As runners, we all want to increase our endurance, but sometimes that means different things. The beginner runner wants to go farther—from two miles to four miles, then to six. More experienced runners don’t see much point in running farther. (Isn’t 42km far enough?) These runners want to improve their speed-endurance—the pace at which they can cover substantial distances.
Using such workouts, thousands of runners have dramatically improved their endurance. Craig Beesley, a beginning runner, extended his longest run from 30 seconds to nearly three hours. Doug Underwood, a successful marathoner, wanted to lower his personal best from 3:50 to 3:30 to qualify for the Boston Marathon. And Deena Kastor, an American 10K and cross-country star at the time, wanted nothing less than to run the marathon faster than a legend, Joan Benoit Samuelson.
All three runners achieved their goals. And each used a different method, which raises the point that exercise physiologist Kris Berg explains in his 2003 review article, “Endurance Training and Performance in Runners,” in the journal Sports Medicine. “After decades of studying ways to improve endurance,” says Berg. “I’m leaning more than ever toward the great gestalt of mind-body wisdom and encouraging runners to do what feels right.”
In other words, different strokes for different folks. We’re not all the same. Genetic researchers refer to “high responders” and “low responders.” Sometimes we need to take different paths to reach similar goals.
Here, you’ll find seven strategies for building endurance that have worked for a range of runners. Not all will work for you, but one or more will, and that should be enough to significantly increase your endurance, which means you’ll run stronger and easier than ever before.
1. Take One Step at a Time
If there is one overarching principle for how to build endurance, this is it. Call it gradual adaptation. That is, be consistent, be patient, and build up slowly. This principle applies to all circumstances and all runners—the beginner who’s trying to make it around the block four times, as well as the 36-minute 10K runner who’s training for a first marathon with long runs that stretch to 20kms, then 26, then 32.
The gradual-adaptation principle is deeply rooted in human physiology and has worked for runners since Paleolithic man started stalking wild animals in East Africa over 150,000 years ago. It still works today. Witness Craig Beesley of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, Canada.
When Beesley began running, he could only manage 30 seconds at a time, followed by 4:30 minutes of walking. But he didn’t let his lack of fitness discourage him. He simply repeated the cycle eight times (for a total of 40 minutes), and made sure he did three workouts a week.
Thirteen weeks later, Beesley was running 30 minutes without walking, and had completed his first half marathon in 2:12. Pretty impressive. But Beesley didn’t stop there. He kept running outdoors through the winter months, despite temperatures that dropped to -31 degrees, and added speedwork to his routine. Because of this, he was able to run long runs for over two hours and perform six 400-meter repeats in 1:45. In his future: a first marathon.
A program can’t get any simpler than Beesley’s, or any more successful. “I’ve increased my endurance and my speed, and I’ve done both without any injuries,” he told Runner’s World. “My family members describe me as a very patient man. Patience combined with persistence is a great combination for success in running.”
What you should do: Whatever your present endurance conditioning, build it slow but steady. We like run-walk programs for beginners or a program that adds one mile a week to your weekend long run for experienced runners, for example: 8kms, 10kms and then 12kms. Every fourth week, reduce kms by skipping the long run. Rest and recover. The next week, start building again, one km at a time: 13 – 15kms etc.
2. Run Yasso 800s
We learned about this amazingly useful workout in a casual conversation with former Runner’s World chief running officer Bart Yasso. Since then, literally thousands of runners have told us at marathon expos or in e-mails that the program has worked for them. With the Yasso system, you run 800-meter repeats on a track in the same minutes/seconds as your hours/minutes goal time for a marathon. (So if you’re looking to run 4:30 marthon, do your 800s in 4 minutes and 30 seconds or a 2:15-pace per 400m.)
Runners are drawn to Yasso 800s by Bart’s unforgettable name, the simplicity of the workout, and word-of-mouth success stories.
Doug Underwood is one of those Yasso fans. Underwood completed his first two marathons in 3:55 and 3:53, and then was bitten by what he calls the “Boston bug.” He wanted to qualify for the Boston Marathon and was willing to train harder to get there.
The core of his program: Yasso 800s. Since Underwood needed to run a 3:30 to reach Boston, he ran his Yasso 800s in 3:30, building up to 10 of them in a single workout, taking a 3:30 recovery jog between the fast 800s.
