How to Become a Better Runner

Man Running
Justin Case / Getty Images

If you followed how to start (or get back into) running, you built up to running a nonstop mile every other day. Now let’s raise your game by adding the basics of a competitive runner’s schedule.

Keep your progress slow

Some runners train every day, but running hard two days in a row is a rookie mistake. Even Olympians average only three hard days per week, and never back-to-back.

Why? Because the physical gains earned in a hard workout are made the night and day afterward. Micro-tears in muscles heal and make the tissue stronger. The body also makes more alveoli, the lung sacs that process oxygen; more red blood cells to carry that O2; and more capillaries to deliver it to muscles.

The program to become a better runner

Directions: Each week, your three hard days should consist of:

  • Speedwork: Usually interval training—short, fast runs with rest intervals between them.
  • A tempo run: A medium-length run that’s “comfortably hard,” but not racing.
  • A long run: The longest of the week, but at an easy-to-moderate effort.

As you can see, the fast runs aren’t long, and the long runs aren’t fast. Doing both at once basically means you’re racing, and that comes later.

The other four days go easy with short runs, light cross-training, or a rest day. Up your distance or speed gradually—weekly or monthly, not daily—and back off to the previous level between increases. It’s counterintuitive, but progressing slowly is the fastest way to improve.

Later, you’ll run distances for time (e.g., 400-meter runs at 1:20 each, with rest jogs in-between) and gauge improvement by your results.

The training schedule

Day 1
2 miles @ RPE* 3 or day off
Day 2
Speedwork: 5 min. @ L5; 4x (1 min. @ L8–9, then 1 min. @ L3); 5 min. @ L5
Day 3
20 min. of cross-training @ L5 or day off
Day 4
Tempo: 1⁄2 mile @ L3; 1 mile @ L6–7; 1⁄2 mile @ L3
Day 5
Day off
Day 6
2 miles @ L5 or 20 min. of cross-training @ L5
Day 7 
Long: 3–4 miles @ L5
Total: 7–12 miles

How to determine how hard to go

Use this simple 1-to-10 scale for rate of perceived exertion* to gauge your effort while you’re training in different ways:

RPE level 1-2
How it feels: Negligible effort
Training mode: Walking

RPE level 3-4
How it feels: Easy
Training mode: Easy-run range

RPE level 5
How it feels: Moderate
Training mode: Regular-run pace

RPE level 6-7
How it feels: Comfortably hard
Training mode: Tempo-run range

RPE level 8-9
How it feels:  Hard
Training mode: Speedwork range

RPE level 10
How it feels: Very hard
Training mode: Sprinting

Doing speedwork by time, not distance (as in Day 2, above), lets you run by perceived effort, which is smarter at this stage.

Stuart Calderwood is a coach for New York Road Runners, the world’s premier community running organization and host of the TCS New York City Marathon.

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