How to Improve your Running

Get the latest tips to help increase your speed, endurance, and efficiency. In this article we discuss various training methods and training plan components.

Endurance Training

There are various aspects to run training - steady-state/tempo runs, high intensity intervals, and endurance training. But the key for a triathlete is to improve fatigue resistance and run longer at the same pace.

Triathletes need to train smart and maintain a balance between training and racing with realistic expectations and goals. Here's a breakdown of how you should be targetting your run training sessions.

Tempo Runs

One of the solutions to racing your best, no matter what the distance, is tempo running. Tempo runs help increase your metabolic fitness. Cardiovascular workouts deliver oxygen to the muscles but you need to train your body to utilize that oxygen well. Tempo running trains the body to use oxygen for the metabolic process more efficiently. This type of training increases the lactate threshold, the point at which there is maximum body fatigue at a certain pace. Lactate and hydrogen ions are by-products of metabolism that are released during a tempo run. Ions are what cause fatigue. By pushing your threshold, your muscles are trained to use these by-products efficiently. The result is that the muscles keep contracting and you’ll be able to run further and faster.

Begin your tempo run at an easy pace for 10 minutes in order to warm up. Continue to run for another 15 minutes at about 15 seconds slower than your usual 10K pace. Experienced runners can extend their tempo runs to 40 minutes. It is important to run at a pace that is best described in running circles as ‘uncomfortably comfortable’. The objective is to build up intensity and hold it for that duration. Keep the intensity consistent, so that you don’t relax too much since you are trying to develop muscular and cardiovascular endurance as well. A heart rate monitor can be useful to make sure you work at the right pace. Tempo runs should be at the pace of two footstrikes while breathing in and one footstrike while breathing out. Faster breaths are an indicator that your pace is too fast. Finish with a 10 minute cooling down session.

A typical tempo development training programme should be spread over a four-week progression.
In the first week, continue tempo running for 3 minutes and then follow it up with easy jogging for 1 minute. Repeat this pattern five times every day for the first week. In the second week, increase the tempo pace to 4 minutes followed by 1 minute of easy jogging. Repeat the steps five times. In week 3, increase the tempo run to 5 minutes with a 90-second easy jogging recovery. Repeat this 4 times. During week 4, increase the tempo run to 20 minutes.

Fartlek Training

Fartlek, a Swedish term meaning ‘speed play’, is a form of speed training designed to improve speed and endurance. When you run continuously over a distance with variations in pace, it puts stress on the whole aerobic energy system. Fartlek training is different from traditional interval training. You can experiment with pace and endurance on all types of terrains. For a Fartlek workout, introduce short periods of running at a fast pace during normal runs. Maintain a quicker pace over a short distance of around 200 m or a time interval of 30 seconds. After completing a fast segment, slow down to a pace below your normal running pace. Once you fully recover, return to running at your normal pace and then once again begin short bursts. Repeat the process right through the training session. The objective of Fartlek training is to improve your anaerobic threshold and pace as well.

Intensive Endurance

This is the toughest part of training, but if you are willing to go that extra distance, then you will soon learn to become a successful runner. You need to control this type of training as sore muscles take very long to recover. Training sessions should not last longer than 20 minutes for beginners and 45 minutes if you're more experienced. The main purpose of endurance training is to improve fatigue resistance and run longer at the same pace. This could involve cross-country training and 5 to 10 km road running. The objective is to build endurance at an intensity level above your lactate threshold. This type of workout enables you to excel at speed training.

Training Intensity

Most fitness trainers and coaches will advise athletes train at various intensities throughout their programmes in order to adequately improve their running - some days you'll train "easy", other day's you train "hard". But what does that mean, and how does that feel, and how does it help improve your running?
By understanding how you feel at various intensities you can develop a tangible way of monitoring your performance. For endurance runners for example, your aim is to hold your maximum sustainable pace over the entire race period, regardless of inclines and conditions. This does not mean running at a set speed, but keeping the same effort, which could mean adjusting speed to suit hills and conditions. But before your body can naturally find its optimal race pace, you need to be monitoring your heart rate during training and ensuring you know your comfort zone. Furthermore, working to heart rate zones is necessary to ensure you achieve your development goals during training.

Training zones are always calculated on the Working Heart Rate and not on the Max Heart Rate. To calculate your Working Heart Rate, subtract your Resting Heart Rate from your Max Heart Rate.

Here’s an example for a 30 year old male with resting heart rate of 50 bpm:
Maximum heart rate (HRmax): 220 - 30 = 190
Working heart rate(HRwork): 190 – 50 = 140
Personal target heart rate (THR): at 70% = (140 x 0.7) + 50 = 148

As you can see above, your personal target heart rate will vary depending on the intensity % you chose for your desired workout.

To monitor your progress and running improvement, start by choosing a heart rate within your Aerobic Zone (65%-75%) that is comfortable on longer runs. Most heart rate monitors allow you to set an upper limit alarm, which will indicate if you have exceeded your limit. Your aim over progressive weeks of training should be to run the same course within your heart rate limit, but a little faster every time. Controlled running will help you build speed without wearing you out. Further, it’s important to note how long it takes for you to recover after a training session. Once you’re in better form, your recovery times will drop, but this also depends upon the intensity of your workout.

Record your recovery times alongside different types of work out. If your recovery time increases by more than 20 seconds, then you’ll know that you have been over doing it. Additionally, if your recovery times drop and your speed also decreases, then that is a clear indication of fatigue or overtraining.

When you continue to monitor your progress you will notice the difference, which is reassurance that you are optimally training instead of over-training.