Underwood finished his goal race, the Baton Rouge Beach Marathon, in 3:30:54, good enough for a race entry to Boston at the time. “I credit the Yasso 800s with getting me there,” said Underwood, who also made sure to log plenty of long runs. “They are tough workouts, but they do the job. If you can run 10 of them at your goal pace, you have a great chance of achieving your marathon goal time.”
What you should do: Run Yasso 800s once a week. Start with just 4 to 5 of them at your appropriate pace, with equal time for recovery, then add one a week.
3. Run Long and Slow
Meghan Arbogast was already a successful marathoner, with a 2:58 to her credit. Only one problem: “I was overtraining and killing myself,” she told Runner’s World.
No longer. For five years, Arbogast has been training slower and racing faster under a program designed by Warren Finke, a well-known coach in Portland, Oregon, near Arbogast’s home. Finke believes marathoners should focus on consistent, easy-paced training runs that help them build endurance without getting hurt every couple of months. “A lot of runners train too hard, get injured, and never reach their potential,” he told Runner’s World.
The Finke program emphasizes “effort-based training,” and he believes in keeping the effort modest (at 80 percent of the speed you could race the same distance) most of the time. “Most runners are probably training at about 90 percent of their race pace,” Finke said. “Running 80 percent is pretty easy, but it helps keep you injury-free.”
The program turned things around for Arbogast. Two years after beginning Finke’s effort-based training, she improved her marathon personal record to 2:45. And, she won the Christchurch Marathon in New Zealand with another 2:45. “I think I can keep improving,” Arbogast said. “The key is to stay healthy and keep gaining endurance.”
What you should do: Do most of your runs at 80 percent of the speed you could race the same distance. So, if you can race 16kms at 7:30 pace, you should do your 16kms training runs at 9:23. To convert a race pace to an 80-percent training pace, multiply the race pace by 1.25. To find a wide range of your equivalent race times, go to our Race Time Predictor.
4. Make Every Workout Count
When you’ve been running marathons for 25 years and have an advanced degree in exercise physiology, you should eventually learn a thing or two about training. Exercise physiologist Bill Pierce, cofounder of the Furman Institute of Running and Scientific Training program, thinks he has. At the very least, he’s found a program that works wonders for him. At 53, Pierce’s marathon times were still around 3:10, not much slower than when he first stepped to the starting line two decades before.
His secret? The three-day training week. Pierce follows the usual advice to alternate hard days with easy days, but he takes it to the extreme. He runs only hard days—three of them a week. On the other four days, he doesn’t run at all, though he lifts weights several times a week and also enjoys a fast game of tennis.
In stripping his training program to its essence, Pierce runs each of his three workouts at a specific target pace and distance. One is a long run, one is a tempo run, and one is a speed workout. “I run at a higher intensity than some others recommend, but I have found that this program has worked well for me for many years,” Pierce said. “It reduces the risk of injuries, improves long-term adherence, and still lets me enjoy the gratification that comes with intense efforts.”
What you should do: Pierce does interval training on Tuesdays, tempo training on Thursdays, and a long run on Sundays. For interval repeats, he runs 12 x 400 meters or 6 x 800 meters at slightly faster than his 5K race pace. On tempo days, he runs 6kms at a pace that’s 10 to 20 seconds per kms slower than 10K race pace. On Sundays, he runs 24kms at a pace that’s 30 seconds per km slower than his marathon race pace. You can easily adapt these workouts to your own 5K, 10K, and marathon race paces.
5. Do Plyometrics
Deena Kastor had already joined the ranks of America’s all-time best female distance runners, including Joan Benoit Samuelson, Mary Slaney, and Lynn Jennings, when she first paid a visit to Zach Weatherford. She asked Weatherford, who was, at the time, the strength and conditioning coach at the U.S. Olympic Committee’s training facility in Chula Vista, California, if he could devise a program that would give her more leg endurance and quickness.
Weatherford said he wasn’t sure, acknowledging that he had never worked with a distance runner before. “But let me think about it, and do some research,” he said.
Weatherford returned with several ideas worth testing, and the two started working together. “We started with core strength, and progressed to explosive leg plyometrics, always focusing on the basics, and doing quality sessions, not quantity. Runners already do enough quantity,” he said. “In her first plyometrics workouts, Deena hit the ground like this big, flat-footed person, but we kept emphasizing, ‘Get your feet up fast. Get your feet up fast.’”
