4 Ways Endurance Runners Can Spice Up Their Workouts

Runners aren't robots, and sometimes creating workouts that stray from traditional constraints but spark confidence are just what an athlete needs.

If you examine the training of most high school, college and even professional runners, you will notice more similarities than differences.

Question any high school cross country runner and they'll grimace when asked about tempo runs. However, these continuous, upper-end aerobic runs serve purpose. Dr. Joe Vigil's legendary Adams State squads, who once scored a perfect 15 points at the NCAA II Cross Country Championships, performed tempo runs throughout the year in the thin air of Alamosa, Colorado.

Arthur Lydiard, the mastermind behind New Zealand's distance dominance in the 1960's, had his stable of Olympians complete a weekly long run of up to 22 miles over hilly terrain. Today, it's nearly impossible to find a college program that doesn't do a weekly long run.

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If you examine the training of most high school, college and even professional runners, you will notice more similarities than differences.

Question any high school cross country runner and they'll grimace when asked about tempo runs. However, these continuous, upper-end aerobic runs serve purpose. Dr. Joe Vigil's legendary Adams State squads, who once scored a perfect 15 points at the NCAA II Cross Country Championships, performed tempo runs throughout the year in the thin air of Alamosa, Colorado.

Arthur Lydiard, the mastermind behind New Zealand's distance dominance in the 1960's, had his stable of Olympians complete a weekly long run of up to 22 miles over hilly terrain. Today, it's nearly impossible to find a college program that doesn't do a weekly long run.

And of course you can't talk about training without mentioning intervals. Intervals have been a staple ingredient in training plans for over a century. Roger Bannister was assigned weekly 400- or 800-meter intervals by his coach, Franz Stampfl, during his quest to become the first human to break four minutes in the Mile. Interval training is still widely used by runners of all abilities, all over the world.

The ingredients to a successful training plan for endurance runners are no secret. Everybody knows the ingredients.

The Recipe

In 1998, a book was published that put all of the ingredients together in a systematic template. It was through Daniels' Running Formula, a book overflowing with training wisdom, sample programming and periodization schemes, that a recipe emerged.

Dr. Jack Daniels was an accomplished athlete in his day—an Olympian in the modern pentathlon. In addition to his experience as an athlete, Daniels was also a highly successful coach, leading several teams to NCAA Cross Country championships. However, what really set Daniels apart was that he possessed the Holy Trinity of qualifications: He was a successful athlete, winning coach and renowned exercise scientist.

Although there were plenty of training books and published philosophies on how to train distance runners, it was Daniels' Running Formula that provided an actual step-by-step recipe.

The Traditional Zone Training Model

Dr. Daniels uses a zone model in which workouts are categorized based on the physiological adaptations they aim to produce. Intensities in a Daniels program are derived from velocities reached at physiological markers like VO2 max and lactate threshold.

For many runners, the primary allure of the Daniels method are the charts. Using a recent race performance, a runner can obtain an estimated vVO2 Max, or VDOT, as Daniels coined it in the book. With a little cross-referencing, an athlete can then find optimal training paces for common workouts like easy runs, tempo runs and intervals.

To fortify the recipe, Daniels provided detailed macrocycles, or season-long training plans, for every event from the 800 meters to the marathon. Coaches and athletes with no previous experience in training design now had a sound method to progress and sequence workouts throughout the course of a season.

Adding Spice to the Recipe

Decades of anecdotal data has shown that runners have used traditional workouts like long runs, tempo runs and intervals to reach the highest levels in our sport. Authorities like Lydiard brought substance and sequence to training, while others like Daniels and Vigil provided scientific reasoning to the workouts.

With such robust history and scientific foundations behind training, is it ever OK to adjust the ingredients and stray from the traditional recipe?

In Sarah Steifvater's article, "12 Things Professional Chefs Want You to Stop Doing in the Kitchen," she interviewed Parke Ulrich, a top San Francisco chef. Ulrich made an interesting comment when he explained that an aspiring cook shouldn't always stick to the plan.

"If you're a beginner, recipes are of course very useful, but cooking is about using your senses and intuition to become a better chef. The key is to understand what the recipe is asking for. If you don't like something about it, don't be afraid to substitute ingredients or seasonings. Trust your personal preferences and you are sure to create a delicious dish."

I think we can all agree that a primary purpose behind training is to be able to race better.

This often calls for implementing workouts that stray from strict physiological principles and lean more towards the psychological side of performance—workouts that address what it actually feels like to race.

The following are some ways to take on the mindset of a chef and add some spice to traditional workouts.

The examples provided reflect a 10:00 2-miler using Daniels' terminology and intensities.

