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Turning Runners Into Racers

Competitive running requires specific techniques to avoid injury while building speed and endurance.

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The foot race is one of the oldest human activities. Long before the beginning of civilization, our ancestors raced through woodlands and prairies, chasing wild animals to feed their families.

Over the millennia, running to survive evolved into racing for sport, ultimately becoming part of the social culture in North America during the latter portion of the 20th century. The success of two famous marathon runners—Bill Rodgers and Frank Shorter—initiated a running boom in the 1970s and 1980s, putting thousands of people in the streets for fitness and sport.

As women joined men on the roads, the sport of running races grew to new heights. Now women outnumber men in every race distance except the marathon. And the marathon has grown in popularity, with nearly 500 races occurring in the U.S. each year and the number of marathon finishers increasing from 299,000 in 2000 to 503,000 in 2010 (MarathonGuide.com 2012).

Many people who hire personal trainers have seen their will to run transformed into an urge to race, but runners often do not know how to train effectively for competition. This creates an excellent niche opportunity for personal trainers, especially as certifications do not cover how to train people to run, whether for fitness, weight loss or racing.

Building Workouts for Racers

Competing in foot races puts complex demands on the human body—and requires extensive training. You practically need a PhD to understand the many types of workouts and the multiple paces and to fit them together in clients’ training programs. It takes an expert to design the science- and research-based workouts that lead to specific physiological changes. These workouts must be organized into a progressive, systematic training program that builds on clients’ strengths and helps runners achieve the optimum fitness that improves competitive performance.

For runners who want to race, training programs must accomplish two things: teach them how to avoid injury, and demonstrate techniques that will enable them to succeed in competitions. If your clients want to be better runners, they need to start by running better.

Correct Running Technique

Repetition of specific running movements can make a runner smoother and improve running economy, the amount of oxygen used to maintain a given speed. Running drills target each part of the running motion to improve running mechanics and coordination. With countless repetitions, your clients’ muscle fiber recruitment patterns become ingrained; smoother running mechanics enable a more efficient application of muscular force. When proper running mechanics become ingrained, clients are better able to handle and even thrive off training. These drills, and the proper running technique they aim to produce, must be mastered before your clients can train effectively for a race.

Drilling Tips

When practicing drills, instruct clients to keep these points
in mind:

  • Take full recovery between each set and each drill to avoid fatigue and to ensure maintenance of proper form.
  • Be deliberate about all of the movements and remain either on the midfoot or the ball of the foot. It is better not to drill at all than to drill with improper form, since that will only ingrain bad habits.
  • Make a conscious effort to run as lightly as possible over the ground, feeling your feet land directly under your body and springing off the ground.
  • Don’t overstride by landing sharply with your heel and your leg out in front of your body, as this will cause you to decelerate. Whether you land slightly on the heel first or on the midfoot is not as important as where the foot lands in relation to the body. The faster you run, the more you naturally land toward the forefoot.

Arms, Hands and Balance

Although legs get the most attention, arms are important because they balance the legs. Quick, powerful arm movements mean quick, powerful leg movements. Teach these guidelines:

  • Hold arms close to your body and swing them back and forth from the shoulder like a pendulum, with your forearms swinging at a slight angle toward your body.
  • Keep elbows bent at 90 degrees or slightly less. Do not allow your arms to cross over the midline of your chest.
  • Keep the palms of your hands facing your body, and cup your hands as if you were gently holding a potato chip.
  • Swing arms with quick, compact movements.
  • To run faster, increase the cadence of your arms but keep the movements controlled and compact.


The number of miles (or the length of time) your clients run each week dictates their performance capacity, making it the most important part of their training. Endurance training increases the number of red blood cells and the amount of hemoglobin, which

  • improves the blood vessels’ oxygen-carrying capability;
  • stimulates the storage of muscle glycogen, giving your clients more fuel for long races;
  • increases the use of intramuscular fat to spare glycogen;
  • creates a greater capillary network surrounding the muscle fibers for a more rapid diffusion of oxygen into the muscles;
  • increases muscle mitochondrial density and the number of aerobic enzymes, which control the rate at which energy (ATP) is produced; and
  • improves running economy (Fitts et al. 1975; Holloszy & Coyle 1984; Ingjer 1979).

