Top 6 Lessons for Coaching Runners

by Jason Karp, PhD on Apr 01, 2008

Ex Rx

Winning tips for winning races.

There’s a wrong way and a right way to do almost everything. For example, going down a park slide head first, throwing a paper airplane at your high-school teacher and not buying your twin brother a birthday present (claiming you forgot) could all be considered errors in judgment.

As a physiologist and coach, I often see runners doing the wrong things. Although training and racing imperfectly won’t have as severe a consequence as landing head first off the slide, it will prevent your clients from meeting their potential. Here are my top 6 lessons for coaching runners.

1. Run for Gold by Training the Lactate Threshold

From the time of the classic study by Farrell et al. (1979), research has shown that the lactate threshold (LT) is the best physiological predictor of distance running performance. It represents the fastest speed your clients can sustain aerobically.

All running speeds have an anaerobic contribution, but at speeds slower than the LT, that contribution is negligible. LT training allows your clients to run faster before they fatigue—and before anaerobic metabolism begins to play a significant role. The longer the race, the more important LT training becomes.

For recreational runners, LT pace is approximately 10–15 seconds per mile slower than 5K race pace or about 10K race pace (about 80%–85% maximum heart rate, or HRmax). For competitive athletes, it’s about 25–30 seconds per mile slower than 5K race pace or about 15–20 seconds per mile slower than 10K race pace (about 90% HRmax). Subjectively, these workouts should feel “comfortably hard.” Here are some examples of workouts:

1. LT run: 2–4 miles (or 10–20 minutes) at LT pace

2. LT cruise intervals: 4 x 1 mile (or 5–7 minutes) at LT pace with 1-minute rest periods

3. LT + cruise intervals: 2 sets of 3 x 1,000 meters (or 3–4 minutes) at 5–10 seconds per mile faster than LT pace, with 45-second rest periods and 2 minutes’ rest between sets

4. LT long slow distance (LSD) combo: 12–16 miles with last 2–4 miles at LT pace, or 2 miles easy + 3 miles at LT pace + 6 miles easy + 3 miles at LT pace (for advanced marathoners)

2. Ramp Up the Intensity With VO2max Training

While increasing your clients’ weekly running mileage will increase their VO2max if they currently run less than 40–50 miles per week, high-intensity interval training at or near VO2max is the most effective stimulus, especially for trained runners (Billat 2001; Midgley, McNaughton & Wilkinson 2006; Midgley, McNaughton & Jones 2007). While long intervals (2–5 minutes) provide a greater load on the cardiovascular system, short intervals (< 1 minute) can also increase VO2max, as long as they include short, active recovery periods to keep VO2 elevated throughout the workout (Billat 2001).

You can use current race performances or heart rate to tell you the velocity that elicits VO2max (vVO2max). vVO2max is close to 1-mile race pace for recreational runners and 2-mile race pace (10–15 seconds per mile faster than 5K race pace) for competitive athletes. Your clients should be within a few beats of their maximum heart rates by the end of each interval. Here are examples of VO2max workouts:

1. 3 x 1,000 meters (or 4 minutes) at vVO2max with a 1:≤1 work-to-rest ratio

2. 4 x 800 meters (or 3 minutes) at vVO2max with a 1:≤1 work-to-rest ratio

3. 20 x 200 meters (or 30 seconds) at vVO2max with a 1:<1 work-to-rest ratio

3. Run Workouts at the Correct Speeds

If your clients run too fast, they won’t meet the purpose of their workout. And if they run too slowly, they may not improve the physiological variable you’re trying to train. For example, to improve VO2max, you have clients run mile repeats at vVO2max (near 100% HRmax). If running each mile in 7:00 minutes elicits VO2max (and HRmax), running each mile in 6 minutes 30 seconds will certainly also elicit VO2max. But why have clients run a distance in 6:30 when they can run it in 7:00 and still get the same benefit?

You must know the purpose of each workout. To obtain the greatest benefit while incurring the least amount of stress, have your clients run as slowly as they can while still obtaining the desired result.

4. Have a Solid Aerobic Base

While training at a faster pace will improve fitness more quickly than simply running a greater number of easy miles, any short-term gains will likely be to the detriment of long-term development. It all starts with mileage. Aerobic running develops many physiological and biochemical traits needed for good endurance. It increases the number of red blood cells and the amount of hemoglobin contained within them, giving blood vessels a greater oxygen-carrying capability. It also increases muscle capillary volume, providing more oxygen to the muscles, and increases mitochondrial volume and the number of aerobic enzymes, allowing for greater use of oxygen (Brooks 2000). By attending to aerobic metabolism, your clients will recover faster during the rest periods of their interval workouts (which allows them to run more repetitions in each workout) and between workouts (which allows them to do interval workouts more often).

5. Put the Dumbbells Down

Unlike most sports, which require strength, speed and power, distance running is primarily limited by the delivery and use of oxygen, neither of which improve with weight training. There is little scientific evidence that weight training improves distance running performance or two of its main physiological determinants—LT and VO2max (Jung 2003).

If your clients want to lift weights, the best type of workout is power training, either with very heavy weights or plyometrics, which focuses on the neural component of muscle force development. These two power training methods may enhance endurance performance by improving its third physiological determinant—running economy (Jung 2003; Paavolainen et al. 1999), which is the amount of oxygen used to maintain a given submaximal speed.

