Run Like a Pro (Even If You're Slow): Elite Tools and Tips for Runners at Every Level
by Matt Fitzgerald
Emig & Pelotonen published a paper in Nature in 2020 reporting data showing correlation between running volume & performance. It's not just that fast runners tend to run more; running more makes you faster.
Another study found that the amount of "easy" (read: low intensity) running individual runners did was the single best predictor of how well they performed in competition. Running more seems to be better than not.
Training like a pro doesn’t mean to literally copy their running schedule mile for mile. You probably don’t have the ability to do that.
But the general principles can be followed: e.g training a lot relative to your mile-limit for a given week/month.
Measure by time, not distance. Stress is determined by time exposure, not distance. So it only makes sense to measure that way.
Pros “only” train for 12 hours a week. Of course, they are much faster than us—they cover much greater distance in the same time as the rest of us. So the way we can emulate them is to get to that level by measuring time.
Pro runners go light way more often than one would think. Do NOT try to beat your record every run. Testing your limits in training rarely ends well. Hard work is fine, but if you want to be successful, you need to work smart!
Racing too frequently is bad for performance. It disrupts the flow of training. To race well, you need to lighten up your training in the days leading up to the even—and for a few days after, to recover. Therefore, you sacrifice about a full week of training for each race. So don't try to cram many races into a short span of time and expect to peak every time.
It’s not about going all out every run. In fact, you want to feel good most of the time. Feeling lousy is a sign of danger. Seriously, most non-pro runners run too hard relative to their limit time and time again. It isn’t a good way to train. You should be going easier than you think you should.
You can’t expect to train the same way each week and get better and better results. You need periodization—this gives your training process direction.
Here’s the exact blueprint to follow.
- Start where you are (fitness-wise). Not too hard, not too easy.
- Training should have a clear direction, which you progressively hone in on during training.
- Use progressive overload. But never too hard.
- Don’t race too often.
- Rest! Both during training cycles (recovery weeks) and absolute rest after.
How to select a training plan: The correct metric for selecting a training plan is your training history. What were you able to do previously? Is this new plan less than that? Too much more? Just above what you did previously?
- The first important aspect of good training plans is periodic overload. You need to do more than you did previously in order to get better.
- And the second aspect of good running plan is that it should get more specific to the target goal / race over time. There's a difference in plans for marathons and milers.
Do 80/20 low/moderate-high intensity. This is how the elites train.
Most normal runners run at a too high intensity for too much of their weekly running mileage. And we don’t even notice it, because 1. we think runs only work if they’re uncomfortable, and 2. we don’t run enough to get shattered by the poor high/low intensity ratio.
So slow down. Run 80/20 low/high intensity.
Here are the three steps to put a 80/20 running plan to practice.
- Plan—schedule training with 80/20 in mind.
- Measure—find the line between low and moderate intensity.
- Monitor—keep track of pace, heart rate, or power output while running to ensure you're at low intensity when you're supposed to be.
It doesn’t need to be exactly 80/20, just somewhere close. The plan applies to longer timescales only. Not 80/20 of your day run. But of your week, month, year.
This is how you plan a 80/20 training plan.
- Plan by time, not distance.
- All easy and long runs are low intensity. Only the fast parts of faster runs are moderate-high intensity. Intervals between fast splits count as moderate-high intensity.
Thinking about your body's movement when you run reduces your running economy—even if you aren't trying to alter your form. Likewise, when you consciously try to alter your form, you get worse.
So how do you get a better running form? By running. Get your reps in, and you'll progressively get better. You aren't necessarily after good running form; you are after running skill, which comes from "gradually discovering through unconscious experimentation how to run with a quiet brain".
Running is a skill, and like any other skill, you get better through practice. So if you practice a lot (efficiently), you’ll be a better runner.
As a beginner runner, first aspire to be able to run for 30 minutes straight. Then aspire to be able to do it every other day.
Next goal is the 7-hour standard, which is to run 7 hours a week, over 6 days with 1 day off, or 7 days with one day with relative rest.
The bridge from 30-min every other day to the 7-hour standard looks like this: Try running on consecutive days once a week & see how that goes. If you can do a month of four runs per week, add a fifth. Repeat until 7.
You can add duration to some of these runs (in small increments!), such that you slowly move to the 7-hour standard, both in terms running frequency & avg. run duration.