Taking It Slow on Easy Days

The competitive runners in your clientele usually recognize the importance of switching between easy-running days and hard days. But they may not realize that the exact pace is the least important issue when running their easy miles. The single biggest mistake runners make is going too fast on easy days, which adds unnecessary stresses to the legs with no extra benefit. Slowing down the easy runs has at least three benefits:

  1. It decreases the chance of injury.
  2. It enables runners to get more out of their harder days because they are less fatigued.
  3. It enables runners to increase their overall weekly mileage.

Planning for Long Runs

Long runs improve your clients’ endurance by pushing their bodies for a longer amount of time than they’re used to. Long runs cause a sustained push of oxygen into the muscles, stimulating muscle capillarization—an expansion of existing capillary beds and the creation of new capillary beds. Long runs also severely reduce muscle glycogen and stimulate a greater reliance on fat. Glycogen is muscles’ preferred fuel, and running low on it presents a threat to their survival. The human body responds to this rather elegantly by synthesizing and storing more glycogen than had previously been present, thus increasing endurance for the future. Empty a full glass, and you get a refilled larger glass in its place. The more glycogen your clients have packed into their musculature, the greater their endurance and ability to hold a hard pace.

The long run should make up no more than about a third of the weekly mileage, thought this may not be possible if clients run only a few times per week. Do not make the long runs a lot longer than any other run during the week, and try to have clients run enough during the week to support a long run on the weekend.

Lactate (Acidosis) Threshold Runs

The lactate threshold (LT), or what I call the acidosis threshold (AT) because the physiological marker of interest is acidosis rather than lactate, marks the transition between running that is almost purely aerobic and running that includes significant anaerobic (oxygen-independent) metabolism. The AT is an important determinant of distance-running performance because it represents the fastest you can go without relying on a significant anaerobic contribution and developing metabolic acidosis.

Increasing your clients’ AT enables them to run faster before anaerobic metabolism kicks in. With training, a previously anaerobic pace becomes “high aerobic.” (This kind of training takes a pace that was fatiguing because of the anaerobic contribution and makes that pace more aerobic so it can be sustained.) The faster your clients’ AT pace, the faster the pace they can hold over time. This is a key to training for a distance race, whether it’s a 5K or a marathon.

Distance races will require your clients to hold a hard pace for an extended time. The longer the race, the more important it is to train their AT. So, for the half-marathon and marathon, the AT should be the focus of your clients’ training.

Acidosis Threshold Workouts

AT workouts range from basic to challenging:

AT Run

The most basic of AT workouts, this is a continuous run at AT pace.

  • 2–3 miles (15–20 minutes) to 5–6 miles (40–45 minutes) at AT pace

Long AT Run

For marathoners who need to get used to running longer near their AT pace, this workout is a continuous run at slightly slower than their AT pace.

  • 6–10 miles (45–60 minutes) at 10–20 seconds per mile slower than AT pace

AT Intervals
An AT-interval workout uses short runs at AT pace with short rest intervals, which makes the AT run both physically and psychologically easier and increases the distance clients can run at their AT pace in a single workout.

  • 4 x 1 mile at AT pace with 1:00 rest intervals
  • 8 x 800–1,000 meters at AT pace with 1:00 rest intervals

AT-Plus Intervals

These AT intervals are run slightly faster than AT pace (hence the plus) with very short rest intervals.

  • 2 sets of 3–4 x 800–1,000 meters at 5–10 seconds per mile faster than AT pace with 45 seconds’ rest and 2 minutes’ rest between sets

AT/LSD Combo Run

A twist on the 1970s term “ long slow distance,” this challenging workout for marathoners is a medium-long distance run with a portion at AT pace.