I suggest your clients weight train only if they have already maximized their running training by increasing both mileage and intensity; if they cannot handle the physical stress of running more miles; or if they have reached their genetic limit for adaptation to their running training.

6. Run at an Even or Negative Pace

The faster your clients run the first mile of a race, the more their muscles rely on anaerobic metabolism, which is accompanied by muscle and blood acidosis and the accumulation of metabolites that cause fatigue. Running time cannot be “banked.” Your clients will end up losing more time from fatigue in the end than they gain by being “ahead of schedule” in the beginning. Have them start out at a pace they can maintain the entire race. Ideally, the second half of their races should be equal to or slightly faster than the first half (called “negative splits”). Your clients’ workouts are invaluable for providing you with knowledge of their fitness levels and for predicting their average race paces (see Lesson #1 for more on relationships between race paces and LT pace).

If you want your clients to get the most from their training and racing, use these lessons. Clients will be rewarded with higher levels of fitness and new personal records.

SIDEBAR: Sample Aerobic Training Program

Jason R. Karp, PhD (exercise physiology), is director and coach of REVO2LT Running Team. He is also a freelance writer and a competitive runner. He has coached high-school and college cross-country and track and field, and currently coaches athletes of all levels through


Billat, L.V. 2001. Interval training for performance: A scientific and empirical practice. Special recommendations for middle- and long-distance running. Part I: Aerobic interval training. Sports Medicine, 31 (1), 13–31.

Brooks, G.A. 2000. Exercise Physiology: Human Bioenergetics and Its Applications. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield.

Farrell, P.A., et al. 1979. Plasma lactate accumulation and distance running performance. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 11 (4), 338–44.

Jung, A.P. 2003. The impact of resistance training on distance running performance. Sports Medicine, 33 (7), 539–52.

Midgley, A.W., McNaughton, L.R., & Jones, A.M. 2007. Training to enhance the physiological determinants of long-distance running performance. Sports Medicine, 37 (10), 857–80.

Midgley, A.W., McNaughton, L.R., & Wilkinson, M. 2006. Is there an optimal training intensity for enhancing the maximal oxygen uptake of distance runners? Sports Medicine, 36 (2), 117–32.

Paavolainen, L., et al. 1999. Explosive-strength training improves 5-km running time by improving running economy and muscle power. Journal of Applied Physiology, 86 (5), 1527–33.

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About the Author

Jason Karp, PhD

Jason Karp, PhD IDEA Author/Presenter

It started with a race around the track in sixth grade in Marlboro, New Jersey. Little did Jason know how much it would define his career and life. A Brooklyn, New York native (you can take the boy out of Brooklyn, but you can't take Brooklyn out of the boy), he grew up playing baseball and soccer and running track. It was intoxicating. The passion that Jason found as a kid for the science of athletic performance (one of his earliest questions was how baseball pitchers throw curveballs) placed him on a yellow brick road that he still follows as a coach, exercise physiologist, author, speaker, and creator of the REVO2LUTION RUNNING™ certification program for coaches and fitness professionals around the world. Dr. Karp has given hundreds of international lectures and has been a featured speaker at most of the world’s top fitness conferences and coaching clinics, including Asia Fitness Convention, Indonesia Fitness & Health Expo, FILEX Fitness Convention (Australia), U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association Convention, American College of Sports Medicine Conference, IDEA World Fitness Convention, SCW Fitness MANIA, National Strength & Conditioning Association Conference, and CanFitPro, among others. He has been an instructor for USA Track & Field’s level 3 coaching certification and for coaching camps at the U.S. Olympic Training Center. At age 24, Dr. Karp became one of the youngest college head coaches in the country, leading the Georgian Court University women’s cross country team to the regional championship and winning honors as NAIA Northeast Region Coach of the Year. As a high school track and field and cross country coach, he has produced state qualifiers and All-Americans. He is also the founder and coach of the elite developmental team, REVO2LUTION RUNNING ELITE. A prolific writer, Jason is the author of eight books: The Inner Runner, Run Your Fat Off, 14-Minute Metabolic Workouts, Running a Marathon For Dummies, Running for Women, 101 Winning Racing Strategies for Runners, 101 Developmental Concepts & Workouts for Cross Country Runners, and How to Survive Your PhD. He has more than 400 articles published in numerous international coaching, running, and fitness trade and consumer magazines, including Track Coach, Techniques for Track & Field and Cross Country, New Studies in Athletics, Runner’s World, Running Times, Women’s Running, Marathon & Beyond, IDEA Fitness Journal, Oxygen,, and Shape, among others. He also served as senior editor for Active Network. Dr. Karp is a USA Track & Field nationally certified coach, has been sponsored by PowerBar and Brooks, and was a member of the silver-medal winning United States masters team at the 2013 World Maccabiah Games in Israel. For his work and contributions to his industry, Jason was awarded the 2011 IDEA Personal Trainer of the Year (the fitness industry’s highest award) and is a two-time recipient of the President’s Council on Sports, Fitness, & Nutrition Community Leadership Award (2014, 2019). Dr. Karp received his PhD in exercise physiology with a physiology minor from Indiana University in 2007, his master’s degree in kinesiology from the University of Calgary in 1997, and his bachelor’s degree in exercise and sport science with an English minor from Penn State University in 1995. He is currently pursuing his MBA at San Diego State University. His research has been published in various scientific journals, and he serves as a journal expert peer reviewer.