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Training For Every Distance

How far do you want to run this year? Too many runners get stuck in a rut of doing the same runs at the same distance at the same speed. Set a goal and choose a distance so you can create the right training plan—and achieve the best results.

When famed coach Hal Higdon is asked for marathon advice, he’s quick with a concise, two-word answer: “Start now.”

Higdon’s worked with too many marathoners who’ve shown up to his programs in June with barely any base training, hoping to complete a marathon in the fall.

“You can do it in 18 weeks,” he says. “But if you’re talking about a someone who’s relatively new to the sport, 30 weeks works a lot better.”

And it’s not just marathoners who fall prey to a lack of planning and commitment. Elite runners have coaches to plan out their season. They pick key races, plan hard weeks and make sure the athlete gets plenty of rest. Coaches notice problems and adjust, but they also keep their eyes on a strategic goal—and usually a particular race.

Most amateur athletes train themselves. And too often, that means a lack of strategic vision in terms of what they want to accomplish.

So as spring arrives, now’s the time to decide what you want to accomplish this year. When you decide that, then you can figure out the best way to get there

Before you can get to your goal, you need to know where you’re starting. Unless you’re at level coach potato, most runners know the basics of how to measure their pace and endurance. In other words: How fast and how far can you go?

But even if you know your usual 5K finishing time, it’s not a bad idea to re-evaluate your fitness at the start of the season. What’s your average pace? What’s the longest distance you can run? Establish these baselines at the start of any training program.

Advanced runners can certainly take this a lot further, establishing a 5K race pace, an anaerobic threshold (generally the pace where you can run while still holding a conversation) and various other measurements, including heart-rate zones. You can get as sophisticated as you care to get. The point is that you have some tangible numbers for comparison down the road.

The marathon gets a lot of attention these days, but that doesn’t mean it’s the right distance for everyone. Finishing a marathon is impressive. But so is a fast 5K. Not everyone is built for endurance. And not everyone likes to spend Saturday mornings running four hours. It’s a good idea to challenge yourself, but at the same time, have realistic expectations. If you haven’t broken 30 minutes for a 5K, don’t expect to break 20 right away. If you’ve never run a 5K, make sure you’ve got plenty of time before adding that marathon to the calendar.

Be realistic about the time you have to commit to your goal. If you’ve got young kids or a time-consuming job, there’s nothing wrong with admitting you can only run three days a week. But don’t look for excuses either. You’d be surprised how much just writing out a schedule can help you find the time—if it’s a priority for you.

There’s nothing like a race on the calendar to get you motivated and excited. Once you sign up, that’s a commitment that’s hard to break. Of course, if things aren’t advancing as quickly as you’d hoped, there’s nothing wrong with picking a race later down the line. But choose a race early in the process and put it on your calendar. That’s your deadline, and there’s nothing like a deadline to get you moving.

Here’s where you may need some help. Coaches, running clubs, charity groups and personal trainers all can help you to figure out a program to meet your goal. Or you can go online and find help there. (Higdon’s website,, is a popular destination for marathoners looking for training programs.) You know yourself better than anyone else: Do you need a group to keep you motivated? Finding other runners with similar goals certainly makes the journey more interesting. But even if you’d rather run alone, a group run once a week is a good way to check in with other runners and keep you on track.

However you decide to create the plan, get it in writing and stick to it. You’ll soon find out whether or not it’s working. If it’s not, don’t hesitate to make changes. It’s common to try and do too much in the first weeks of a new program. What you don’t want are wide variations from what you said you’re going to do. After all, that’s no longer a plan, is it?

Here are the most common race distances, along with the some suggestions and training tips. These aren’t full training programs, just ideas to help you get started on creating your on program—and hopefully finding the right race to shoot for this year.

You’ll find a 5K or 10K race nearly every weekend in the area. For beginning runners, the challenge is to finish the full distance without walking. But for experienced runners, these races are about speed.

The goal: Improve your 5K or 10K time. 

Jim Spivey, a three-time U.S. Olympian, was a 1,500 and 5,000 meter specialist. His 3:36.05 in the 1,500 at the 1984 Los Angeles games is still the fastest by an American in an Olympic final. He’s been coaching at the college and amateur level for 19 years now, and his advice for the distance is to run often and run fast.

“You really need to be running five times a week,” he says. “That should include a long run of at least 45 minutes.”

He sees the biggest problem with runners at this, and most distances, is that they don’t vary their pace.

“People come to me all the time and say, ‘I run four miles and then take off a day. And then I run four miles again and take two days off.  And then I run six miles.’ And it’s all at the same pace,” he says. “And they wonder why they aren’t improving.”

