After reading part 1 and 2, you’re now up to speed on base building considerations, the various types of training runs, how to structure a training week, and common mistakes to avoid. Part 3 will cover some additional important considerations for maximizing your running performance to include running form, pacing strategies, 5 mile event prep (hydration and fueling), and a sample 12 week training plan, beginning with a base building month and culminating with 8 weeks of event-specific training.
After having read all three articles, you’ll possess the tools required to execute, and all that’s left to do is put in the work required. Let’s start by taking a look at a commonly overlooked aspect of running, your technique.
As mentioned in part 2, the most common cause of running injury, in my opinion, is an improper build-up of volume and intensity. Even if you have pristine running form, going from zero to 100 too quickly will greatly increase your risk of injury. There’s no way to hack this, and it must be acknowledged. Improper running mechanics (or form/technique) is another common culprit for injury, and even if you’re able to get by without hurting yourself, poor running form will also inhibit you from reaching your full potential.
When we consider the importance of running form, it’s easy to look at it solely from an injury prevention perspective, which is important, but still not the whole picture. Dialing in your running form will also make you more efficient, which, in the case of a faster 5 miler, means you'll be able to preserve more energy and maintain a faster pace throughout. In other words, you’ll still have enough gas left in the tank at the end for a finishing push.
There are several different acceptable running techniques. If you watch a group of the best runners in the world running together, you’ll probably be able to identify subtle differences in their respective gaits, cadence, and overall technique. Their running form, combined with how proficiently their body distributes oxygen to working muscles (a loose definition of running economy) is what sets these elite runners apart from very good runners. Because this article’s focus is not on becoming an elite runner, rather, simply a better Army fitness test runner, I won’t get into the scientific intricacies of running economy.
I will, however, provide you with an overview of some of the most common running technique mistakes, as well as some ways to identify and address them. As mentioned in part 1, running is a skill, but the average person does not treat it as such. Failure to treat running as a skill will usually result in seconds to minutes on your 5 mile time being left on the table. You can certainly muscle your way through your runs and get faster over time with proper adherence to a running training plan, but this method will only take you so far. A better approach would be to master both running mechanics, AND programming. The following are some of the most common mistakes amateur runners make:
- Over-striding - one would assume that to run faster, a longer stride is a good target to shoot for. But in reality, longer strides not only slow a runner down, but also increase the impact with which you hit the ground on every step. Those who lack proficiency tend to have longer running strides, which detracts from their ability to propel themselves forward. If your foot is striking the ground with each step in front of the midline of your body, it’s acting as a subtle break each time you land (which is several thousand times on a run, depending on the distance and duration). Shortening your stride and focusing on a higher cadence (steps per minute) is one of the best ways to not only run faster, but also reduce the impact of running, which will reduce fatigue and structural wear and tear. There is no “one size fits all cadence”, but at race pace, somewhere between 170 and 185 is usually a good target. Cadence can be tracked by most running or smart watches, or by counting the # of times one foot hits the ground over a minute, and multiplying it by 2 (you can break it down into 30 seconds and multiply by 4 as well).
- Upper body shenanigans - many people don’t consider the importance of being mindful of their upper body when running. There are many ways to make your running less efficient that relate to your upper body.
Here are some examples (These are not official terms - I made them up in order to hopefully paint a better picture):
-“Thumbs up dude” - running with your thumbs up, for whatever reason
-“Crossover arms” - arms sway side to side across your body
-“I don’t know, dude” - vigorously shrugging your shoulders/tensing your upper body
-“Turret torso” - torso twists side to side with every stride, like the turret on a gun truck
-“Knife hand” - palms locked out and clenched, as if you’re giving someone orders with a knife hand
-“Atten-chun!” - Running with your arms dead straight by your sides, like you’re a soldier standing at the position of attention
These are just a few examples. If your upper body is working too hard or moving inefficiently, it’s going to slow you down because you’re expending more energy than you otherwise could be. A relaxed torso with your shoulders down and back, your chest up, and your arms to hanging relaxed by your sides will limit how much extra energy you expend in your upper body. There’s no perfect upper body position, and different strategies work well for different people, but if your upper body is in an un-athletic or overly tense configuration, your energy expenditure will be needlessly high.
