones and joints on each individual leg is absorbing the weight of approximately 150 pounds. If the body is not properly adapted to this stress/load, injury occurs. With greater pace, greater velocity/load is produced, which leads to greater stress on the body and more potential for injury to the unadapted body.
So what’s the answer? How do you learn to love running, stay injury free, increase your pace and run longer week over week?
No. 1: Check your ego. We all want to run like an Olympic marathoner. This is sexy. To be able to say “I held 7 minute per mile for the marathon” is a bragging point. If you are not able to run 7 minutes per mile, no matter how much you want it, it’s not going to happen. I hear it all of the time, “I was on pace to go 3:20 for the marathon, but I died out at mile 15.” This is the ego talking. This athlete was never able to run 3:20; they were overly aggressive and wanted to run 3:20, but their body wasn't ready to run 3:20. You must be realistic with where your current fitness and ability levels are and build from there.
No. 2: Learn your real paces, write them down and stick to them. This is how the gains are made. Know what your easy, moderate and hard paces are. Easy paces can be run for long periods of time. If they can’t be, you are overestimating your pace. I don't care if that pace is 13 minutes per mile. It is what it is, and you build from there. Moderate paces can be held for 8-10 minutes but should not be held any longer even if you think it’s possible. Moderate rest intervals should be built into each moderate effort (5-10 minutes between each interval). There will be a time and place for that but when just starting out that’s the cap. Hard paces are only completed for 1-3 minutes with big rest between each (rest of 3-10 minutes between each interval). No longer. This is too much stress on the body. Any longer and injury can occur.
To learn your real paces, go out with your pace watch and/or heart rate monitor. Out the door run for 20 minutes at a pace slightly faster than a quick walk. Maintain this pace. If you are new to running you may have to run/walk (2 minutes run/1 minute walk). After 20 minutes, click the split button on your watch. This is your easy pace running. From this split you will get your average pace for the 20-minute segment and your average heart rate (if you are wearing a heart rate monitor). From this interval you can get your easy medium and hard paces. These paces must be stuck to in workouts until you reassess your paces in 4-6 weeks after consistent paces. For example: If this pace says 11 minutes per mile, this is your easy pace. Subtract 20 seconds for your moderate pace (10:40min/mi) and 20 more seconds (10:20min/mi) for your hard pace.
No. 3: Formulate a plan based on your running background and injury status/tendency. A majority of your runs will be at the easy effort. It may not be sexy and it will feel as if you are not making the gains necessary to compete, but what you are doing is allowing the body the time to adapt to the stress of running. If the pace is upped too fast, the body does not have time to adapt and injury occurs. If you are new to running, three to four runs a week ranging from 20-40 minutes at your easy effort (no faster) should be complete. If you are a moderate runner, three to four runs at your easy pace ranging from 20-50 minutes and one easy run with moderate paces built in 5-10 minute efforts should be added into your week. And if you are an experienced runner, three to four easy runs a week ranging from 30-60 minutes with one run a week with moderate pace efforts of 5-15 minutes built in and one run a week with hard efforts of 1-4 minutes built into your week of training.
No. 4: Listen to your body. If you are getting aches and pains, feeling exhausted and deterred within your runs, your easy pace is too hard. Back off and be realistic. Your runs will improve, you will remain consistent, and you will see the gains happen.
No. 5: For racing, formulate a race plan based on your paces and stick to it. Especially if you are newer to running, this will be key to your success. The plan should be approximately 50 percent easy pace, 30 percent moderate pace and 20 percent hard pace for half and full marathons.
Back in junior high when I won the state championship in the 1-mile event, our practices consisted of just running at our own pace for 20 minutes. Nothing else. While at the time, we thought this was boring as could be, we were giving our body time to adapt to the stress. If our coaches, Coach Meade and Coach Spina, would have instantly started giving us speed sessions, injury would have occurred, consistency would have lagged, and I probably would not be the runner I am today. It has taken years to get to the point where I am today. My easy paces have become quicker and quicker throughout the years, but I have been very patient in building to the point I am today. No matter if you are a 55-year-old new to running, an injury-prone 38-year-old, a Kona qualifying age group champion or a professional marathon runner, you must be realistic. This is how the gains happen, you stay injury free, and you learn to love running.
Jim Lubinski in a professional triathlete, Owner of Red Performance Multisport, Creator of Fit With It, USA Triathlon Level I/IRONMAN Certified Coach, NASM-CES/PES Certified Personal Trainer, Host of Tower 26 - Be Race Ready Podcast, Host of the podcast Jim and the Other Guy. To contact Jim email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.