  • 4 miles at AT pace + 8 miles easy
  • 5 miles easy + 3 miles at AT pace + 5 miles easy + 3 miles at AT pace
  • 10 miles easy + 4 miles at AT pace
VO2max Intervals

VO2max is very important for distance runners because it indicates the maximum rate at which their muscles consume oxygen. Think of VO2max as your clients’ aerobic ceiling, with the acidosis threshold representing the fraction of that ceiling in which they can run without fatigue-causing acidosis.

You can improve your clients’ VO2max simply by increasing their weekly mileage, as this increases the muscles’ metabolic machinery to use oxygen, but interval training—during which clients run at their heart rate maximum (HRmax)—is the most potent way to increase VO2max (Billat 2001; Midgley, McNaughton & Jones 2007). One of the most elegant adaptations to interval training is hypertrophy of the left ventricle of the heart, causing an increase in maximum stroke volume (the volume of blood the heart pumps each beat), maximum cardiac output (the volume of blood the heart pumps each minute) and thus VO2max.

For VO2max intervals, use work periods of 3–5 minutes. Shorter work periods can also improve VO2max as long as you use very short, jogging recovery intervals to keep VO2 elevated throughout the workout. Cap the work periods at 5 minutes; anything longer would necessitate a decrease in speed to repeat the work period more than once or twice.

VO2max Workouts

Make sure clients warm up adequately before each workout, completing their warm-up with a few 100-meter runs at VO2max pace to prepare their legs for faster running and to transition seamlessly into the workout. Here are examples of VO2max workouts:

  • 5–6 x 800 meters at VO2max pace with a 1:≤1 work-to-rest ratio
  • 4–5 x 1,000 meters at VO2max pace with a 1:≤1 work-to-rest ratio
  • 3–4 x 1,200 meters at VO2max pace with a 1:≤1 work-to-rest ratio
  • 15–20 x 400 meters at VO2max pace with a 1:<1 work-to-rest ratio
  • VO2max Ladder: 2 sets of 800, 1,000 and 1,200 meters at VO2max pace, with a 1:≤1 work-to-rest ratio
  • VO2max Pyramid: 800, 1,000, 1,200, 1,000 and 800 meters at VO2max pace with a 1:≤1 work-to-rest ratio

Anaerobic Capacity Intervals

The shorter the race, the greater the runner’s reliance on anaerobic glycolysis for energy and the greater the metabolic acidosis experienced. Every distance race from the mile to 10K has a significant anaerobic contribution, so anaerobic capacity training is essential. For anaerobic capacity intervals, use work periods of 45 seconds to 2 minutes with recovery intervals one to three times as long as the time spent running. These workouts increase muscle glycolytic enzyme activity so that glycolysis can regenerate ATP more quickly for muscle contraction and improve the ability to buffer the muscle acidosis that occurs when there is a large dependence on anaerobic metabolism.

Anaerobic Capacity Workouts

Make sure clients warm up adequately before each workout, completing their warm-up with a few 100-meter runs at VO2max pace and at anaerobic capacity pace to prepare their legs for faster running and seamlessly transition into the workout. Here are examples of anaerobic capacity workouts:

  • 6–8 x 400 meters at anaerobic capacity pace with 1:1 work-to-rest ratio
  • 2 sets of 400/800/400 meters at anaerobic capacity pace with 1-minute recovery and 5-minute recovery between sets
  • 2 sets of 5 x 200–300 meters at anaerobic capacity pace with 1:2 work-to-rest ratio and 5-minute recovery between sets

With all of the types of workouts described above, make the workouts harder over time by adding more reps or decreasing the recovery intervals, rather than by running faster. Increase the speed of the work periods only after race results have shown that a client’s fitness level has improved. Races indicate fitness level, so they dictate the training speeds, not the other way around. Contrary to what many runners and coaches think, distance runners don’t do workouts to practice running faster. They do workouts to improve the physiological characteristics that enable them to run faster in the future.

Think of an assembly line: If you want to make more products, the better strategy is to increase the number of workers (physiological characteristics) so you have more assembly lines to do the work, rather than to increase the speed at which the assembly line workers operate. The goal of training is to obtain the greatest benefit while incurring the least amount of stress, so train your clients with as slow a pace as you can while still obtaining the desired result of the workout.