I've also come up with list of runner "types" who are less efficient, usually due to cadence, but also lack of body awareness. Here are some examples:
- The hoppy runner: This is when a runner hops excessively high with each stride. You want to think of yourself as falling slightly forward and catching yourself with each step, rather than jumping up in the air and bounding your way forward. When watching yourself run from the front or back or front, your shoulder line should move up and down very minimally. The hoppy runner has a lot of up and down movement, which again, expends needless extra energy.
- The “f*ck you, ground” runner: This person hates the ground, or at least that’s what it looks like when they run. This is often a byproduct of over-striding, but can also be the result of lack of body awareness. This person exerts a high degree of force into the ground with every step, as if they want to curb-stomp the pavement or kill a bug over and over again. Even if you do hate the ground, for whatever reason, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. When excessively pounding pavement with each step, you’re not only slowing yourself down, but you’re also sending extreme forces up your kinetic chain, which can result in overuse injuries or feeling like you went through a washing machine spin cycle after a run. When running, think of the ground as your best friend, not your enemy. A light, elegant contact with the ground with each stride (this is easier if you adhere to the cadence guidelines above) will allow you to run faster and lower your risk of injury or post-run joint pain.
- The “MUST. AVOID. HEEL-STRIKE.” runner: There are plenty of elite runners who heel strike. There are also elite runners with mid foot strikes. There are no elite runners who run on their tiptoes. Many novice runners have heard “heel strike = bad” and they go to great lengths to avoid it. By focusing on resolving mistake # 1 (cadence), the way your foot strikes the ground should resolve itself enough to improve your running and reduce impact. You do not need to make an extra effort to land solely on your forefoot. Running on your toes can lead to extreme lower leg fatigue and even injury. Just land naturally with each step (focusing on shorter strides and a good cadence) and don’t worry about whether it’s on your heel or your mid foot.
Again, there’s no perfect running form that will work for everyone, but there are certainly some considerations for improving yours. To learn more about some common technique mistakes and how to fix them, this video is a great watch.
Remember that running is THE most injurious form of exercise. Failure to consider technique and proper progression (which the majority of runners do) increases your risk substantially. For a tactical athlete looking to improve running, drills are not usually necessary IF (big IF) you focus on practicing and maintaining good form while running, especially on your easy and LSD runs when you’re less fatigued (but also on your faster training runs). Form breakdown on an easy run will compound once the pace picks up and the fatigue sets in, but if you stay mindful of it at all times, you’ll reduce your risk of injury. The best way to assess your form is to film yourself from the back, front, and each side at various efforts. It can also help to have your form assessed by someone who knows what to look for. It may seem like an inconvenient hassle to do this, but it’s highly beneficial because it’ll allow you to see what your inefficiencies are and center your focus on resolving them.
If you’re “too hard” or “too alpha” to care about running induced injuries, I'll also have you know that poor running form also results in an unfavorable running economy. You’ll expend more energy than you otherwise could have had you spent some mental energy at the beginning identifying your inefficiencies and developing better technique. Muscling your way through it is an option, but I can assure you it’s not the best option.
The ability to pace your run based on your fitness is a crucial aspect of running your best time. The vast majority of people get pacing completely wrong, and it not only makes for a miserable “holding on for dear life” running experience, but it’ll also result in slower overall finishing times. The first 1-2 miles of a run are going to be easier than the last 1-2 miles. You start the race in a low-fatigue state. Your core temp is low, your glycogen stores are full, you’re hydrated (more on fueling and hydration later), and your body has yet to begin accumulating acid in the muscles. All of these factors come into play when thinking about pacing. But just because you feel fresh and ready to go, does not mean you should go out guns blazing in the first half of the run. The ability to hold back and keep some gas in the tank for the back half is crucial.
Before we get too into pacing, it’s important to understand the different energy systems used in a 5 mile run. I don’t want to get too into the science, and will keep the explanations as rudimentary as possible, but a bit of it is needed to drive the points home.
The Lactic Acid Myth
Is lactic acid the reason we suffer on these runs? Is it what makes our muscles sore after we run? The short answer is no. But it's quite a complicated process, and the internet is loaded with misinformation. I'm not a PHD in physiology, but I've spent a long time trying to learn the intricacies of what is actually going on during glycolytic activity. I'm going to explain it in the simplest possible terms to give you a baseline understanding of what's occurring. Inevitably, it'll still likely be difficult to follow and involve some big words.
