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Getting fitter, faster, and stronger ranks high on any athlete’s wish list, and yet en route to the fulfillment of this noble goal it can be easy to get caught up on markers such as mileage and time. But getting bogged down in quantifiables can quickly make exercise seem stale. More is not always better, as a volume-centered approach can lead to overtraining and injury. By limiting yourself to one particular discipline, it is easy to overdo it, lose perspective, even abandon a training plan altogether. Workouts should be fun, and in order to maximize the good times quotient, it helps to focus on quality over quantity, and add some variety into the mix.  Whatever your goal, whether to lose weight, run your first race, or even notch a PR, injecting a fresh perspective into your training plan makes your aim easier to achieve.

A Focused Approach
The consensus among running coaches until recently has been that in order to run a sub-3:00 marathon you need to average 50 miles per week at the very minimum. And the tendency among many athletes, both novices and elites, is to train as often and as much as possible, under the mistaken impression that a fast marathon, or triathlon, or success at obstacle events such as Tough Mudder or Spartan, means pounding the pavement – a lot. But as medical doctor and running guru George Sheehan proved, it is possible to notch a 3-hour marathon on a weekly training plan of just 30 miles a week. Dr. Sheehan did this at the age of 60 by focusing his efforts and training smart.

Indeed, many experts now recognize the faults inherent in logging huge miles at a slow pace (aka junk miles), which they say is not as effective as targeted training. Going long too often means going slow, according to Gabe Mirkin, M.D., who suggests athletes structure training programs to include tempo and interval runs on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and a longer run Sundays, while reserving off days for rest or cross-training. On such a schedule you can make great strides in fitness in a fraction of the time of training at a slower, steadier pace. And if you’re trying to squeeze in a run at lunch or a ride at dawn, getting more for your minute’s worth holds huge appeal.

Let’s start with tempo. A tempo run, also called a threshold run, is a “comfortably hard” effort which many running experts believe is the single most important workout you can do to improve your speed for any race distance. Running at lactate threshold teaches the body to use oxygen for metabolism more efficiently and delay burning lactate for fuel. Your tempo run should be about 20 minutes, which fits nicely into a one-hour lunch break. For most runners, lactate threshold occurs around 20 to 30 seconds per mile slower than 5-K race pace. If you’ve never run a race or don’t wear a watch, you can use your breathing rate. On easy days most runners take three strides while breathing in and three while breathing out. For your tempo days, aim for a two-strides-in, one-stride-out rhythm. If you're breathing in and out with each stride, you've entered the interval zone.

Intervals, which involve short bursts of maximum speed followed by recovery jogs, are extremely effective in improving mean power output and VO2max, which is considered the best laboratory measurement of aerobic fitness. The result is simple: speed. What’s more, interval training workouts take far less time than sessions performed at lower intensity. Previous research suggested three to five minutes as the optimal length for intervals, but a new study published in the January 2014 issue of the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports shows that even less is best. In fact, 30-second all-out bursts of speed were shown to be superior to 5-minute intervals for building fitness. And the benefits extend beyond the realm of speed. Intervals are as effective as endurance training in reducing your risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes, and these benefits are achieved in half the time.

If you find yourself crunched for time or under-motivated, find a new route and turn up the pace. Any neighborhood block will do. Run hard for 30 seconds, jog very slowly around the corner, start sprinting again when you hit the next straightaway, and slow at the turn to recover your breath. This will put you back where you started geographically, but you’ll be at a whole new level cardiovascularly, as the rapid breathing and feeling of euphoria (they don’t call it a runner’s high for nothing) attest. Instead of wearing a watch, count 30 foot strikes (counting with one foot), which is approximately half a minute.

Athletes often wonder how many intervals to run. In a world of heart rate monitors, pace calculators, and smart phone Apps, we have become obsessed with tracking everything, but too much number crunching can sap some of the spontaneity and exhilaration that draws us to exercise in the first place. So try this: run till you’re tired, then quit for the day. This may be as few as two intervals, or as many as twenty. Going by feel puts you back in touch with your body and keeps things really simple, a fresh start in a complex, computer-driven age.


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