Getting the Most Out of Your Training

Sometimes life gets in the way of training and there are only so many hours in a day. Given all that you have on your plate, how do you maximize your time while training for a race? From tempos to fartleks to long distance runs, and even weight or cross training, what takes priority and how should you divide up your limited training time?

Your end goal is the greatest factor in determining how to allocate training time. If you are training for a 10K your priorities will differ from someone training to improve their marathon personal best. No matter what the distance, establishing a good mileage base is the key to a successful training campaign.

Building a Base

Seattle-based RRCA certified running coach and trainer Beth Baker ( recommends that a person build their base by committing to one long run a week. “New runners just need to get a solid base of mileage,” said Baker. “I like a client to be able to run three to four miles comfortably before they start training for a half or full [marathon]. It’s the one weekly long, slow run that allows your body to adapt to the mileage.”

There is simply no way around it; you have to long the necessary miles to reap the rewards. Therefore, No. 1 on your priority list is mileage. As you become able, Baker suggests that you increase your mileage by no more than 15% per week to prevent injuries. As for long runs, Baker advises her clients to cap their long run distance at 12 miles for a half marathon and 21 miles for a full marathon.

Speed Work

If you are a seasoned runner trying to improve your performance, designate time for a weekly speed workout. Speed workouts can be done on a track, measured path or road, or incorporated into your run as a fartlek workout. The key is to run at your goal race pace or faster, rest and repeat. If you have a marathon date set, Portland coach Jim Mattern suggests that you start speed training at least 8-12 weeks prior to competition to allow your neuromuscular system to adapt and improve nerve conduction and recruitment. Depending on your race distance, you can run speed intervals as short as 200 meters or as long at 1600 meters (or longer), with a  recovery jog between sets. Doing so will increase your body’s cardio-respiratory endurance and ability to flush out lactic acid, helping you become speedier and more efficient on race day. As a general rule, speed workouts should comprise 8-10% of your total weekly mileage.

Tempo Run

Tempo runs are a time efficient way to improve your anaerobic threshold and endurance, which is a benefit to all runners, no matter your distance. Tempo runs get you out the door and back more quickly than most other workouts as there is no rest or recovery interval, such as with speed work, and tempos are shorter in distance than your long runs. Done once or twice a week, tempos should be run at approximately 85 to 90% of your maximum heart rate, or at an 8 on a perceived exertion scale of 1-10 (10 being the most difficult). Tempo runs should make you feel like the effort or pace is tough, yet manageable to maintain.

Hill Work

Hill training is a must if your goal race is run over hilly terrain, as you need to prepare your body for the rigors of uphill and downhill running. But regardless, hill work is an effective way to increase power and endurance in short order, physically speaking and time-wise. The effort required to run uphill produces a taxing effect more quickly than flatland running, and when done in short intervals, your body is able to recover relatively quickly. World-class ultra marathon runner Kami Semick suggests doing once-a-week hill repeats of two to three minutes of uphill running. Most people do not need, and should not perform, more than one hill session a week.

Cross and Weight Training

Every runner should commit time to cross training to prevent injuries. Training mileage and the repetitive motions that occur from running can lead to injury before you reach your goal race. Incorporate activities such as swimming, yoga, Pilates and weight training into your schedule. Benefits include increased core strength, which can improve running economy, as well as strength and flexibility of muscles you might otherwise neglect with running alone. According to Semick, “It’s important to always be working on core strength and strengthening any ‘problem’ areas you may have such as hips, Achilles [tendons] and hamstrings.” Aim to do a cross-training activity at least once a week.

Recovery and Sleep

Often overlooked elements of successful training are recovery, and, most importantly, sleep. These might be the easiest, and hardest, elements of all, as they are easy to do but the first things to go when life gets busy. Your body needs adequate down time to heal strained muscles and repair connective tissues. Take at least one day of active rest each week. Active rest could include walking your dog, performing a stretching routine, or going for a leisurely bike ride. Your body performs its best repair work when you’re asleep, creating and repairing tissues for increased bone density and muscle strength. The harder you train, the more sleep you need for adequate recovery. 

Less Is More?

It’s importantly to understand that more is not always better when it comes to training. It’s far better to be slightly undertrained than slightly overtrained, as overtraining can rapidly lead to fatigue, weakness, illness and injury. While you need to train and prepare properly for your event, you need to respect your limits, both in time and energy. Exercise physiologist and Portland-based running coach Sean Coster says that runners cannot maintain frequent high intensity runs without risking burnout or injury. Many runners find great success with one long run, one tempo run, and one hill or fartlek training session a week. The rest of the week should consist of recovery and/or cross training. They key to success is finding the right balance of time and energy, which will keep you fit and healthy in the long run.

Written by Shannon Simmons