The aerobic energy system is that which you can theoretically sustain indefinitely (although there are other factors like core temp, joint/structural pain, and hydration that can throw a wrench in it). This is when your body relies on oxygen to fuel performance, and so long as your pace is under a certain threshold (which will be different for everyone depending on their fitness levels), you don’t need to worry about “blowing up” or “redlining”.
At higher efforts, oxygen is no longer available in sufficient quantities to fuel your type II muscle fibers, which are more heavily recruited at faster speeds. This "switchover" from predominantly aerobic to anaerobic relies on the lactic (aka glycolytic) energy system to continue the effort. In the absence of oxygen (anaerobic), type II fibers require glucose (stored or circulating) to continue producing adenosine triphosphate or ATP (energy currency of all cells).
When glucose is called upon for ATP production (glycolysis), your body also experiences increased lactate buildup. Lactate (often incorrectly used interchangeably with lactic acid) routinely gets the blame for the burning sensation runners feel when they reach a certain effort. But lactate is actually a source of energy, acting as a buffer for the inherent hydrogen ion build-up that occurs as a result of glycolysis. Although lactate is associated with fatigue, it’s not a source of fatigue (despite what is commonly believed in the running/endurance community).
What is the source then?
When you reach/cross this threshold, the inability to sufficiently buffer hydrogen ions which accumulate in your blood will subsequently lower your blood PH. If you think back to middle school chemistry, you'll know that low PH means, you guessed it, acid. This phenomenon is termed muscular acidosis, and is responsible for the extreme burning sensation you feel in your muscles during hard, prolonged efforts (entering the "pain cave").
This pace can only be sustained for so long, and recovering from it is more complicated and time consuming than just slowing back down slightly. This is why it's important to spend time in training runs near this threshold (tempo runs), or above the threshold (some interval/repeat runs), as well as spending lots of time improving your zone 2 abilities (more mitochondria from prolonged zone 2 will delay onset of acid build up).
Whether you have an understanding of the above or not (I know, it’s a lot to take in), the most important thing to remember is this: crossing this threshold too early (which will happen if you go out too hard) will result in poor performance (and lot’s of pain and misery). The goal for your 5 mile run should be to “hang out” just below this threshold until it’s time to cross it, which will be different for everyone, but it shouldn’t be in the first half of the run.
Back to Pacing
Generally speaking, there are two accepted ways to pace your run; a negative split and a controlled positive split (or controlled fade). A negative split is when the first half of your run is slower than the back half. For example, If you're looking to run a 32:00 5 mile, your first 2.5 miles should be slower than 16:00, and your last 2.5 faster. Most running world records in history have been accomplished with a negative split. Elite runners almost always ensure they’re on pace to run a negative split.
A positive split, as you could probably guess, is the opposite. There’s a right and a wrong way to run a positive split, and in my experience, most people do it the wrong way. The right way to do it is to run a slightly slower back half, but in a controlled manner. Known as a controlled fade, this is when the runner knows how to pace themselves in a way that doesn’t result in crossing their lactate threshold too early, but still ends up running a slightly slower back half. In other words, although they’re not running a negative split, they’re also not blowing up too early and holding on for dear life. Although a negative split takes some discipline and trust in the process, I believe, based on experience, a controlled fade takes even more discipline, and often lends itself well to quickly becoming an uncontrolled, “hang on for dear life” endeavor.
Here are some examples:
Controlled fade (30:00 5 mile for easy math)
Mile 1: 5:50
Mile 2: 5:55
Mile 3: 6:00
Mile 4: 6:05
Mile 5: 6:10
Here’s an example of what not to do (uncontrolled)
Mile 1: 5:30
Mile 2: 5:29
Mile 3: 6:00
Mile 4: 6:40
Mile 5: 7:30
Although these exact paces are arbitrary, the trend is, in my experience, the most common way for an Army runner to conduct their 5 mile. Miles 3-5 are spent in the pain cave, and although the runner is capable of a 30:00 5 miler, their pacing strategy failed them and resulted in a slower time.