Once you've hit the 7-hour standard, the next goal is hitting your mileage sweet spot. This is where you get the most bang for your buck. It’s not the maximum mileage you can do, as reaching for that will give only diminishing returns.
There are 2 ways to go beyond the seven hour standard. Either do more of what you are already doing (longer runs) or run more frequently. It is generally lighter (and seemingly better) to double, I.e. run twice a day, than to just run longer. This is what pros do.
At this point, the book shows a table of proven weekly training structures. You climb the ladder of those structures one rung at a time. If you're doing 6 runs & 7 hours per week, try seven runs. If you increase your weekly runs but don’t see improvements / go too close to your limit, go down again. But if you see improvements, keep going!
Indicators you are near your limit: incipient injuries, mounting fatigue, poor workouts. But if you see improvements & only have small setbacks (normal aches/pains) + can live with the frequency, then keep going.
Finding your optimal weekly mileage
- The best way to get better at running is to run.
- How much to run depends on life schedule, biomechanical limitations, and training history.
- → Weekly mileage is a moving target over time, but at any given point, we're trying to find the mileage at which we can maintain a healthy work/life balance, avoid injury, and properly execute hard workouts.
Rest is important. It allows you to train more, not less.
Your focus should be on the basics of rest, sleep, nutrition, and stress management. This matters most. Sleep is immensely important. Training like a pro also includes non-training aspects; like getting enough sleep.
There are two types of rest: relative and absolute.
- Absolute means you don’t do anything.
- Relative means you do less than usual.
Pros usually do relative rest, while non-pros rely on absolute. Doing a recovery week is an alternative (better?) to the ‘standard’ absolute rest method. You’d reduce effort by 30% and that’s enough.
Take a break after each training cycle.
Listen to your body.
Greater fitness. Your aerobic capacity (VO2max) is probably the most important measure. A high VO2max is a requirement to go pro as a distance runner. Genetics and training contribute to this. High-intensity interval training can boost it, but high-volume training is even more effective. Another important parameter of running fitness that is improved by high-volume training is endurance. This is fatigue resistance.
I can confirm high-volume increases VO2max. Doing 30-60 min daily low-intensity cardiovascular exercise for me seems to improve it at a fine rate.
Better efficiency. Running more makes you more efficient at running. It's not surprising that you get better at running by running more.
Heightened durability (see above). Running stimulates tissue adaptation in bonesm muscles, and joints, making them more durable. You are actually 'getting hurt' all the time. By continuously going too hard, you get injured. If you go carefully, you gradually build resistance & therefore durability. Do not expose your body to more stress than it is ready for. In 2013, Danish researchers found that those who ran 30km or less were also injured twice as often then those who ran 30-60km a week. This was later replicated multiple times.
- VO2max—the max rate at which you are able to consume oxygen during exercise (aerobic capacity). It's the ability to use inspired oxygen to power muscle contractions. The higher the better.
- Running economy—the rate at which you consume oxygen at a given speed. The lower the better.
- vVO2max = velocity at VO2max. It's the lowest speed at which you reach your maximal rate of oxygen consumption and it equates to the fastest speed that can be sustained for ~6 minutes. This is the case for runners at all levels.
- MAS = maximum aerobic speed. This is the fastest pace a runner can sustain for about six minutes—see above on vVO2max.
- VT1 = first ventilatory threshold. This is, for most runners, the pace between 60-65% of your MAS.
- You can find this with a six-minute time trial. Find a flat, smooth route that is conductive to running fast. Warm up thoroughly. Run as far as you can in six minutes. Convert your avg. pace to speed & multiply this by 0.65. Convert back to pace. Now you have the approximate upper limit of your low-intensity pace range.
- Another way to find it is the talk test. Basically, can you speak comfortably while running? Then you’re there. Obviously you want to go to the highest pace where you can still talk comfortably. If you’re uncertain whether it’s considered comfortable or not, then consider it uncomfortable. This method is more accurate than you'd think.
- VT2 = second ventilatory threshold. This is your moderate-high intensity pace. It's 84-87% of your MAS, so you can use the same methods to find this as how you find VT1. You can also use a maximum heart rate test to estimate your VT2 heart rate, which for most is between 91-93% of HRmax.