Minimal Effective Training Program

Many folks have very busy lives, and may wonder if they even have enough time to maintain a worthwhile training program. One of the keys to a successful fitness program is setting attainable goals. Over-extending, either in terms of effort or time commitment, almost always results in dissatisfaction, disenchantment, and ultimate failure.

Below I'll outline what I consider to be a worthwhile, effective training schedule on the minimum amount of time commitment. Now, I'm no coach, and never have been. I'm just your average aging Joe runner, who's enjoyed modest success since returning to running in 2003, after a 12 year layoff. In the past 4 years, I have studied quite a bit of running material, focusing a lot of attention on the work of Jack Daniels and Greg McMillan, and in particular, an article by a mysterious Italian coach named John Hadd, once a regular on the LetsRun.com forums. There is an overwhelming amount of information on running out there. But if you study it long enough, you start to realize there are many more similarities between the various programs than there are differences.

As a runner, I'll write in terms of a running program, but any style of fitness exercise can be adapted to this schedule, since it is based on duration of exercise and heart rate (or percieved effort), rather than mileage and pace.

How To Monitor Training Effort
I strongly recommend getting a Heart Rate monitor and using it religiously. Learn or calculate what your maximum heart rate is (HRmax). It makes training at the proper effort level a very simple matter because it takes all the guesswork out of the process. Once you've trained with a HR monitor for while you'll learn what easy, medium and hard is supposed to feel like, and you won't the the monitor any more, but for beginners, it is a highly valuable tool. Over-training is the number one cause of failed training programs. The simple formula for calculating your maximum heart rate (HRmax) is 220-age. This formula is true for many folks, but not everyone. So it's not the best method to use, but it's better than nothing. I determine mine by running as hard as possible at the the end of a 5k and checking my HR then. Even this method has it's detractors. There are some other physical tests you can do to determine your HRmax. A quick search on Google will turn them up.

In the beginning ALL TRAINING should be in the EASY ZONE, 70-75% of HRmax. To find these values, simply multiply .70 and .75 times your HRmax. As an example, my HRmax is 186 bpm, so my training range is:

.70 x 186 = 130bpm
.75 x 186 = 140bpm

While running at any effort will generally improve your overall fitness to some degree, training results are highly specific to the effort. Easy running is the base-building zone of training. Running too fast does not accomplish this effectively. Easy training conditions your body to run aerobically. As your aerobic capacity improves, you'll be able to run faster on the same easy effort. This is Your long term goal, to see your pace gradually improve while you keep the effort (Heart Rate) the same. But you can't force the issue by pushing the pace. This process takes time, probably months. But if you are patient and consistent, you will see results. You are building a base platform. The stronger the base platform, the more effective all future advanced training will be. So don't ever feel that running easy is a waste of time. Not only is it not a waste of time... IT IS THE SINGLE MOST ESSENTIAL COMPONENT OF MAXIMIZING YOUR POTENTAL. Even if you later decide to start doing more advanced training, At least 75% of your weekly mileage should still be in the easy zone. One more reason to go easy most of the time. doing too much hard training is an invitation to injury.

You can do this training without a HR monitor, but you will need to be diligent about staying in your compfort zone. Remember that in the long run training too hard will not help you improve faster, but will in fact hinder your improvement. If you are not comfortable during any run, then you should slow down. In the world of aerobic conditioning, the "No Pain, No Gain" mentality doesn't cut it.

After a good base-building phase of several months (at least 3-4 for a beginner, but the longer the better), if you want to improve your speed and endurance you can add an advanced training session to your weekly regimen. These advanced sessions include Threshold runs to improve your Lactate Threshold (basically the ability to run hard for extended periods of time up to an hour), and for the truly serious competitor, race specific Intervals (to improve your anaerobic capacity and tolerance for the discomfort of running at a high effort). There is more about these workouts in the following sections.

The Plan
The schedule involves training 4 days a week. I recommend Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday, to spread out the training days and take advantage of the fact that most people have more spare time on the weekend. You can shuffle the 4 days anyway you like, but try to have an off day after every one or two training days.

Here's the basic goal. 3 days a week run 30 minutes at a comfortable pace (70-75% of HRmax). The forth day can also be an easy run of 30 minutes. But if you'd like to work on improving your base fitness even further, you can gradually build this forth day to 45-60 minutes. You can dramatically improve your aerobic capacity by running long once a week.