For this reason, I recommend aiming for a negative split if you want to run your best time. In other words, if you’re looking to run a 5 mile in 30 minutes, your first 2.5 miles should be slower than 15 minutes. It doesn’t have to be a lot slower, you could literally run a 15:01 and a 14:59, but it’s certainly worth considering. As always, there’s no such thing as a free lunch, and once you cross your threshold and switch over to a predominantly glycolytic effort, you’re committing to being able to sustain that pace for the rest of the run.
Many inexperienced runners lack the awareness to know what this switch-over feels like and if you do it in mile 1 or 2, you’re likely going to struggle. Instead, if you’re able to stay below your threshold for the first ½ (at least) of the run, you can determine when it’s time to switch over, and you’ll only have to “hang on'' for a mile or 2. This is why being mindful during training is crucial. Reaching this threshold in training with intervals, tempos and fartleks will allow you to know not only what it feels like to hit your threshold, but also know the pace at which it occurs, because it’s different for everyone and will depend on your overall fitness and running proficiency.
Here’s what a negative split looks like (numbers arbitrary, but concept remains the same):
(30:00 5 mile for easy math)
First 2.5 miles: 15:05
Second 2.5 miles: 14:55
To take this even further, you can implement a mile by mile negative split. In other words, each mile you run is faster than your last. Here’s what that would look like:
(30:00 5 mile)
Mile 1: 6:10
Mile 2: 6:05
Mile 3: 6:00
Mile 4: 5:55
Mile 5: 5:50
These numbers are just intended to be examples. There’s no reason to stress about paces down to the second, but understanding the concept is the important part.
One thing to note is that the course layout can potentially affect your splits tremendously. For example, if the first half of the run is mostly downhill and the back half is mostly uphill, you shouldn’t get too fixated on achieving a negative split. In this case, while it's still certainly a good idea to preserve energy for the back half, it may not be realistic to run a faster back half. If you’re able to figure out where you’ll be running the 5 mile in advance, doing one of your slow runs on the course before you test it (ideally a few days prior) is a great strategy. This will allow you to get a feel for it, and enhance your ability to plan your event day strategy. The best runners in the world are always mindful of the exact course layout, because it allows them to strategize where to push and where to hold back.
The main point I want you to remember is to exercise some discipline in the first half of the race. You’re going to watch 90% of the runners take off at the beginning. That’s just what happens. But if you trust your plan and stay conservative, you’ll be passing all of them in no time. Not only will you have a better finishing time, but you’ll also spend less time in the pain cave.
Fueling for a 5 miler
Due to the shorter duration of a 5 mile run, fueling is logistically easier than it is for a longer duration run or ruck. It’s not necessary to bring intra-run fuel or hydration due to the shorter duration of the event (although if you’re in the Q-course or Ranger School, they may mandate a camelbak - rules are rules, I suppose). That being said, ensuring you’re adequately fueled and hydrated before the run is paramount. Poor fueling will lead to poor performance, and although it’s pretty simple, it’s commonly botched. Continue reading to learn how to do it right.
Carbs Are Your Friend
It’s no secret that your body relies on carbohydrates to fuel intense activity. Even if you’ve executed a flawless train-up, you still won’t run your best race if you’re not well-fueled. Although most people are aware of this, it’s not uncommon to see runners overcomplicating their pre-event carb loading strategy. Carb loading can and should be very basic, especially for a non-elite runner in a shorter duration event like this. The name of the game is ensuring your glycogen stores are fully topped off, as well as avoiding gastrointestinal issues, and the simplest and (in my opinion) most effective way to do this is by, wait for it…adding more carbs to the meals you normally eat. It’s really that simple. How many extra carbs? Here’s what I like to recommend:
The Super Secret, Highly Complicated Race-Winning Carb Load Strategy (I can’t believe this isn’t behind a pricewall) is as follows:
- Begin adding an extra serving of normally eaten carbs to your meals ~48 hours prior to the event (for a shorter event like a 5 mile, a longer carb load is likely unnecessary).
- Add 2 servings of normally eaten carbs to your “carb load meal” the day prior
- To avoid sleep complications and adhere to your body’s ability to digest and assimilate nutrients, your carb load meal should be consumed approximately 14-18 hours prior (most runs are done early morning, so this would be ~ late lunch the day prior).
