To be a better runner you need to improve 3 things: 1. your muscle oxygen uptake, 2. your ability to endure higher work loads, and 3. the amount of force you can exert on the ground.
Improving muscle oxygen uptake comes from exercising at a base-building intensity of 50-60% of your Threshold effort level. This is where your muscles have as much oxygen as they need to become more efficient at consuming it. You can sustain this effort level for an extended amount of time at a relatively low energy cost, which gives your muscles the time they need to adapt to the training, while minimizing the stress you put on your body overall.
Minimizing stress during your base building workouts is important, because achieving the second goal—increasing your endurance capacity—requires spending time at your Threshold. Increased capacity translates into your ability to run faster for longer. Many people know this workout as a tempo run, but there is a lot of confusion as to why and how it should be done. The bottom line is, by training at your Threshold you are strengthening your muscles at the limit of their endurance ability. If you’re running Tempo below your Threshold, then you won’t see improvement in your capacity. If you’re running above your Threshold, then you won’t last as long as you can at Threshold, which reduces the number of minutes your muscles can improve their capacity. Because you’ve done base building workouts at the right intensity, you won’t fatigue too quickly, which gives your muscles valuable minutes to adapt to the stress of the workout. Over time your muscle fibers will strengthen, making what was once hard, much easier.
The third goal is achieved through sprint workouts and/or strength training. These workouts overload your muscles for short periods of time, which can help to accelerate your ability to apply higher forces on the ground. As your ability to apply higher forces improves, it becomes relatively easy to maintain a given submax speed. When you overload your muscles in these workouts, its critical to give them adequate rest in between sprints or sets. Resting length should be at least 2 and up to 4 times longer than the sprint or set itself.
The bottom line is, if you want to improve your running performance, you need to improve your muscles’ ability to transmit and sustain higher forces onto the ground. You do this by making your muscles stronger with Threshold, sprint and strength training workouts, and by spending time at your base-building intensity to develop a powerful aerobic engine so your muscles consume oxygen efficiently. If you’re spending most of your training somewhere between your base-building intensity and Threshold then you will likely plateau, or see very slow improvement, because those workout intensities are basically base-building workouts that are harder than necessary. By targeting your true base-building, Threshold, and sprint paces, you can see dramatic improvement. Learn how Tempo can help you target your ideal workout paces.