Training: What & why?

Running keeps me sane and is my vital escape from life's stresses. It makes me feel both free and better connected with nature, with humanity, with my own body and mind. I can't get this feeling from other sports or going to the gym, so it's taken me many years to finally accept that a good training programme involves more than running my favourite routes. Indeed the only training strategies which allow me to keep running are those that involve a variety of activities - some that can still be called running and some that are definitely "other". 

Why "train" rather than just run?

  • Reduction in injury frequency and duration
  • Better performance


What should be in a training programme?

The specifics of your training programme depend upon your current fitness, physiological profile, psychology, personal aspirations, time available away from other commitments and the resources available within your area. A personally tailored programme would factor in all these things, but any programme should provide opportunities to:

Practise Good Practice

If you head out now to take some air, whether walking or jogging, you could settle easily into a fairly effortless rhythm. However, to pick up the pace for a brisk walk or a more energetic run, you'd make a conscientious effort - one that may initially feel a bit uncomfortable, or at the very least feel...well like an effort. The nerve impulses travelling from brain to muscles in the legs, butt, arms and shoulders would be fired more rapidly. The world around you would be passing by more rapidly and providing your brain with a bit more to process. There would be awareness of changing states within your body e.g. temperature increase, increased breathing rate & depth, twinges around a joint. All these mean your brain is coping with more and it needs to learn to juggle these activities whilst running. An increasing body of research suggests that runner performance is limited more by mind/brain/neural function than by muscle physiology. Running is as much a learned and developable skill as playing a musical instrument. Practice is important.


Muscle Energy

Muscle contraction drives our movement and, to do so, muscle cells need ready access to energy held in glucose, glycogen or fats. Just as a £50 note is of little use to feed a parking meter, the energy within each of these food molecules is far too large to use directly for muscle contraction. Instead the tiny fibrils of muscle use a smaller energy packet in the form of a molecule called ATP (adenosine triphosphate) - in our currency analogy ATP might be a 50p coin.  ATP molecules supply just the right kick for little fibrils in muscle to dig in and slide past one another, thereby shortening the muscle and making it pull on its attachments. Teeny tiny structures called mitochondria are responsible for the process of aerobic respiration that generates ATP from glucose and/or fatty acids. Mitochondria can only do this in the presence of oxygen. So for muscle contraction we need:

  • semi-processed food molecules ie small enough to travel in the blood stream and be delivered into cells. Glucose is the main candidate.
  • oxygen (again this is mainly delivered via the bloodstream, but muscles have a small emergency supply)
  • muscle cells organised to form a cohesive muscle mass and large enough to do useful work
  • mitochondria (located within each muscle cell)

Good training addresses each of these essential factors.

Any activity that accelerates the heart rate for a sustained period will improve the body's ability to rapidly deliver well-oxygenated, food-rich blood to the muscles. What constitutes a "sustained period" remains open to debate, but is reasonably interpreted as 20-30mins exercise at least 3 times per week. Such activity helps build the heart muscle itself so the heart contracts more strongly with each beat.

Likewise any activity that increases breathing depth and accelerates breathing rate will trigger physiological adaption to make these more sustainable and tolerable. 

Incorporate activities which use the muscles you need for running. Performing such activities will damage the muscles being used, but upon recovery the muscle will be better than before - it could contain more muscle cells (thereby getting bigger) and each of these cells may have a higher density of mitochondria, thereby better at supplying ATP for contraction. N.B. Recovery is vital. Just using the muscle will cause more and more damage.

Include sessions where you make the muscles work hard despite them feeling tired. Tempo runs, the hard efforts within a fartlek or interval sessions will cause discomfort and even pain as your limits to deliver oxygen to muscle are reached. Without oxygen the muscle can temporarily switch to anaerobic respiration, a process which permits the recycling of ATP so some is available for muscle contraction. However, anaerobic respiration releases damaging lactic acid as a by-product. Unlike carbon dioxide, that other toxic respiratory product, lactic acid cannot be exhaled. Nor is it excreted elsewhere. It will just sit around doing damage unless you get sufficient oxygen available to recycle it into non-damaging alternatives. Training for lactic acid production would thus seem madness, but in forcing your body to work at its limits with regard to aerobic v anaerobic respiration, you force it to respond by generating more mitochondria. Mitochondria - those glorious ATP generating machines.


Strength Training for Runners


Runners truly come in all shapes and sizes, but the first image that comes to mind is likely to be more slim track star than muscle-bound shot-put king. Whilst sprinters need the explosive power made possible by largish muscles, distance runners tend to be disadvantaged by the weight of "extra" muscle mass. That said, if you're now thinking about track stars, picture one of the middle distance athletes. They are not whippet thin skin and bone - they have well defined muscles in legs, arms, backside and trunk. All these muscles are deployed in running, but unfortunately running itself is insufficient to develop the overall strength and tone needed for speed and injury avoidance.

To run fast you need the help of swinging arms to power through. Those arms must be fixed to supportive shoulders. The legs themselves propel you best, and with a motion that minimises injury, if your hips are stable. All this only works well if you have a strong core, otherwise you're a puppet with its strings cut. 

Do you need to go to the gym? Perhaps not. Be sure your training programme includes strength building runs e.g. hill reps, cross-country, fell running. Then Pilates, resistance bands and a kettlebell/medicine ball may suffice, but you must use them several times each week. 15 - 20 mins three times a week could make a huge difference, giving you a strong, stable body that will better cope with running.



Flexibility & Balance

Whilst these are definitely not the same thing, they fit together rather well and can be developed by the same routines. Good balance will keep you out of all sorts of problems, helping you stay on your feet even when you stumble over a tree root. The better your balance the more rapidly you will respond to difficult terrain and the less chance you have of wrenching a major muscle, ligament or tendon. Flexibility for runners is nothing like the flexibility of a gymnast - mostly we just need to ensure that we haven't allowed a joint or muscle group to become too tight. Such tightness impedes "natural" running motion and may lead to imbalances, thereby putting too much strain on vulnerable tissue. Tightness might stem from an everyday occupation e.g. wearing high heeled shoes will tighten the calf and Achilles; sitting all day can shorten the hamstrings. The danger then is that repetitive use of the muscle during running will pull on an already tight tendon and cause tears in it. Stretching is important and taking the time to stretch properly, and evenly across both left and right sides, is very important. Give some serious thought to trying a yoga class and /or download a yoga app. Yoga can be a perfect adjunct to running. 



Endurance building is probably the most obvious, straightforward and welcome aspect of your training as a runner. Building endurance involves what you enjoy - lots of running. Some old-school coaches might tell you that it's all about the mileage, but there's ample research to suggest that's not the best strategy for longevity and performance. First, you must extend your mileage gradually: no more than 10% increase per week is recommended, including rest days to allow your bones, muscle and tendons to repair. Second, endurance is as much about mental attitude as physical competence. Your mind must become accustomed to the potential grind, boredom and pain of pushing your body for a long time. Running with friends, listening to music and selecting scenic routes provide distractions whilst you build body tolerance to high miles. However, to get your mind in shape go off without music. Run in a group that is well matched with you and where people want to challenge themselves rather than just have a long social jog. Run alone if it's safe to do so. If you are aiming for 3k, 5k or 10k on the track, be sure to train for the boredom of going around and around that track. Some days your mind will play well, entering a meditative yet active state; some days it'll struggle. With practice you'll gain the mental strength you need to achieve fresh goals.