Yes, there are equations you can use based on body weight to learn exactly how many grams of carbs you should take in, but I don’t think it’s necessary for most people. I highly recommend just sticking to this simple approach. To paint it more clearly, here’s an example:
Beginning 48 hours out (breakfast 2 days before): If you normally eat 2 slices of toast for breakfast, eat 3 (or 2 plus 30-40 grams of carbs from fruit). If you normally eat a sweet potato for dinner, eat 2.
Carb load meal the day prior: If you usually eat 1 cup of rice for lunch, eat 3 cups (or 2 cups plus another carb source).
*You may also consider subtracting a few grams of fat from each of these meals, but going slightly over calories the day prior isn’t the end of the world, and I don’t want to make this process as simple as possible.
You may have noticed I used the word “normally” in every sentence above. One of the most important points to remember is to avoid novelty; Don’t eat things you don’t normally eat. For whatever reason, less experienced endurance athletes tend to complicate a carb load, often assuming they need special carb sources in order to do it properly. There certainly are better choices and worse choices for carbs, but if you choose something you rarely/never eat for your carb load meals, even if it’s the best carb source possible for before a run, you’re still playing with fire because your body isn’t used to it. Is this a death sentence every time? No, you’ll probably be just fine. But why risk it? Eat the same foods you normally eat, just with extra carbs.
Other things to consider mitigating the day prior, and especially the day of, are too many fibrous vegetables. Veggies, especially in raw form, are certainly healthy, and great to include in your regular diet, but they can also lead to GI distress if you overdo them before an event like this. If you normally eat lots of veggies, you’re probably fine. If you don’t (again, for whatever reason, people tend to go on an ill-advised short term “health kick” prior to events like this), save them for after the run. The last thing you want is to have gas, bloat, or need to run off into the woodline to do your business mid-run.
Since you’ll likely be doing this event early in the morning, you’ll want to get up at a time that allows you to eat a moderate sized, carb rich meal at least 90 minutes prior to step-off. This is a one off scenario where I recommend sacrificing 30-60 minutes of sleep to get up and get a meal in. The best option for the morning of, again, is something you’re used to eating. Oatmeal, fruit, a bagel, toast, and rice based cereal are all good options. Assuming you’re at least 90 minutes out (2 hours is probably even better - but may require you to get up at an absurdly early hour), this meal should have 80-120 grams of carbs in it. Some protein is a good idea as well (~20-40 grams), but fat should be kept to a minimum until post-run.
If you sleep in and cannot consume this breakfast with enough time before the race, if absolutely nothing else, start sipping on liquid carbs (watered down gatorade, pedialyte, vitargo, cyclic dextrin) 30-45 minutes prior, right up to before stepping off. You can do this in addition to the meal as well, which will ensure you’re not only topped off on glycogen (stored fuel), but also glucose (ready-to-use fast fuel), both of which are crucial for optimal performance. If you adhere to the pacing strategies above, most of the back half of the race will be teetering on the line of your lactate threshold (aka, glycolytic, aka, carbs/sugar are your friends).
Going into the run hydrated is another important consideration. Small degrees of dehydration will result in measurable performance decrements. Drinking a glass of water 30 minutes prior isn’t enough (you may laugh, but this is common). Hydration should start the day prior - with one caveat: don’t overload yourself with fluids in the evening before you go to sleep. It’s a good idea to be well hydrated during the day, but also consider tapering your water intake in the evening. If you are going to drink water before bed, consider adding some salt to it. This will help your body’s cells hold onto (rather than piss out) the water you consume (if you normally struggle with nocturia - frequent night time urination - this can be a great hack). The sleep loss you’ll experience from waking up to pee (more than once - ideally not at all) is not worth the extra hydration.
That said, early morning hydration prior to the run is crucial. You should start drinking water with electrolytes (especially salt) immediately on waking. You don’t need to chug it (actually, you’re better off not doing that), but you should be sipping on water with electrolytes from the minute you wake up to a few minutes before the gun. The goal should be to have straw colored urine before stepping off (not fully clear, not yellow). Again, there’s no need to hydrate during the run since it’s relatively short, so long as you’re hydrated prior to it (you can still carry a small water bottle with some sugar/electrolytes in it if you’d like - even if it’s just placebo).
Depending on the weather, it’s a good idea to consume some salt in your water. Plain water may be fine for colder days (assuming you’re eating a salty breakfast), but if it’s hot and/or humid, adding 500-1000 Mg of sodium to your pre-race drink is usually smart. Somewhere between 32-48 oz of water prior to step-off is a good target (assuming the run is done early morning).