Avoiding Injuries

While runners sometimes get hurt for no apparent reason, no matter how careful the trainer, there are many ways to decrease the likelihood of an injury:

Mileage Control

  • Increase weekly mileage by no more than 1 mile per day.┬áIf your clients currently run 20 miles per week in 4 days, have them run no more than 24 miles next week by adding 1 mile to each of the 4 days.┬áThey shouldn’t run 24 miles next week by adding all 4 miles to only 1 day of running. Highly trained runners can get away with adding more miles more quickly, especially if they have experience running more miles.
  • Maintain the same mileage for 3-4 weeks before increasing it.┬áGive clients a chance to adapt to each level of running before increasing the level.┬á
  • Back off training by about one-third for 1 recovery week before increasing the training load.┬áIf clients have been running 30 miles per week for 3 weeks, back off to 20 miles for 1 week before going above 30 miles the next week.

Volume and Intensity

  • Never increase volume and intensity at the same time.┬áWhen you begin to include interval training in your clients’ programs, either drop the overall mileage for the week or keep mileage where it was prior to adding interval training.┬áNever add more miles to the week at the same time as introducing interval training.
  • Ensure adequate recovery.┬áAll adaptations from training occur during recovery from training, not during training itself. Proper nutrition, hydration and sleep all contribute to recovery. The older your clients, the more time they need to recover from workouts, so the longer they need before increasing volume and intensity.
  • ┬á

  • Address muscle strength imbalances between opposing muscle groups by strengthening clients’ weaker muscles.

Footwear That Fits

  • Be sure that clients wear the right running shoes for their foot types and running mechanics. Running shoes have specific combinations of support and stability designed for different running gaits. Cushioning shoes, best suited for runners with normal to high arches, promote adequate pronation to absorb shock upon landing. Stability shoes, best suited for runners with normal to low arches who slightly overpronate, allow only limited pronation and retain some cushioning characteristics. Motion-control shoes, best suited for runners with flat feet who severely overpronate, prevent pronation. Tell clients to replace running shoes after 300-400 miles, at which time they begin to lose their shock-absorbing abilities.

The Right Diet

  • Make certain that clients eat enough to offset their high caloric expenditure from running. Many runners do not eat enough to meet their needs for specific nutrients like calcium and vitamin D. This can put their bones at risk for injury. Low energy availability is a key risk factor for stress fractures, especially among female runners. Research indicates that clients need to consume 1,000 milligrams of calcium per day and 400 International Units of vitamin D per day (Borer 2005), but you should refer clients to a licensed nutrition professional for specific guidance on supplementation.

For Women Who Run

    Screen female clients for characteristics of the female athlete triad—menstrual irregularities, disordered eating and osteoporosis. High training volumes can cause irregular menstruation or even absent menstrual cycles (amenorrhea), increasing the risk for osteoporosis and stress fractures. Disordered eating (not to be confused with an eating disorder, like anorexia nervosa or bulimia) may result in caloric restriction, which can lead to low bone mineral density (BMD) even if menstruation is normal. Disordered eating is common among females, owing to external or self-imposed pressure to lose weight. Clients who have any of the characteristics of the female athlete triad should regularly have their BMD assessed to determine if they are at risk for injury. If they do have low BMD, use strength training to increase bone density, and have them speak with a nutrition professional about calcium and vitamin D; they might also talk to their physician about birth control pills, which provide bone-protecting estrogen.

Running Form Drills

High Knee Walk
This drill focuses on the hip flexors. March 2-4 sets of 30 meters, bringing the hip to 90 degrees so your thigh is parallel to the ground. Focus on creating 90-degree angles at the knee and ankle. As each leg descends, it should come down directly underneath your center of gravity and land on the midfoot.

High Knee Skip
This drill is similar to the high knee walk but is performed as a skip, focusing on three 90-degree angles: hip, knee and ankle. As each leg descends, it should come down directly underneath your center of gravity and land on the midfoot. Do 2-4 sets of 30 meters.

