Training Basics

By Frank Norris

Synopsis: Florida East Coast Runners brings you Training Basics By Frank Norris which provides the information you need to take your running to the next level. It tells you about mileage, speed work, tempo runs, recovery, strides, and drills and how to incorporate them in your training and How to Run Faster.

FinishTraining Basics

The following is not necessarily original.  The authors have read many books, attended running camps, and observed for years what seems to be effective and what doesn't.  These principles are a blend of some of the top authors and coaches.  Most of the principles are common to nearly all of the top authors and coaches.

It should also be noted that these are just the basic principles of training.  There is no substitute for a good coach that understands these principles and can apply them effectively into a cohesive training plan.

The Training Effect

The body's basic response to any stimulus is to adapt, assuming it is allowed time to do so.  Whether the sport is body building, running, biking, swimming, or any other sport where the intent is to develop the body, the method that is most effective is stimulus and recovery.  This is also known as "hard/easy".

When a hard stimulus is placed on muscles, whether this is weight lifting or speed work, micro tears in the muscles occur.  If given time to recover, the muscles repair these micro tears and build themselves back even stronger.  Body builders follow something of an "every other day" program, especially for the lower body, and runners should too.  If you do not take time to recover, the body will eventually break down.  This is especially true for us "masters runners", who don't have the incredible recovery capability our teenage children do.

The basic concept of hard/easy is key to any effective training plan.  You do a hard day, which could be a long run, a tempo run, or speed work.  This is followed by at least one easy recovery day, where you run very gently or walk or take a day off, in order to allow your body to recover and rebuild the muscles even stronger than before.  There are some cases where top runners will do two hard days in a row, compounding the stimulus (stress), but even then, it is always followed by an easy day, where they allow their body to recover and improve.  As some put it, "Your body doesn't get stronger when you train hard.  It gets stronger when you take a day off and allow it to adapt to the hard day you did yesterday".

Based on this principal, any effective training plan should follow a hard/easy pattern of stressing the body, or providing a stimulus, and then recovering, or allowing it to adapt.


Mileage is an important factor in any training plan.  Up to the body's capability to adapt to it, more mileage usually equals greater fitness.  It also results in lower body weight, for obvious reasons, which implies faster racing times.  However, mileage is something you have to build up to with time.  If you try to do too much too soon, you will only wind up injured.  A good rule of thumb is to not increase mileage by more than 10% per week and to not even do this for more than about 3 weeks at a time.  A good approach is to ramp up about 30% over a 3 week period and then level off for a few weeks, allowing your body to adapt to this new level of training.  Another equally effective approach is to back off every 3rd week as you slowly increase.  However, either approach should probably not exceed about a 30% increase every 5-6 weeks, including "leveling off" periods.  You also should probably not increase more than about 50% every 6 months.  This requires periods of leveling off to allow your body to adapt to increased mileage.

The most important message is patience.  If you take your time trying to reach your goals, you have a chance of getting there with few or no injuries.  If you don't show patience in your build-up you will eventually break down and spend time on the side lines injured.  Great runners are developed over a period of years, not weeks or months.

So, if you have been increasing for a period of months or even years, what is the most effective mileage level?  That is a complex question.  Some people will never be able to tolerate 100+ mile weeks that some elite runners do (not to mention that most of us work for a living and don't have the time).  There is a limit that you will experience if you continue increasing your mileage.  Perhaps you can tolerate 30 miles per week, maybe 50, maybe 70.  Your tolerance may also increase with time.

World class middle distance runners typically run 70 to 80 miles per week.  Work class marathoners typically run more than 100 miles per week during their build-up to a race.  However, many local age group runners do quite well on 20 - 50 miles per week.

If your only goal is fitness, you should be aware that up to about 15 miles per week (max) leads to greater basic fitness and keeps the risk of injury relatively low.  Anything above that is for something other than basic fitness.  It is for race performance.  It also carries with it the risk of injury.

More miles = lower weight and more fitness, but be patient.  Mega-mileage may not be for you.

Types of Training

Easy Running - If your only goal is fitness, this should probably be the only type of training you do.  If you are trying to train for performance, this is your "easy day" pace.  The idea is to run at a pace where you can talk.  If you can talk, you are not pushing your limits.  That means you are typically running at least 1 minute per mile slower than your aerobic threshold (the fastest pace you can run without going into oxygen debt).  This also would be the pace for most of your long runs.

This pace also is very easy, so if you are a basic fitness runner, this is pretty comfortable and hopefully, you will look forward to your daily run, rather than dreading the pain of pushing too hard.  Most people who fail to stick to a fitness program do so because they train too hard and dread going out the next day.

Tempo Runs - Tempo runs are runs done near your aerobic threshold.  This is a pace that is about as fast as you can go without going into oxygen debt.  You will feel that you are pushing the pace, but will soon discover that you actually can breath and get the oxygen you need.

Your body has a maximum rate that it can absorb oxygen and utilize it.  However, this level is associated with racing and going deep into oxygen debt.  Your body also has some percentage of this level at which it can take in oxygen and not go into oxygen debt.  This threshold is approximately 75% to 85% of its maximum.  The idea of tempo running is that it is done very close to this threshold, but just below (slower) than the threshold.  The body's response it to adapt and push this threshold down.  A poorly trained runner will have an aerobic threshold near 75% of max, a well trained runner will have an aerobic threshold near 85% of max.  In other words, your body will run efficiently near its threshold if you adapt this type of training into your training plan.