For runs lasting longer than 30 minutes on warm days, plan on drinking 5-7 oz (5-7 full swallows) of water or sport drink every 20 minutes or so. And there's nothing wrong with walking, stretching or even just stopping for a couple of minutes at each water break.

Beginners will have to build up to this level. If you can't run 30 minutes comfortably then start with 20 minutes. If you can't run 20 minutes comfortably then throw in some walking, but get in at least 20 continuous minutes each training day. Once you can run 20 minutes comfortably, gradually increase running time by adding 5 minutes to one run each week until you are at the 30/30/30/45-60 level.

Finally, don't just hop on the treadmill or hit the road and start right out at your normal training pace. Start slowly and take 5-10 minutes to build into it, even on your easiest days. The whole training session will go down a lot smoother if your first mile is a minute per mile slower than your normal training pace.

That's It
This is a good week's worth of training that will keep you (and your heart) young. This schedule will give most beginning runners roughly 12-15 miles per week. From a health perspective, this is all you ever need to do to stay in excellent shape, and you'd certainly be able to participate recreationally in local 5k and 10k races should you desire to do so. You can increase your fitness level by doing more, but before going beyond the 30/30/30/60 level, make sure you GENUINELY have the time and inclination to do so. Above all else, you want to avoid over-extending yourself both physically and from a time commitment perspective, or you risk losing your motivation to continue.

So come on, you can find time to workout for 30 minutes, 4 times a week, right? Sure you can!

Taking It To The Next Level
Having considered the precaution regarding over-extending above, if after 13 or more weeks at the 30/30/30/60 level (and not before), you wish to further improve your conditioning, perhaps to improve your 5k, or just to make your training a little more interesting, you can do so in a couple of different ways. (but again, this will only make you a faster, more fit runner, not a particularly healthier one).

1. You can increase the duration of your runs by adding 5 minutes to one run each week. Build the daily duration to any level you like up to 60 minutes. More than that and you start getting into diminishing returns. To maximize your conditioning, as you increase the daily durations, work to increase your long run as well, keeping it around 1.5 to 2 times longer than your other runs (yes, up to 1.5 to 2 hours). At this level, it's advisable to alternate the really long runs with medium long runs every other week.

At this point I think I should give some caution about running long durations in the heat. When you begin to approach runs of an hour or longer on warm or hot days, dehydration, body core temperature, and the effects of high humidity become major issues. All affect your ability to perform.

No matter how much you drink on a warm day most runners will sweat out more fluid than they'll be able to take in. So it's important to start out fully hydrated, and take water breaks every 20 minutes or so. You won't necessarily be able to "feel" when you're becoming dehydrated, but you will notice a gradual increase in your HR and/or a slowing of pace. When this starts to creep in, don't fight it by insisting on holding a constant pace. It's better to slow down and try to hold a constant HR, rather than forcing a certain pace until you're completely drained. If you can't control your heart rate or start feeling overly stressed, just call it a day. Once you're in this state, you aren't gaining any further training benefit anyway, so why suffer for nothing?

In addition to the issue of dehydration, when running in the heat your body's core temperature will rise. Your body compensates for this by diverting more blood to the skin surface for cooling, leaving less for the working muscles. This further aggrevates the situation of your heart rate increasing and/or your pace slowing. Stopping for water breaks allows your body to cool off some. Don't hesitate taking several minutes if needed before starting up again. Splash water on your head, arms, and legs to aide in cooling. It can't be overstated, if you start feeling overly stressed, pack it in.

High humidity compounds both the dehydration and core temperature problems. When the humidity is high, the rate of sweat evaporation is considerably diminished. It's the evaporation process that causes the cooling effect. The body sweats, but there's not much cooling effect so the core temperature continues to climb. The body sweats more, draining more and more of your fluids. But it's all in vain, and your core temperature goes higher and higher. Can you see where this ugly cycle is leading? Dehydration, heat exhaustion, and if your really stubborn, heat stroke. Don't go there, it's not worth it.

On with the good stuff...

