When you’re first getting moving, it’s important to just focus on getting into the exercise habit; making your run or walk a regular part of each day, finding times and places to exercise that feel convenient and comfortable, and finding a way to enjoy it so you keep it up for the long term.
As you’re becoming a runner you may start to wonder, how can I get fitter and faster? You can simply add time to your workout as you get stronger, or increase the distance you cover. Another approach is to add some structured workouts to your routine. These workouts, which involve running specific intervals or time or distance at a specific pace, can help you develop endurance, speed, and stronger legs and lungs. But most importantly, it can keep your exercise regime from getting stale, says coach and exercise physiologist Susan Paul. And by breaking up the distance into smaller intervals, you can cover more distance overall.
“If you just go out for 30 minutes over and over every day, it can be very boring,” says Paul, who is program director for the Orlando Track Shack Foundation, U.S. With workouts, “the time goes by much quicker. They engage your mind, and the body goes along with it.”
Below find workouts that Paul suggests, whether you’re just getting moving, starting to run, or returning to running after taking time off.
Some of these workouts are best done on a track. Yes, tracks can be intimidating. But just because you’re at a track does not require you to run fast. A track is an ideal setting for a beginner because it’s flat, traffic-free, and the distance is measured. If you don’t have access to a track, a treadmill or any flat traffic-free stretch of road will work.
Try one of the workouts below each week. When you’re ready, increase the time or distance of each of these workouts by 10 to 20 per cent. Stay alert for aches and pains (beyond typical muscle soreness) that persist during your run and after you’re done.
1. Straights and Curves
Walk for five minutes to warm up. Then run the straight stretches of the track and walk the curves. Repeat that cycle twice. Leave water at a spot that you can drink after you finish each loop. On the run segment, get into a rhythm that feels comfortable, says Paul. “Don’t sprint.” As your fitness improves, you can start to pick up the pace.
On the road: Use different landmarks to mark your walking and running intervals. You might run to a tree, mailbox, telephone pole, or stop sign. Then walk. Once you catch your breath, pick another landmark to run to. Then walk to recover. Repeat the cycle two or three times.
What it does: This helps you get your body and mind accustomed to picking up the pace and running faster for short periods of time. The short intervals make the bouts of hard work seem doable. With each walk break you have a chance to recover enough for your next bout of hard work.
2. Gear Shifter
In this workout, alternate between your easy, medium and fast paces. Warm up with three to five minutes of walking. Then ramp up to your easy pace (see below) and hold it for two to three minutes. Then shift into your medium pace and sustain it for one minute. Then shift into the fast pace for 30 seconds. Repeat the cycle two or three times. Walk for five minutes to cool down. Use this guide to find each gear:
Easy: Conversational pace; a pace where you could chat with a friend running alongside you. This is a rhythm that feels like you could maintain it all day long if you had to.
Medium: This should be faster than your easy pace, but you shouldn’t feel like you’re speeding. You would prefer not to hold a full conversation, but if someone asked you a question, you could answer in two- or three-word sentences.
Fast: Quicker than your medium pace. In this gear you should be able to say one or two words but, if someone asked you a question, it would make you mad because you wouldn’t want to expend the energy to answer them. Don’t sprint all-out or push to the point of pain, or where you feel you’re going to pull something. You should feel like “I’m okay, I just don’t want to do this for very long.”
What it does: This workout will elevate your heart rate, boost your fitness and kilojoule burn, and keep you from falling into a rut with the same easy pace. “It makes running fun, ups the intensity, and recruits different muscle fibres,” says Paul. “It’s like adding spice to a recipe.” By getting used to what different paces feel like, you can get more benefits out of all your workouts going forward, whether you’re doing a recovery run or racing in your first 5K. Why is that important? “If you’re aware of your running pace, you can control your effort based on the distance or the purpose of the workout or in the race,” says Paul. What’s more, it can help you stay injury-free. If you run the same pace all the time, you recruit the same muscle fibres, in the exact same way over and over. That, says Paul, sets the stage for many common overuse injuries, like runner’s knee and IT-band syndrome. “If you mix up your paces, you recruit different muscle fibres, and some different muscles,” says Paul. “You get more balanced out.”
3. The Even Steven
Walk to warm up, then run three laps around the track. Try to run each loop at the same pace, within five seconds faster or slower than the previous loop.
What it does: This workout builds endurance and teaches you to maintain a steady, consistent effort, which is what you’ll want to do in your first race. “Runners of all abilities tend to just start running as fast as they can, until they tire out and have to quit,” says Paul. Knowing that you have three loops to do, you’ll learn to start your first loop slower and get into a rhythm that you can maintain for all three loops.
4. The Long Run
Want to stretch out your workout for longer? Take walk breaks before you need to at even intervals. That may mean running for just 20 seconds, at first, says Paul. You should be running at a pace that’s easy enough to hold a conversation she says. “If you can’t, slow down.” On the other hand, if you’re running so easy you can sing, pick up the pace, she adds.
What it does: This helps you build endurance without getting injured or discouraged. Taking walk breaks will help you sustain a higher level of energy over a longer period of time for a longer distance.
5. Destination Run
Covering the same old route can get downright old. Run or walk to someplace nearby that you usually drive to and that involves going farther than you usually do. Go to the grocery store; meet a friend at the gym and arrange to get a ride home.
What it does: This builds endurance, and it’s fun. “It feels like you’re on an adventure,” says Paul. And it really changes your perspective! Never noticed that hill before? You will now!