Should Beginners Focus on Running More or Running Faster?
You have recently started your running journey and are excited to put your best foot forward. You decide to run as fast as you can and sprint your first 100m. However, a few minutes into the run, you end up with side stitches and feel exhausted with no energy to run further. The next day, you decide to run slowly to cover more distance, but eventually, you get tired and demotivated to keep running. So, what went wrong?
As a new runner, you may wonder if you should work on your ability to run faster or improve your distance. However, before you make that decision, let us help you in understanding the basics of running.
Distance vs speed for beginner runners
Every runner has goals like losing weight, improving overall health, or training for a race. However, regardless of the goal, the two important training variables for your running plan are speed and distance.
Now, let us compare a human body to the engine of a sports car, like a Ferrari. This sports automobile is known for its superior speed. However, its capability to go fast depends on the power of its engine. Similarly, your body needs a powerful engine, in this case, a strong aerobic base, to run fast and sustain good speed over a longer duration.
Now, let us understand why it is important to maintain a balance between the two training variables without overloading either.
Incidence of running-related injuries (RRIs) in the lower extremities is a common occurrence in new runners. Although there are multiple risk factors for developing RRIs, training characteristics such as distance and speed are of prime importance. These are adjustable variables in contrast to other risk factors such as previous injuries, age, or gender.
Research suggests that increasing the total training volume or distance to more than 40 miles (65 km) a week puts you at risk of injuries. Similarly, rapidly increasing running speed or running fast without decreasing distance is also a factor for overuse injuries.
Increasing both variables simultaneously can make you susceptible to injuries. So, which one should you primarily work on — distance or speed? The short answer is to train for distance first and then focus on increasing your speed.
Here is a step-by-step method on how to train and progress safely in your running journey.
1. Build your aerobic base by distance training
Many studies have confirmed that the volume of running in training or the total accumulated mileage over a period is the single most powerful determinants of your running performance. So, how can you accumulate a huge volume of running and sustain it? Simply put, the key to sustenance is working on your stamina, which is the ability to maintain a specific pace or speed for a sustained duration. If you want to improve your stamina, work on your endurance and running economy. To build the endurance of high mileage, you need to run as much as possible without getting injured, as well as focus on recovery.
For example, when training for a race, if you just focus on speed, you will soon exhaust all your glycogen reserves, and your body will lack the fuel to keep going.
Moreover, your cardiovascular system is not adapted to running. So, it is recommended to run at an easy pace as a measure of safety when commencing your journey. Further, it is only when you keep the intensity low that you will be able to sustain your endurance activity for a long time.
During this period of training at low intensity and higher volume, you develop:
- Better cardiorespiratory adaptations
- More mitochondrial density
- Increased capillarization, which refers to the number of capillaries that surround the muscles
- Preferential utilization of fat as a fuel
- Psychological preparation for doing distance running
- Stronger aerobic base
Also read: How Does Running Slower Make You Faster?
In order to increase volume when training for distance running, focus on these guidelines:
1. Your focus should be to be on your feet for 30 minutes. This does not mean you need to be running for the entire duration. Instead, split the duration between running and walking by following the run-walk method. You can do this by running for 1 minute, followed by walking for 1 minute. Here, you may consider a minute of running followed by a minute of walking as one set, which will last for 2 minutes. You can repeat this set 15 times to complete 30 minutes of total workout. You can keep this as your base and slowly progress by increasing the running time.
Exercise for 30 minutes per day instead of an hour every alternate day. This is because you should have continuous stimulus to your body, and your body needs to adapt to this instead of taking frequent breaks between days. On non-running days, you may incorporate either strength training or cross-training activities such as swimming, yoga, or brisk walking.
It is important to keep the intensity low during runs. A good guideline is to run at a conversational pace, which means you are able to speak full sentences without gasping for breath during the run.
Do not increase your weekly mileage abruptly. Instead, follow the 10% rule, ie, raise your weekly mileage by not more than 10%. If you are running 10 km in the first week, increase it to not more than 11 km next week. By doing this, you give your body the time to adapt to increasing mileage without risking an injury.
2. Run faster with speed training
Once you have established a solid aerobic base, you can start incorporating speedwork into your routine. However, apart from adding distance, it is essential to include speed training gradually. Incorporating one to two days of speedwork is ideal for beginner runners. The adaptation achieved with intensity is given below:
- Increase in speed and agility
- Greater tolerance and removal of lactate, which is a by-product of metabolism
- Greater recruitment of fast-twitch muscles, which are used for speed
- Better neuro-muscular coordination
- Improved overall performance
As a beginner, you may incorporate these two types of speed training sessions in your schedule:
Hill running or hill sprints is a type of running workout done on a hill or an inclined surface or treadmill. It increases leg-muscle power because it puts the muscles of the legs, especially the calves, Achilles tendon, hamstrings, and quads to work. In addition, it improves your overall fitness since the arms are used to drive for power generation, and the core is used to stabilize the body. So, this workout is different from running on flat surfaces.
To execute a hill sprint, you need to:
- Choose a hill that has an incline of 5%–7%
- Start at the base and move up at a controlled pace for 30–40 seconds
- Keep a watch on your heart rate and stop when the effort level seems about 90%–95% of your maximum heart rate
- Walk down for recovery
- Repeat when the heart rate has settled
- Do this about five times and build up to about 10 repetitions
Strides are a fundamental building block for training your form, coordination, speed, and leg turnover (stride rate). They are also known as pick-ups or accelerations. They comprise short accelerations or sprints that last for a total of 20–25 seconds. You need to run strides at 90%–95 % of your maximum effort with a focus on keeping the body upright and moving the arms. After building volume, you may start with strides. Doing this will help you to move upward into the domain of speed by experiencing high speeds for short durations.
How do you execute strides in training?
Finish your easy run or recovery run and stretch a little with focus on the hamstrings, quads, and calves.
1. Do your first set of strides by checking how your body responds to a burst of speed. Accelerate smoothly for about 6 seconds before focusing on leg turnover to deliver a fast pace that gets your heart rate really high. Do not attempt to be explosive, as it could lead to an acute injury to the hamstring. The ideal pace that you can hold should be between 90%-95% of your maximum effort level.
2. Hold the fast pace for another 6 to 8 seconds. Relax your body, focus on running tall, drive the arms to match your stride rate, and try landing on midfoot instead of the heel.
3. Decelerate (reduce speed) smoothly for another 6 seconds and let your body come to a jog or shuffle. Walk for about 90 seconds to 2 minutes to get your heart rate to settle. Begin the next set when you are ready.
4. Start with five sets and move up to 10 sets.
Including speedwork in your routine is a great way to improve your fitness, strength, and aerobic capacity. If you are just beginning your running journey, it is necessary to start by building a solid endurance base before working on your speed. Eventually, incorporating both speed and distance training can be a great way to add variety. With this approach, you will have fun while running, and it will be a rewarding experience in the long run.
1. Esteve-Lanao J, Foster C, Seiler S, et al. Impact of training intensity distribution on performance in endurance athletes. J Strength Cond Res 2007; 21: 943-9.