Kastor did jump roping, skipping drills, box jumps, and even high-knee sprints through the “rope ladder” that you often see at football training camps. And then she ran the London Marathon in 2:21:16, a personal record by more than five minutes and a new American record at the time. “I really felt a difference in London,” she told Runner’s World. “I’ve noticed a considerable change in my running mechanics. My feet are spending less time on the ground, and I’ve increased my stride frequency. At London, my legs did not fatigue at all during or after the marathon.”
What you should do: You could always train with your local high school football team while they work out with the rope ladder. But if that’s too intimidating, here’s a simple alternative: Instead of running strides at the end of several easy runs a week, do a “fast-feet” drill: Run just 15 to 20 yards with the shortest, quickest stride you can manage. You don’t have to lift your knees high; just lift them fast, and move forward a few inches with each stride. Pump your arms vigorously as well. Rest, then repeat 6 to 8 times. Once or twice a week, you can also do five minutes of single-leg hops, two-legged bounding, and high-knee skipping, all on a soft surface, such as grass or packed dirt.
6. Run Longer Tempo Runs
We admire runners who refuse to give up on their goals and who keep trying various methods to reach them. By this standard, Patrick Noble, a retired career Army man, deserves a lifetime achievement award. In 1986, Noble finished his first marathon in 3:17, feeling both proud and ambitious. “Let’s go for a sub-3,” he told himself.
Thus began the journey. Noble increased his training, and before long, he had run 3:04, 3:01, 3:05, and 3:02. You can quickly see what’s missing from this list. A less-determined runner might have given up. Not Noble.
He kept running marathons—dozens of them. He ran his 49th marathon. No luck. His 50th. Ditto. His 51st. Nope, sorry. But in his 52nd marathon, Noble broke through the 3-hour barrier with a 2:58:23 at the Camp Casey U.S. Army base in South Korea. And it was a new approach to tempo runs, Noble believes, that helped him dip below 3:00.
The conservative view on tempo runs suggests that you cover 20 to 40 minutes at a pace that’s 10 to 20 seconds per kms slower than your 10K pace. Noble pushed his tempo runs up to 60 minutes. “I think the long tempo runs gave me the extra strength I needed,” Noble told Runner’s World. “I also made sure to run very easy the day after the tempo runs, watched my diet, and even gave up beer for six to eight weeks before the marathon.” (Joe Vigil, who coached American marathon record holder Deena Kastor and 2003 U.S. marathon champ Ryan Shay, also believes in long tempo runs to build endurance.
What you should do: Do a tempo run once a week for eight weeks. Start with a 20-minute tempo run at 10 to 20 seconds per kms slower than 10K race pace, and add five minutes to your tempo run every week. Be sure to take one or two easy days before and after tempo days.
7. Run Long and Fast
Okay, we know. This is the opposite of our third strategy. You caught us. But it works for some runners, just as the long-and-slow approach works for others. A perfect example of the “high-responders” versus “low-responders” principle.
A convert to long-fast training: Scott Strand of Birmingham, Alabama. Strand improved his marathon personal record by more than 4 minutes with a 2:16:52 in the National Championship Marathon right there in downtown Birmingham. And it was his longer, faster long runs that got him the PR, Strand believes.
“I covered 28kms to 37 miles in my long training runs,” Strand told Runner’s World, “and I did the last 14kms to 23kms at marathon pace or faster. That was much faster than my previous long-run efforts of 27kms to 35 miles at whatever pace I felt like running.”
This kind of endurance program, based on long, hard runs was popularized by former marathon world record holder Khalid Khannouchi. Khannouchi did ferocious long runs so fast and sustained that he would get nervous for several days before them. Old school: The only thing that mattered was spending two to three hours on your feet. New school: If you want to finish strong and improve your times in the marathon, you have to run hard and fast at the end of your long runs.
What you should do: On your long runs, pick up the pace for the last 25 percent of the distance. Gradually accelerate to your marathon goal pace, or even your tempo run pace. For example, if your long run is 26 kms, run the final 6kms faster. You don’t have to attack your long run the way Khannouchi did, and you shouldn’t collapse when you finish. But you should run hard enough at the end to accustom your body to the late-race fatigue of the marathon.