Can Running Less Often Make You Faster?
Experts weigh in on an unconventional training strategy
When you’re trying to shave seconds or even minutes off your mile times, you may be tempted to schedule a run almost daily. This strategy, though, can often lead to burnout, overtraining, and injury, says Meghan Kennihan, NASM-CPT and Road Runners Club of America and USA Triathlon run coach based in LaGrange, Illinois.
In fact, reducing the frequency of your runs can—literally and figuratively—take you much farther. Fewer, more focused runs means you’ll have more time to mentally prepare before each session. That way, instead of slogging through your workouts or hitting the same trails over and over, you’ll show up feeling fresh and motivated.
If you want to try this strategy, the first step is to determine your goal race or pace and then create a progression of workouts that build on your current fitness, says Kennihan. She recommends two quality speed workouts a week, like intervals and a tempo run, in addition to one longer steady-state run and cross-training, no matter what distance you’re targeting.
Where things differ is when it comes to the speed and mileage of these runs. Marathoners want to progressively increase their longer run each week (as with a traditional plan) until they hit 18 to 22 miles a few weeks before race day. 5K runners, on the other hand, can keep their long runs under eight miles.
With speed workouts, go for quality over quantity.
“For 5K and 10K runners, focus on shorter, quicker workouts like 8 x 200 meters or 8 x 400 meters. Half and full marathoners should take it a little longer and slower with 6 x 800 meters, 4 x 1200 meters, or mile repeats,” says Kennihan.
Another strategy is to practice training in the heart rate zone that will get you close to your ideal pace, says Rachel Mariotti, New York City-based Precision Run coach at Equinox. For example, if you want to bring your 10K pace down from an 8:30 min/mile to an 8:00 min/mile, Mariotti says you should incorporate intervals where you’re running at 75 to 85 percent of your max heart rate (which you can determine by subtracting your age from 220), while also practicing running at 8:00 min/mile pace for at least 60 to 120 seconds at a time. To train your body to maintain this speed, it’s important to do intervals for the duration of what a 10k run would be (around 50 minutes in this case).
Other great speed workouts to consider include this one and this one. Whatever routines you do, though, make sure you’re tracking them so you can see if you’re progressively and consistently decreasing your pace over time.
Add in cross-training to boost your efforts.
Reducing your running frequency gives you more time and energy to pursue other types of exercise like yoga, weightlifting, swimming, or cycling.
Kennihan says strengthening your muscles and tendons with resistance training can help lower your risk of injury, while cycling, using the elliptical, and swimming “help work different muscle groups while keeping your cardio fitness strong.” Plyometrics is another powerful tool for the runner’s arsenal.
…and allow time for recovery.
“Your muscles experience microscopic tears (that’s what makes you sore) when you run,” says Kennihan, “especially when you are doing speed work or longer distances.” To heal properly, and take on faster speeds and higher mileage in the future, you have to give your body time to adapt, she explains. And this adaptation period, which includes both muscle recovery and growth, happens when you’re not running.
Mariotti adds that stretching, foam rolling, and refueling with adequate carbohydrates and protein (she recommends 30-60 grams of carbs and 15-35 grams of protein within 45 minutes of a high-intensity workout) are also key components to muscle recovery and repair.