Just varying your speed for even part of a run can make a huge difference. “Even just increasing the your speed in the middle of a run for a mile or two helps,” he says. After doing so, your regular pace runs seem much easier.

“Runners think I’m a genius because they improve so quickly,’ he says. “But it’s just that there was so much room for improvement. Any coach would be able to help them. I’d like to take the credit, but it’s about committing to a program and putting in the work.

Key workouts: Spivey has an interesting interval workout plan, especially for those who aren’t big fans of intervals. Start with a 2-mile warm up, then run 45 seconds hard, followed by a minute of slower running. Repeat for several times, depending on your fitness level, and follow with a 2-mile cool down.

“People think, ‘Forty-five seconds, what can that do?’” he says. “But that’s what’s nice. It goes fast and you’re constantly looking at your watch and thinking about the next change. If you work up to 20 of these, that could be 5 miles of intervals. With a warm up and cool down that’s a nine-mile workout.”

Pitfalls to avoid: Spivey has three tips: Vary your pace, do a long run each week at a comfortable pace—and replace your shoes when the midsole breaks down. “I hate to see runners in worn-out shoes—they’re going to get injured and end up spending much more money on doctors,” he says.

This distance has become more popular in the last few years. It demands a focus on endurance, but won’t beat you up like a marathon. Running 13.1 miles is a good goal for any runner. Racing 13.1 miles means a combination of both speed and endurance that appeals to seasoned runners.

The goal: Race a half marathon

Lindsay Hyman is a USA Triathlon certified coach and physiologist with Carmichael Training Systems. She’s been coaching runners and triathletes for six years, and she agrees with Spivey that the biggest mistake people make is putting quantity over quality.

“At the half marathon, people tend to focus on the long run,” she says. “And you definitely need that, but you also need more quality runs to improve your speed.”

She suggests starting with a 15-minute increase in tempo during a 45-50 minute run. Eventually you can bump that up to a longer tempo interval with a shorter time for a warm-up and cool down.

Another mistake is trying to increase your mileage too quickly. “A lot of people just get excited and push the mileage too fast,” she says. The rule of thumb is to avoid increasing your mileage by more than 8 to 10 percent a week. And after three weeks of building, cut back mileage for a recovery week.

“That’s the other problem, people don’t build enough recovery into their training plans,” she says.

Key workouts: Hyman likes an 8 to 15 mile run that includes a burst of up to 45 minutes in the middle at your 10K pace. She’s also a big fan of hill workouts. Run a hill for two to three minutes and then recover for an equal amount of time. “Just build those slowly,” she says. “If you’re not used to it you do too many, you can develop shin splints.”

Pitfalls to avoid: Don’t increase your mileage or interval intensity too quickly.

The race that gets all the attention. It’s the one that shuts down the city and has people crying at the finish line. To finish a marathon requires a substantial running base and at least 18 weeks to build that. Definitely consider joining a group, since those long runs get awfully lonely if you do them all by yourself.

The goal: Finish a marathon safely and at a relatively steady pace.

Hal Higdon, the author of 34 books, has spent decades both running marathons and training others to do so. He suggests that runners should be comfortable running at least six miles before tackling a marathon training program.

“I like to see people running for at least a year before starting a marathon program,” he says. “That’s not always going to happen, but it certainly makes it easier to increase mileage safely.”
Higdon also advocates finding a group of people at your same pace.

“The groups really keeps you going and offers support when you need it,” he says.

Key workouts: The long run. “That’s the one workout you can’t skip,” Higdon says. “It’s that steady, 18-week progression, adding a mile a week, that gets you up to 20 miles.” Long runs shouldn’t be done too fast. You should be able to hold a conversation during the entire run.

Pitfalls to avoid: “Don’t build too fast,” Higdon says. “That’s the way to get injured. You can’t cheat. You need the time to build those miles.”

Get to know these workouts if you’re planning on improving your speed or distance.

Anaerobic Threshold or Lactate Threshold: The point in which lactate acid begins to accumulate in the blood and your body.  Coaches use it as a measure of intensity to help advise runners how fast to go. As a very simple rule of thumb, it’s the point at which your heart-rate rises and breathing quickens so that it’s no longer possible to hold a conversation while running.

Tempo Run: A faster paced distance run, usually close to your desired race pace.
Intervals or speed workouts: Shorter distances run very quickly, often on a track.

Rest: Usually means nothing at all, but some coaches permit “active recovery,” which involves cross-training at low intensity.

Long Run: An endurance-building distance run, usually completed at moderate, “conversation” pace.