1. Spice up Tempo Runs with Kenyan Progression

In the book, Train Hard, Win Easy, Toby Tanser recounted that most of the tempo runs he witnessed in Kenya started out at a reasonable effort, but at the turn-around point, all bets were off and the pace livened considerably. Tanser wrote that up to five runs each week, including some easy runs, contained this progressive element.

Traditional Daniels Tempo Run: 20 minutes at 5:35 per mile

Add Some Spice: The 4-mile Kenyan Tempo Run.

Start the Kenyan Tempo ~1:30 per mile slower than 2-mile pace and keep the pace steady to the halfway point and then let it loose on the way back. Don't worry about specific pace; instead focus on a noticeable increase in effort in the second-half of the workout.

With the Kenyan Tempo Run, you'll go through the entire spectrum of "threshold-like" intensities and end up adding a little more volume to your hard effort.

Additionally, the increase in effort throughout the run is exactly what you want to teach your body, and mind, to do in an actual race.

2. Add "Hammers" to an Interval Workout

Scott Simmons, coach of the American Distance Project, popularized "hammers"—or faster than normal repetitions—inside a traditional interval workout. Simmons' theory is that hammers help the athlete experience the realities of a race, but within the confines of a workout.

Traditional Daniels Interval Workout: 6x800 in 2:34 with a 400m recovery jog in 2-3 minutes

Add some spice: 6x800 in 2:42 (about 10k pace) with hammer intervals on #3 and #6 at ~3k pace. Use the same 400m recovery jog as in the traditional workout.

By slowing the intervals to 10k pace, the athlete will be able to run noticeably faster on the "hammer" intervals, which will better model the feeling they will experience at critical points in an actual race.

For example, a runner who is struggling with slowing after the mile mark in a 5k race could add a hammer interval on the third 800 repetition of the workout. The hammer interval gives the runner confidence that they can pick up the pace and still survive the remainder of the session: and ultimately, the race.

3. Slice and Dice the Repetitions

The highest intensity you'll find in a typical Daniels plan is somewhere around Mile-race pace. Although this intensity is used by Daniels to positively influence running economy and anaerobic power, it technically doesn't increase max speed.

There are many times within a season where a full workout dedicated to repetitions doesn't make sense. In these situations, just split the recipe. Share some repetitions with a tempo run day and exchange the rest for a few all-out hill sprints.

Traditional Daniels Repetition Workout: 10x400m in 71 seconds with an easy 400m recovery jog.

Add some spice: Instead of a full 400-meter repetition workout, dice the 400's into tiny pieces—just tenths—and do 5x40-meter hill sprints on Monday. These short hill sprints will help increase speed and activate muscle fibers that aren't always used in traditional endurance training. Hill sprints won't add fatigue and will even help prep the body for the Tuesday workout.

Slice the remainder of the repetitions in half and add them to the tempo run on Tuesday. After the 20-minute tempo run, sprinkle in the 5x200-meter repetitions. The 200's should be run somewhere around Mile pace and, done in conjunction with the slower tempo run, will help provide both speed and endurance support for your 5k race performance.

4. Mix the Ingredients

The final way to spice up a Daniels recipe, and my personal favorite, is to combine ingredients.

The variety of ways to combine threshold work, intervals and repetitions is only limited by your imagination or needs.

Traditional Daniels Workouts:

  • Threshold 1600's @ 5:37 pace.
  • 800 meter intervals @ 2:34.
  • 400 meter repetitions @ 71 seconds.

Add some spice: 1600 (5:37) + 2x800 (2:34) + 4x400 (1:11) with a 400m jog recovery after each repetition.

By combining everything from threshold pace to mile race pace, a runner is able to top-off or maintain each "system" with minimal stress.

This simple workout could be used any time of year as a fitness test or even as a way to maintain fitness during the final weeks of the season.

The Final Product

We all have access to the ingredients for successful training, but the outcome of the final product depends on how we use the ingredients, and what we do with the recipe.

If you have the mindset of a cook, traditional workouts and a recipe like Daniels' Running Formula are a safe bet. You'll get consistent results and generally know what to expect in terms of performance at important times of the year.

There are times, however, when it's best to think like a chef.

Experiment with training, try different flavors and spices and take some calculated risk in the recipe. Runners aren't robots, and sometimes creating workouts that stray from traditional constraints but spark confidence are just what an athlete needs.

And who knows, with a little tinkering, you might come up with some delicious results.

Photo Credit: BirdShutterB/iStock

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Topics: CROSS COUNTRY | STRENGTH AND CONDITIONING | LONG DISTANCE | TEMPO