2. You can increase the intensity of Tuesday's run. After a 5-10 minute easy warm-up, increase the effort to about 25 seconds slower than your 5k race pace (or 75% of HRmax plus 10-20bpm) for the next 10 minutes, then do another 5-10 minutes easy cool down. These runs are called Lactate Threshold (LT) runs (also known as Tempo Runs), and over time these faster paced runs raise your LT, which improves the pace at which you can run comfortably. Everyone does not have the same LT. Beginners typically have a lower LT around 80% of HRmax or even lower. Elite runners can have an LT around 88-90% of HRmax. However, LT is highly trainable, which is why this type of training can be very effective.

LT sessions really need to be between 20 and 60 minutes to produce the full benefit. However, when first starting out it's not a bad idea to build into them slowly by starting out with 10 minutes sessions. Once you get comfortable with running in the LT range, though, it's advisable to build to at least 20 minutes at LT effort. Including the warm-up/cool-down, a 20 minute LT workout will take 30-40 minutes. Don't skip your warm-up or cool-down time during these sessions. After 6 weeks you can try increasing the intensity of your LT workouts by either extending the LT duration by 10 minutes OR increasing the pace by bumping up another 5bpm, to a max of 90% of HR Max - but do not exceed a pace 25 seconds slower than 5k pace). DO NOT increase both the duration and pace at the same time. You can keep doing this every 6 weeks or so until you reach 60 minutes and/or 88-90% of HRmax, but absolutely do not exceed these limits. As you approach this level, the pace of these workouts should closely approximate your projected half marathon to marathon pace.

If, after any move to a longer duration or higher bpm you find yourself stuggling (it will happen at some point), go back to the previous level for another 6 weeks then try increasing again. Don't move permanently to a new level until you find it well within your ability to do so. Be aware that as the LT duration increases, you must take a little off the pace. If you have built up to 60 minute daily runs, you should have little difficulty running LT runs of 40 minutes plus 20 minutes of warm-up/cool-down.

Even as you build to 60 minute LT runs, LT runs of shorter durations remain beneficial as well. LT runs anywhere from 20 to 60 minutes can be used to add variety to your weekly regemin. Of course, shorter LT runs can be run at a harder effort than longer ones. As a general guide for most runners, LT runs of 20 minutes will be about 25 seconds per mile slower than 5k race pace (or a heart rate roughly 85-90% of max). 60 minute LT runs are at roughly Marathon pace (or a heart rate roughly 80% of max). For durations between those two limits, adjust your target pace or heart rate accordingly. But remember to stay within yourself. If, at the end of any session, you do not feel like you could do another 10 minutes, you have probably over done the workout by going too fast or too far.

This level of training will take quite a bit of dedication, but will get you in amazing shape. A training regimen of 60/60/60/120, with an LT workout once a week is probaby about the most I'd recommend doing on a 4 day per week plan for most folks. This would be more than adequate to get you confidently through any race distance up to the 1/2 marathon.

Taking 4x Per Week to the Ulitimate Level
While you do begin to get into diminishing returns with longer runs, you can continue to improve your conditioning by increasing your daily runs up to 90 minutes. This is about the max duration for daily runs I'd recommend. If doing 90 minute daily runs, your LT sessions can be up to 60 minutes (as long as you stay within yourself), plus 10-15 minute warm-up/cool-down sessions.

For long runs, there really isn't much benefit in going beyond 2 hours unless you're planning to participate in a very long event. As a general rule for long events, the duration of your longest runs should be equal to the amount of time you expect to spend completing your longest race (but not longer than around 3.5 hours). For example, if you're planning on a 1/2 marathon you expect to take 2 hours 15 minutes to complete, then your longest training runs should be 2 hours 15 minutes. Realize that your training pace should in most cases be about two minutes per mile slower than your 5k pace, or one minute per mile slower than your marathon pace. Therefore, while the duration of your long workouts should equal the projected time of your longest goal race, the distance you cover in training will actually be somewhat less than the actual race distance. (about 22-23 miles when training for a marathon).

