Back in 2007 I moved from Australia to England, with about 5 months of backpacking through central and Eastern Europe in between. I went for one, maybe two, jogs in that holiday. Total. Running just wasn’t on the agenda for the trip. And then I landed in England, needing to find a job, a place to live and some new friends. Another couple of months went by before I got out the trainers and went running.
7 months off running is a long, long time and I struggled to do the distances I was used too, and it took a long time to build back up to a level of fitness where I could run 5km without walking. Luckily for me however this was just before my birthday and my housemates, watching me get back into running, bought me a book which they thought would help me, called Everyone’s Guide to Distance Running by Norrie Williamson.
Up to this point I’d done very little reading on running. I mean, how hard is it? Just put one foot in front of the other and repeat, right? “Wrong!” is what this book taught me. Up until this time I was just trotting out similar miles month in month out, maybe doing a race once a year like the City-to-Surf race in my hometown Perth, content knowing that a long run for me was 10km and that I would never be able to complete a half-marathon or even contemplate the training for a marathon.
Reading this book taught me many valuable lessons, and the one I am discussing today was the biggest lesson that I learned – that to improve my running I had to vary my pace. Up until this point I had run all my runs at basically the same pace, expecting some form of improvement just down to miles run. Sure, I improved to a point as my base fitness improved, but after a while my performance would always plateau. Norrie Williamson explains in his book that:
- I wasn’t alone – most people never vary their pace – and;
- The plateau in my performance was caused by not increasing my aerobic capacity or threshold level.
The answer to both these was to include fast runs in my training.
Surely running faster means shorter distance, right? Well, yes, that’s right in the sense that the faster you run the less distance you can cover before you tire and have to slow down or stop. However, what I didn’t know was that by running faster over shorter distances, you will improve your speed over longer distances, which will allow you to go even greater distances at slower paces.
Why? Because short, fast, runs push you to the top of your cardio zone and into your threshold zone. Your threshold zone is where you have reached your maximum oxygen uptake and are utilising your anaerobic energy pathway to sustain your output. By pushing into this zone it is possible to raise your threshold level, thereby extending your aerobic range. Put simply, with a higher threshold level you will be able to run faster, for longer.
I now make sure to always do short, fast, runs in my training. They certainly help with the longer distances and I’ve come to love them. Even to relish them. Sure, your muscles hurt more, your breathing rate is through the roof and your heart is pounding away, but when you run fast you are running free. You can’t think about work, life, what’s for dinner or what’s on TV. There is just you and your run. It’s a time to just be with your body and your mind as you push yourself to the maximum.
I also think anyone can do it and everyone can get benefit from it. Sure, as a beginner you might only get 5 or 10 minutes of threshold running before you pack it in and have to slow down, but those minutes will still be just you and your run, and the more you do it, the more minutes you will be able to do. If you are an established runner you will be able to run at threshold for longer, ideally around 25 minutes, and get greater benefits in your longer distance running to boot.
“How do I know what my threshold is?” you might ask. The scientific answer is that threshold level running is running at a pace where your blood lactate level increases due to the muscles inability to re-metabolise lactic acid at the same rate of production. Now, no one runs with a blood analyser on their back, so a more useful explanation is that threshold level is between 80% and 90% of your maximum working heart rate.
The easiest way to measure your performance during a threshold run is with a heart rate monitor. I won’t go through the formula here, but if you use a heart rate monitor then the BrianMac heart rate calculator will give you a reasonable heart rate to aim for. This will be generic as it based on the ‘average’ person and is therefore not necessarily correct for your body. Your personal health and fitness will have an impact in your heart rate and on your training zones. If you are new to running or have health issues, then speak to your doctor or sports professional before adding threshold training into your routine.
If you are fit and an established runner and want to refine your heart rate training zones, and are willing to do a maximal effort run cycle, then you should consider completing a maximal heart rate test. I used this very instructive Runners World maximum heart rate test to determine my maximum heart rate, and then used the RunnersWeb.com heart rate zone calculator to determine my personal training zones.
If you run without gadgets (nothing wrong with that!) then a rule of thumb is that your threshold rate is the fastest pace you can run for a sustained period of time, as in multiple minutes. A good guide is 10km race pace, however if you don’t yet have a ‘race pace’ at this distance, an easier guide is if the pace you are running at means you can only keep it up for a few minutes then you are running too fast, or, if you feel like you could keep going forever you are running too slow.
You can also try the talk test. Threshold running requires a high breathing rate and consequently you shouldn’t be able to speak more than 2-3 words at a time. If you can get a sentence out then you are running too slow, if all you can do is gasp “this hurts!” then you are running too fast.
Here is a video from Vo2maxProductions which I think is useful for those wanting some more information.
So next time you go out for a short run, try some threshold running as part of your run (after a proper warm up of course) and see how you feel. After your period of threshold running make sure to slow down and recuperate, and don’t forget your cool-down routine. Hopefully you will enjoy the challenge of pushing yourself, the freedom a threshold run gives your mind, as well as the follow on benefits to your longer runs. And even if you don’t enjoy it, you will have the knowledge that you ran fast and pushed yourself hard. That alone is enough to be proud of!
Get Going, Get Running!