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Six Building Blocks of Distance Running

This article describes the five varieties of strength- and speed-building workouts, along with the benefits of each and the most productive ways to use these tools.

Building Blocks of Distance Running

Building Blocks of Distance Running

Before we begin, though, a plug for an unofficial sixth workout: the easy run. Too many runners, are hell bent on increasing speed and mileage, completely overlook the importance of the easy run, often running themselves into injury.Your body needs a chance to rest, so make sure that somewhere between those killer hill workouts and gutsy interval sessions you manage to squeeze in some rest — and plenty of it. Give yourself at least one or two easy days per week. Run a relatively short distance, at a pace that seems almost too slow. Or just take the day off altogether. And above all, listen to your body. When your legs feel like dead weights, which means they need some time to recover. Recovery (i.e. the easy run) is probably the most important piece of a good training program, and it should not be dismissed. However hard you push yourself during your other days of “quality runs,” make sure you give yourself a chance to recover.

The big five building blocks are: fartlek, hills, intervals, tempo runs and the long run.


It’s true: fartlek is almost as fun to do as it is to say. “Fartlek” is Swedish for “speed play” and consists of bursts of speed in the middle of a training run. Essentially, it’s an unstructured interval session, the track without the rules. Fartlek gets your legs used to a variety of paces and in the process gives you an enhanced awareness of your ability to keep up those paces at various distances.

After warming up, run at an easy training pace, throwing in bursts of speed for various distances throughout the run. Vary the speed and times of the speed sections, from as short as 15 seconds to as long as two or three minutes. Between these bursts, allow yourself enough recovery time to match roughly 2/3 of the effort time. The recovery pace, though, should be faster than the recovery jog you might do during intervals on the track; keep it moving at an easy training pace.

It’s a good idea to pick out a landmark — a tree or a fire hydrant or a bend in the path — where a speed section will end before you start picking up the pace. In other words, you have to know how far you are running for each section. Because the idea is to keep up a constant face until you reach that landmark, it is important to pace yourself at the beginning. Don’t tear off so fast that you cannot keep up the pace through the end of each speed section.

A fartlek session can be as easy or as difficult as you wish to make it. Use fartlek for anything from a light recovery run to a grueling workout. As always, however, start out easy. Your first fartlek sessions should contain distances and paces that you feel comfortable with and that you feel you can gradually increase in future sessions. A twenty to thirty-minute fartlek session should be adequate for most runners. There is very little reason for them to go as long as an hour. Take it easy, be patient. [ For more on Fartlek ]


For many runners, hills spell trouble. Fortunately, much of that sentiment is more in their heads than their legs. Running hills is an acquired skill, and a little practice can give any runner the confidence to overcome their hill phobia and make peace with the dreaded incline. And not least, a consistent regimen of hill workouts goes far to build leg strength.

The rather obvious benefit of hill workouts is that they make you better at running hills. Even better, you will see benefits on the flats, too. The muscle groups you use to overcome hills are virtually the same as those you use for sprinting, so hillwork enhances your speed. This strengthening effect is supplemented by the fact that hill workouts help increase both the frequency and length of your stride — you get even faster. As a final added bonus, hill training also strengthens the muscles around your knees, helping to reduce knee injuries.

You should, however, be cautious about hillwork if you have an injury in your calf or Achilles tendon. Even if you do not, you should still be sure to stretch these areas of your legs especially well before starting.

While speed work programs are built around running sprint repeats on one hill, there’s no particular reason that you should stick to this. Running a rolling course with numerous hills will also do the trick while adding the change of scenery that makes running so pleasurable. Wherever you choose to run, make sure that the course will give you the opportunity to run at least five or six hills 300 metres long or more.

Remember that the idea of hill work is to negotiate the hills efficiently, with as little disruption as possible to your rhythm. Think of yourself rolling over the hill, almost as if it isn’t there. Concentrate on keeping your upper body relaxed, while you let your legs do the work. While you don’t have to attack the hill, you should still work it and pour on some effort. On gradual inclines, try to run a bit faster than you had been running on the flat before the hill. On steeper inclines, concentrate on lifting your knees and pushing off hard with every step. This attention to your “vertical” motion is at least as important as your forward motion up the hill. The steeper the hill, the more you should lift your knee; on the steepest inclines try to lift your knees so high that your thighs reach horizontal. The strong push-off and high knee lifts will increase both your stride length and the range of motion in your hips: voila, you’ve increased your speed.

Even for very long hills (1500m or longer), try to maintain the exaggerated knee lifts. The benefits will make themselves known soon enough. The knee lifts, incidentally, are not easy. But even with the extra workout, your legs take less of a pounding running uphill than when running hard on the flat or downhills – you’re not hitting the ground as hard.

As you reach the articles of each hill, focus on running all the way over the articles until your reach the flat, and pick up your regular running rhythm again. Use the flat or downhill on the other side for recovery. As always during the easy portion of any speedwork, keep running – even if at a gentle jog. Go carefully on the downills – they can dish out a nasty pounding, particularly to your quads.

The best way to run downhills is to lean into them, to the point that you feel you’re about to fall on your face. Try to get your legs turning over as fast as you can with short, quick strides. Not only does this help reduce the pounding on your legs, but it also helps you increase your stride frequency. With a little practice, you’ll find yourself running down hills with less effort, less pounding, and more speed. Not a bad combination. Those just beginning hill workouts will likely find hills a struggle at first, but before long hills become more of a friendly challenge than a mortal enemy. The more you run hills, the more you’ll find yourself adjusting to them automatically and your stride shifting to “hill mode” without any thought or effort. It’s a useful edge in races.

The Six Building Blocks of Distance Running Part 2intervals, tempo runs and the long run continued.

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