General Discussion

Train, Don't Strain
You should never feel miserable during a training run... NEVER. Not even during the faster paced LT runs. If you feel bad and your breathing becomes labored, you are either going too fast for your current fitness level, too fast for the weather conditions (pace and duration need to be reduced in the heat), or too far at too hard a level. If you feel yourself working too hard, slow down! Even take a walk break for a couple minutes if you want, then start up at an easier pace. If you still feel bad after slowing down, STOP!! Save it for another day. Sometimes we just have a bad day. NEVER force through a miserable run. It serves no benefit, takes much longer to recover, and risk of injury is greatly increased.

When regulating your training effort by heart rate, it's ok to monitor pace as well, but avoid the temptation to let pace dictate your workout. You will learn over time that a partcular heart rate results in a fairly predictable pace. However, on bad days your pace may be a little slower than expected, while on good days the opposite may be true. Always stick to the prescribed heart rate, and let the pace fall where it may. A couple of exceptions to this are when doing race paced Interval sessions or tempo runs targeting a specific marathon goal pace.

Of course, you can also become fatigued by going far. This is a different kind of tiredness, with different causes and symptoms. Assuming you are going at a nice easy pace, When you start to tire on a long run it means you are simply becoming fatigued and/or running out of fuel. The key difference in this situation is that while you will start to feel just as bad as you do when running too fast, your breathing WILL NOT become labored. This is how I tell if I'm running too fast, or have simply reached the limit of my aerobic ability for the day. And while you can expect some consistency in the duration you can run from week to week before reaching this state, there will again be days when you aren't able to run as far as you expected. Same rule applies here... don't force the extra mileage. It will serve no useful purpose. I've found that going until you reach this point of fatigue and stopping there (or maybe gently finishing out the current mile) is an excellent method of building long runs.

Why So Much Emphisis on Easy Paced Training?
Easy running in the 70-75% range is the foundation of any good training program. At this level of effort the stress placed on the body is light, and easy to recover from. Yet, it's sufficient exercise to cause your aerobic system and working muscles to strengthen dramatically. Also, your joints and ligaments will strengthen, and your bones will also strenghten and increase in density, making you more resistant to injury. However, joint, ligament and bone adaptations take much longer than aerobic conditioning. This is why it's important to patiently increase mileage in small, measured does.

There is absolutely nothing at all wrong with spending all your running time in the easy zone. From a health and weight control perspective, running beyond the easy zone serves no purpose. Your running and training pace will continue to improve for up to 7 years even if this is the only type of training you ever do. In the event you do decide to add some advanced training to your routine to improve your fitness (not the same thing as health), easy running should never comprise less than 75% of your total weekly mileage.

What About Stretching and/or Walking?
Stretching is somewhat of a controversial topic. Most say it is beneficial to runners, but some say it's not. If you enjoy it, there's certainly no harm in doing 5-10 minutes of light stetching. If you suffer from nagging soreness, aches and pains, then some light stretching at the end of your run is probably a good idea, but don't over do it. If you don't like stretching or just don't want to take the time, and are generally free of nagging aches and pains or injuries, then feel free to skip it.

Walking, in my view, is highly underated as a therapeutic activity. I think a 10 minute walk after each run is one of the best things a runner can do to cool down and as an injury preventative. I try to plan all my runs to allow for 10 minutes of cool-down walking and 5-7 minutes of stretching. But when I'm short on time and have to choose one over the other, I go with the walk every time. I consider walking to be the most beneficial of the two.

What About Speedwork and Intervals?
Speedwork is generally though of as anything faster than LT training. It's often based on 10k, 5k, or one mile race pace. Speedwork unquestionably will make you a faster runner. However, speedwork only builds on the foundation developed with easy running. If your foundation is weak, the benefits of speedwork will be diminished as well. Speedwork places very high stress on the body, and often it takes 2-3 days to fully recover. The risk of injury is much greater during periods of weekly speedwork sessions (especially if you overdo it). Speedwork also inhibits aerobic enzyme activity and literally chips away at your aerobic conditioning. For these reasons, it's not advisable for speedwork to comprise more than 10% of your total weekly mileage, or to continue a regemin of speedwork for more than 8-12 weeks.

What About Training and Weight Loss?
Exercise is of course very beneficial to health and weight control, but many folks over-anticipate the effects of training on body weight. A mile of running will burn around 100-150 calories depending on body size. A person training at the 30/30/60/30 level will put in somewhere around 15 miles per week, and burn around 1,500-2,000 calories. While the training is certainly helpful in controlling weight, you should be able to see that you still cannot visit the "all you can eat" buffet too frequently.

