5 Ways to Hack Your Training When You’re Short on Time

Getting out there for a quick run is better than not getting out at all.

For the past year, I haven’t been training for anything. I’ve been working my way back into shape after having a baby and testing whether the theory of “you get faster after kids” is true. But I do have a training schedule: a hill workout, a track workout, an easy run, and a long run, every week.

I try hard to keep to this schedule because I like routine. But there have been times I needed to adjust some workouts to accommodate my job, my kid, and my husband’s schedule. I’ve used various tactics, which Janet Hamilton, an exercise physiologist, coach, and owner of Running Strong, agrees are good ways to increase a workout’s intensity when you have to cut back on mileage because of – well, life.

“If you’re running to stay healthy and for general fitness, just flip your schedule around,” Hamilton says. “Just don’t have your hard days back to back.” But if you are prepping for a race or want to keep to a schedule, try these five training hacks to make the most of a shortened workout.

1. Increase Your Pace

The faster you run, the harder that workout is going to be. So let’s say you’re training for a 10K race, and your plan calls for an easy 10 kilometres, but you don’t have time to run for an hour. Instead, Hamilton says to run six kilometres, with the middle two or three at your target race pace.

“You’re accomplishing two things: You’ll be done sooner, and you’re improving your efficiency at race pace,” she says.

Now, if you’re training for something shorter like a 5K or the mile, running at race pace for a sustained amount of time is basically like running the race, so don’t do that, Hamilton says. For those situations, you’re better off breaking up a run into shorter segments like 100, 200, 400, or 800 metres at or near race pace, with recovery after each segment.

2. Decrease Your Recovery

When you’re running intervals, the point of a recovery period – usually measured by distance (like 400 metres) or time – is to let your body rest so it can continue to hit your targeted split times. There are times when I’m staring down a long track workout – like five reps of 1K with a 400-metre recovery after each rep, or a ladder of 400-800-1200-1600-1200-800-400 with a 400-metre recovery after each rep – and I know those recovery laps will add some 15 minutes to my workout. So, what I may do is reduce the amount of recovery time from 400 metres to 300 or 200 metres instead.

“The benefit of reducing recovery time is that you’re increasing the intensity of the workout,” Hamilton says. But if you go this route, she points out that you have to be able to continue hitting your target split times. If you start to slow, it means your body hasn’t recovered.

Hamilton gives a threshold of slowing two seconds or more off your target split to reassess your recovery time. If you’ve cut your recovery from 400 meters to 200 metres, try stretching it to 300 metres or even an extra 50 metres.

“It may just be a small tweak,” she says. “But if your recovery isn’t adequate to accomplish what you need to accomplish, then that may mean instead of doing six reps you only have time for four. And there’s nothing wrong with that – you’re still going to get a nice benefit even if you can’t get all the repeats in.”

3. Add Pickups

Another time-saver is the Fartlek approach, which is valuable because it increases the intensity of an otherwise easy run, Hamilton says. She recommends increasing your effort for 60 seconds to as long as two minutes. Shorter pickups, like 30 seconds, may inadvertently cause you to run too hard because you only have to sustain it for a short amount of time.

4. Head for the Hills

Similar to the Fartlek approach, adding hills to your run even if your goal race is a flat course – can increase your speed and strength. (I like to look at hills as speed work in disguise.) But if you’re not used to running hills, Hamilton advises to start out slowly. The effort as you climb should be the same as the effort you were running on flat terrain. That might mean slowing down quite a bit.

“Don’t attack the hills,” she says. “No matter how hard you attack it, the hill will always come out completely unscathed. The only person who will suffer is you.” And don’t ride the brakes going down the other side, either. Instead, let gravity work for you and stay light on your feet.

An easy way to add hills to your run without doing a full-on hill workout is to choose a route with rolling hills, which means you’ll be running up and down. That will increase your run’s intensity, and build hip and quad strength, Hamilton says.

5. Make Up for Missed Mileage

Once you get into training for longer distances, such as a half or full marathon, you can’t really cut corners on your weekly mileage – or you’ll pay for it on race day. So if you think you’re going to struggle balancing distance training and life, it might be worth reevaluating whether it’s a good idea to target those distances.

That said, there are certainly days when you just can’t get your training run in. “You have to recognise that life and training have to coexist,” Hamilton says. She recommends choosing a training plan that’s at least 18 weeks long to allow for wiggle room if you fall short of your weekly mileage once in awhile.

If you miss a shorter training run here and there, you can divvy up the mileage throughout the week and add them to another run. For example, if you miss a 10K run but have three other runs that week, add three kilometres to each run, Hamilton says.

Once your base mileage is established, many marathon-training plans will call for speed work and hills. So if you need to, you can add in a few hills to a run you have to cut short.

“You’re making the best of an unfavourable situation,” Hamilton says. “It’s not ideal, but it’s better than not running at all.”


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