High Knee Run
This drill is similar to the high knee walk and high knee skip, but this is performed as a run. The horizontal distance is covered slowly, as the emphasis is on moving the legs up and down as fast as you can, like a piston or a sewing machine. Think of the ground as hot coals, causing you to pick up your legs as soon as they touch the ground. As each leg descends, it should come down directly underneath your center of gravity. Remain on the ball of your foot. Run tall and do not lean back. Do 2-4 sets of 30 meters.

Butt Kicks
This drill focuses on the hamstrings. Run 2-4 sets of 30 meters, focusing on flexing your knees and flicking the back of your butt with the heels of your shoes. The emphasis is on moving the legs fast. As each leg descends, it should come down directly underneath your center of gravity. Remain on the ball of your foot. Do 2-4 sets of 30 meters.

Running Leg Cycle
All of the former drills come into play in this drill, which takes your legs through the entire running cycle. Lean against a fence or pole and, while standing in place, move one leg through the entire running cycle: start with your foot on the ground, extend the leg at the hip and sweep the leg back, bend the knee and pull it to the front of your body until the hip is at 90 degrees (also creating 90-degree angles at the knee and ankle), lower the leg to the ground underneath your center of gravity and then repeat. Think, “Land, push off, pull through; land, push off, pull through.” Do 2-3 sets of 20 reps with each leg.

In an exaggerated running motion, bound forward from one leg to the other. (Bounding looks like a combination of running and jumping.) Do 2-4 sets of 40-50 meters.

Do controlled sprints for 50-150 meters. Aim for a fast, smooth feeling. Don’t press to go fast—these sprints should not feel difficult. Rather, relax and focus on moving your legs fast (to increase stride rate) and extending your legs behind you from the hip (to increase stride length). Take as much time as you need between each one to feel recovered.

Workout Paces

Correct workout paces for AT workouts, as well as for VO2max intervals and anaerobic capacity intervals, are given below.

Easy Runs/Long Runs

  • about 2 minutes per mile slower than 5K race pace
  • about 70%-75% of HRmax
  • comfortable, conversational pace

Acidosis Threshold (AT)
Recreational runners

  • 10-15 seconds per mile slower than 5K race pace (about 10K race pace)
  • 75%-80% of HRmax

    Highly trained/competitive runners

  • 25-30 seconds per mile slower than 5K race pace (10-15 seconds per mile slower than 10K race pace)
  • 85%-90% of HRmax
  • comfortably hard pace

VO2max Intervals
Recreational runners

  • 1- to11/2-mile race pace

Highly trained/competitive runners

  • 3K (2-mile) race pace
  • 95%-100% of HRmax
  • hard but manageable pace

Anaerobic Capacity Intervals
Recreational runners

  • 400- to 800-meter race pace

Highly trained/competitive runners

  • 800-meter to mile race pace
  • very quick pace; fast enough to cause acidosis


Billat, L.V. 2001. Interval training for performance: A scientific and empirical practice. Sports Medicine, 31 (1), 13-31.
Borer, K.T. 2005. Physical activity in the prevention and amelioration of osteoporosis in women: Interaction of mechanical, hormonal and dietary factors. Sports Medicine, 35 (9), 779-830.
Fitts, F., et al. 1975. Skeletal muscle respiratory capacity, endurance, and glycogen utilization. American Journal of Physiology, 228 (4), 1029-33.
Holloszy, J.O., & Coyle, E.F. 1984. Adaptations of skeletal muscle to endurance exercise and their metabolic consequences. Journal of Applied Physiology, 56 (4), 831-38.
Ingjer, F. 1979. Effects of endurance training on muscle fibre ATP-ase activity, capillary supply and mitochondrial content in man. Journal of Physiology, 294, 419-32.
MarathonGuide.com. 2012. Record number of USA marathon finishers. www.marathon guide.com/Features/Articles/2010RecapOverview.cfm; retrieved June 13, 2012.
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.

Jason Karp, PhD

A professional running coach, freelance writer, fitness consultant and PhD candidate in exercise physiology at Indiana University. He coaches runners of all levels through RunCoachJason.com.

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