Running a certain distance burns a certain amount of calories. Running the distance faster does result in burning more calories, but this effect is somewhat offset by also completing the distance in less time. To look at it another way, If a fast runner and slow runner both run for the same distance, the faster runner will finish sooner, but will burn only a few more calories. On the other hand, if a fast runner and a slow runner both run for 10 minutes, the faster runner will burn significantly more calories because he will be running harder and covering more distance.

You may see the occasional runner running in the heat of the day (85 degrees or more).They may even be in sweats or otherwise overly dressed. I believe the idea behind this is that it helps "burn" off more fat... DON"T DO IT!! Training in the heat or wrapped up in excess clothing only causes temporary weight loss through dehydration, and is not a healthy way to train as you risk over-heating your body's core temperature, and possible heat exhaustion. Done to the extreme, training in the heat is downright dangerous. Run in the coolest part of the day you are able to, and always wear lightweight, light colored tops when running in the sun/heat during the summer. If you must train when the temperature is above 80 degrees, try to find a shady course, and take a water break every 15-20 minutes. You might also want to consider buying a treadmill for your home, or joining a gym, rather than frequently running under the mid-day sun.

Having said all that, weight does play a major role in one's ability to perform. Every excess pound of body fat slows you down by about 2 seconds per mile. Doesn't seem like much on the surface, does it? However, if you have 10 pounds of body fat to lose, you have the potential to increase your race pace by 20 seconds per mile. This equates to running a 10k at your 5k pace, with no additional training or increase in fitness! Interested now?

Now then, the weight loss factor only works if you're dropping EXCESS body weight (fat). If you get so thin that you start to lose muscle mass, your performances will begin to suffer. So don't go anorexic on us!

Closing Comments...
In case you're wondering if I practice what I preach.... yes I do. I run 6-7 days a week, but still follow all the guidelines and recommendations I give above regarding easy, comfortable running. When it's hot, I run almost exclusively in the morning, with the goal of finishing before 9am. During the summer months I'll run 10-13 weeks of nearly exclusively easy running (70-75% of HRmax), with maybe one or two low key LT type runs per month. After this base phase I'll do up to 60 minute LT runs twice weekly, with an occassional 3rd LT run sandwiched into a long run. Eventually I may even do the occasional interval session. But I always try to stay within ability, and my advanced workouts never make up more than 20-25% of my weekly total, and they never leave me dragging the ground. The ONLY time I ever push myself to the point of suffering and misery is during races.

You may wonder why I run almost every day. Basically my training week has 4 key runs, very similar in structure to the 4 day plan outlined above. The other days are all extremely easy runs of 40-60 minutes. These recovery days frequently average as low as 65% of HRmax or even slightly lower, and I make every effort to never exceed 70% on these runs. There is very little stress associated with these runs, allowing them to serve the purpose of a rest day, while the additional mileage helps build my aerobic foundation a bit further, and allows me to do 2-3 advanced workouts each week, rather than just one, while still maintaining an easy run percentage of 75% of my total weekly mileage.

The benefit I derive from 50 mile weeks will not be twice that of someone who runs 25 miles a week. Due to the effect of diminishing returns, it will be something less. This is just a guess, but a runner probably gains around 50% additional benefit for a doubling in mileage, while also incurring a greater time commitment, and a greater risk of injury. I draw the line at 8-10 hours of training per week. At my pace, that's about 50-65 miles. This is about as much training as I figure I can safely do on one workout per day. Getting into the 2 a day routine involves a whole new level of commitment I'm not interested in making. As I have done, every runner must draw their own line in the sands of diminished benefits.

One final caveat to consider. It's best to consider your workload in terms of time rather than miles, especially when comparing yourself to other runners. If your training pace at 75% of HRmax is 12 minutes per mile, and you train for 4 hours a week, you'll cover about 20 miles. An elite runner training at the same 75% effort might cover twice that distance. But your 20 miles will be equal to the elite runner's 40 miles in terms of workload... you will have both done the same amount of training... 4 hours at 75%.

If you have any questions, comments, or rebuttals regarding
this article I would be very interested in hearing them.
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This information last updated on 07/25/07