Threshold pace can be determined most simply by looking at your most recent 5K race pace or a 2 mile time trial, assuming you ran them hard and finished gasping for air.  (If you didn't you need to look into pushing yourself harder).  Take your 2 mile race pace and add 30 seconds per mile or take your 5K race pace and add 20 seconds per mile.  Assuming you ran hard, this is approximately your aerobic threshold and the pace you should be pushing on a tempo run (or slightly slower).  An alternate approach for a well conditioned athlete is that this is your best pace for a 1 hour race, which could be anywhere from a 10K to a half marathon, depending on your pace.

Tempo runs are frequently done by warming up at your easy pace, followed by the tempo portion, and then ending with more easy running.  The fast portion can vary in length, but would typically not exceed about 30 minutes.  That is because this is about your 1 hour race time.  If you did it for longer that about 30 minutes too much recovery would be required and would disrupt your training.

A common approach to adding tempo runs into a training program is to add in a few minutes at a faster pace, maybe repeated 2 to 4 times during the run, and then over a period weeks collapsing these periods of perhaps 3 - 5 miles broken up by slow running between into a single period of perhaps 3 - 5 miles run fast with no breaks between.

Speed Work - Speed work is normally done as intervals (run fast for a period, recover, and repeat).  The purpose of this training is to push your ultimate limit (V02 Max) to greater and greater levels.  In other words, this training results in oxygen debt (so it isn't always fun), but it stresses your body's max and results in adaptation to that max.

The most effective pace for speed work for distance runners appears to be just slightly faster than your 5K race pace.  However, this may get adjusted slightly upward if the intervals are long.  The most effective approach appears to be getting maximum time at a very high heart rate.  As a result, most coaches and authors aim towards intervals in the 3 to 6 minute range, with a 2 to 3 minute recovery between each one.  If the runner can complete about 20 minutes total at a fast pace, this is a very effective work out.  (Some elite runners may go slightly longer).  This means working up to something like 6 x 800 meters (plus or minus a repeat or two) with a 2 to 3 minute recovery for most runners.

This training is very effective at improving your maximum aerobic capacity and speed over distance.

Other Variations - There are drills, such as high knees (short strides lifting the knees as high as possible), butt kicks (slow strides exaggerating the back kick of the legs), and strides (short bursts of sprint speed) that develop raw leg speed.  These can be very effective for that purpose.

There are other variations on tempo runs or speed work.  Some of these are longer runs at a pace between easy and tempo pace, often referred to as steady state or race pace (for a marathon or half marathon).  The popularity of these techniques revolve around both the positive training effect of running "pretty hard" for a long distance as well as the idea that to run a long race like a marathon effectively, you need to teach your body to run that pace for a long time.  Marathon pace, for a well conditioned athlete is definitely slower than tempo pace, but harder than easy pace.  Training is specific.  To run efficiently at a given pace, your body needs to experience many miles at that pace.

Stretching - Speed comes from loose muscles that can expand and contract over their full range of motion.  No training program is complete without stretching.  You will be a faster runner for doing it.

Taper - The way to peak for any race is to back off and let yourself recover.  This is usually done only for one or two focus races.  The idea is to maintain some intensity (speed work and drills) but to back off the volume significantly, in order to allow the runner to be very rested for a key race.  Typically, this is a 1 to 3 week ramp down that allows for near full recovery, while maintaining some speed work to avoid a runner losing their edge.  If you are a high school runner, this is probably the last couple of weeks leading to state.  If you are a marathoner, this is the last 2 or 3 weeks leading to your goal race.

Note that while the old adage that training puts it in the bank and racing takes it out is really not true (racing is a very effective stimulus), tapering is a break in training and therefore perhaps taking it out of the bank.  Tapering is a very effective way to peak for the big race, but it is not something you can do every week for every race you run.   Save tapering for when it counts.

Precise Training Paces

While the rules of thumb given above will get you to about the right pace for your training runs, get the precise paces based on your current 5K race pace in our Training Pace Table.

Putting it All Together

An effective training program involves combining all of these training aspects into a progressive program that allows for the stimulus and recovery necessary for improvement.  Typically, this involves something like the following for a typical week.  Some coaches would extend the easy runs or do "two a days" in some cases, but this shows a conceptual pattern.

However, most successful authors and coaches implement progressive programs that build in intensity and range from a focus on easy distance early to speed late in the build-up, in order to develop a strong base and peak at the end of the season, whatever that might mean for you.

Note that this is just a one week snapshot of putting this together, not a complete training program.

Sample Week

Note - This is just an example of a single week. A coach that understands these principals can develop a complete training program that builds week to week.








15 Mile Long Run

5 Miles Easy

15 min warm-up
6 x 800
15 min cool-down

5 Miles Easy

15 min warm-up
4 mile tempo
15 min cool-down

5 Miles Easy or day off

5 Miles Easy

Long Run


Speed Work





Copyright 2009 by Florida East Coast Runners and Frank Norris.  Reproduction or reprinting without written permission is illegal.

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