There are online calculators like the Pace Calculator in the Tools section of TriathlonOz, that can help to make more sense of what your speed, distance and pace means.

Running Training Plan for Triathletes

Run training for a triathlete is somewhat different than for someone that doesn't have to factor in both training, and racing across 3 disciplines. Let’s take a closer look at different components that should feature in your triathlon training schedule, specifically in relation to the running component.

Brick Sessions

The first step towards effective training is to add brick workouts. You begin with a bicycle routine and then go immediately into a run. The idea is to train your body to adapt to running whilst lactic build up is in your legs. This is a difficult phase, which you need to master to optimize your triathlon performance. When you finish the bike leg and start the run, your body should habitually fall into the best pace as quickly as possible. Typically, your body will take about 500m to recover as there will be lactic acid in your legs. After that, you can build pace and settle into your normal rhythm.

Running off the bike, or "Brick training" as its called, only needs to be done once a week. In addition, you don’t need to run the entire distance you would in a race. Start small, and work up to longer distances. A typical rule of thumb for experienced triathletes is to run 10% of the distance covered in the preceeding bike session. ie. 60km ride followed by 6km run.

Strength Training

Professional triathletes do not focus on bulking up muscle for strength, however optimum performance requires development and strengthening of core muscles, which support your body, especially when running. Avoid fatigue from weakening your performance during the run by making core strength workouts a part of your regular training regime.

Simple body exercises with a set of dumbbells are sufficient. The key is to use different muscle groups to strengthen the muscles, so that they don’t tire fast during a run. Triathletes should ensure their strength training includes various floor workouts with small hand weights to focus on their core abdominal strength.

Weighted squats, lunges, sit-ups, step-ups, push-ups, planks and pull-ups are good strength training exercises. Do them in sets of 4 minutes each. Begin with 10 seconds of workout, followed by 20 seconds rest. Over a fortnight increase it to 20 seconds of work out and only 10 seconds of rest. This interval training is designed to increase your heart rate, power and stamina.

Paddling a kayak is another great way to build core strength for runners that prefer to cross-train, and is one of the reasons that triathletes are often interested in other multisport events and adventure racing during the winter/spring "off season".

Your Weekly Training Program

Understanding the basic components you need to work on as a triathlete is all you need to develop your own basic training program for any distance event. In terms of your run sessions, you should be including long distance running, tempo runs, fartlek training, hill running and one session of building core strength, to improve your running skills.

For most people, fitting in the necessary cycling, swimming, and running sessions can be a significant challenge and is for most triathletes one of the major challenges they face in staying committed to a training programme. Whilst you may need to focus on improving your run, you may need to keep this in balance with the rest of your training requirements.

Most triathletes preparing for a race will aim to do 10 training sessions per week over a period of many months comprised as follows:
3 Runs:- 1 long, 1 tempo, plus 1 either fartlek/interval repeats/hills
3 Bike Rides:- 1 hills, 1 intensity ride, 1 long distance ride
3 Swims:- 1 squad session in a pool, 1 solo pool session, and 1 open-water session
1 Strength:- Core strength/stretching or yoga session

If improvements to your run can be scheduled for a break in your race calendar you'll be able to dedicate more time for additional sessions. This subject will be covered in greater detail in upcoming articles in our training topic.

Focus Sessions

Track Repeats

Frequency:- once a week

Track repeats help you build strength and efficiency to finish strong in a race. You can choose to run a 400m track with a rest interval of five minutes and repeat the process 6 times. Alternatively, you could do a 1 kilometre run followed by a five minute rest interval 10 times. Choose a different format each week, so that your sessions don’t become monotonous. Make sure to increase your pace during each run. The key is to start conservatively and then increase pace. Slowing down will negate the purpose of the workout, which is to build aerobic capacity and help you run faster over a distance or run further at a given pace.

4x4x4 - or Intervals

Frequency:- once a week, along with track repeats

This workout includes running repeated sets of a given distance with rest in between. the 4x4x4 interval set means run four sets of 400 metres followed by four sets of 200 metres. Take a short break, between each set. You can begin with two sets and then add a set with every workout. You can also build up to run sets of 800m, and even 1200m depending on your target race distance and goals. However you devise your interval sessions, run at a much faster pace than a track repeat. This workout is the perfect way to increase lactate tolerance. However, consistency is the key so never let your pace drop during the workout.

Hills Training

Frequency:- once a week, along with track repeats. But do not repeat the same week as 4x4x4

An example of a hill workout involves 5 repetitions of 200 metre hill climbs, timed at 45 seconds per set. The key is to run at the fastest pace you can without slowing down. Use an active recovery, so that your resting period is the easy jog downhill. Hill runs helps build optimum power, strength, and speed. It would be prudent to pick a hill with about 50 metres of flat run-up, for you to build pace.

Some Pain but Plenty to Gain

These workouts are tough but that is what triathlon running is all about. The tougher you practice the better the chance of topping the Ironman competition one day. However, pay close attention to your timing and progress. There may be areas you need to work on like losing weight or increasing your strength training. Extra body fat can be just like lead in your pockets, so it won’t harm to drop a few kilos, if required. Often, weak core muscles can affect your running form, which you need to work on. Wearing the correct type of shoes for running according to your personal pronation type is essential. These issues can affect your ability to peak at the right time during a race. Get into the habit of dynamic stretching of your key muscles which are the hamstrings, glutes, calf and hip flexors. Make this part of your routine both during your warm up and cool down sessions.

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Created: March 2011
Revised: October 2012
Latest Feedback: October 2012