A final, but equally important note to remember is not to over hydrate, either. Drinking too much water may, in fact, be even more common in less experienced runners and not drinking enough. Overdoing the water, especially in the absence of a high sodium breakfast and/or an electrolyte supplement is also very detrimental for performance (arguably worse, because you think you’re doing something good for yourself). If you’re peeing every 30 minutes and it’s clear, you’ve overdone it. This is why blanket “drink more water” prescriptions irritate me beyond words. Being sufficiently hydrated (not water-logged) will ensure your muscles are primed and ready to perform.
Now that you know how to run proficiently, pace your runs, eat the right foods, and properly hydrate, let’s take a look at another highly important, and often overlooked factor in running performance; Showing up highly ready, but not highly fatigued.
Fatigue; Running is Different
When training for a run event, fatigue must be accounted for. Hard training is excellent, but it doesn’t come without side effects. Compared to other training modalities, the fatigue cost of running is quite unique, in that there are several variables we must account for. It doesn’t take a scientist to conclude that going out for a run will leave you feeling fatigued. Whether you’re doing an LSD run, a tempo run, fartlek run, or intervals, a certain amount of recovery reserves are required in order to continue adapting. But fatigue is more complicated than simply feeling tired after a run. Just like fitness adaptations, fatigue acts on a continuum and continues to accumulate. When you train and recover appropriately, fatigue is easily managed and adaptations can continue.
To gain an understanding of the fatigue component, we must consider the following 4 major categories of running-induced stress:
- Muscular fatigue - experiencing tired/sore/heavy legs towards the end of a run, following the run, and sometimes the subsequent day(s) following a run.
- Systemic fatigue - running fatigues the central nervous system, which recovers more quickly than many people think, but still must be considered.
- Structural fatigue - the impactful and repetitive nature of running will lead to fatigue in your joints, bones and soft tissue, which do not recover as quickly as your muscles.
- Mental fatigue - Certain types of runs require a high degree of mental focus. There’s always a cost to mental arousal, and it’s not uncommon to feel mentally “spent” at the end of a hard running training block.
We’re all familiar with muscular fatigue - this occurs as a result of most forms of training, to include running. But we must also account for systemic fatigue, which also occurs from most other training, but can be amplified when conducting a running-specific training program. Finally, the aspect of running which is most amplified compared with many other forms of training is the structural fatigue (joints and soft tissue) that accompanies it. Think about how your joints feel after a 30 minute hard run versus how they feel after you’ve biked for 30 minutes (or even longer).
Activities like biking, squatting, rowing and swimming are certainly repetitive. But running is repetitive and impactful. It involves thousands and thousands of continuous micro eccentric contractions (think of the lowering/negative portion of a lift) that add a very unique form of fatigue that must be accounted for. A good running program (more below) will account for this with proper progression, intensity management and effort prescriptions, but even the perfect running program executed by the perfect runner is still more structurally fatiguing than a typical fitness program.
Mental fatigue is another key consideration when training for a run event. Certain types of runs are actually quite relaxing and may even aid in stress reduction. Something like a 60 minute trail run in the mountains on a beautiful saturday morning is, for most people, going to be a low stress event. However, running 3x1 mile repeats or 12x200 meter hill repeats will cause a high degree of mental engagement. Add to that, most of us are also doing other types of training that can add to the mental taxation of our overall workload. Running sessions must be recovered from not just physically, but also mentally, and poor programming and lifestyle decisions can lead to high levels of fatigue.
The four types of fatigue often accompany one another, and failure to manage each of them through proper programming and lifestyle factors can lead to poor results. Continue reading to learn how to manage running fatigue properly and set yourself up for success.
It’s important to remember that if you’re training hard, fatigue can often mask fitness. In other words, towards the end of a hard training block, your fatigue levels may be such that your true fitness cannot be displayed. This is why it’s important to take some time away from hard training to allow fatigue to dwindle. The relationship of fatigue and fitness adaptation isn’t linear. In other words, fatigue will downregulate significantly faster than fitness during deload weeks (mid program) and taper weeks (end of the program before you need to perform).
In my opinion, a program with a well timed and well executed deload and taper week is just as important as the other hard training weeks (of course, you need to train hard for them to be worthwhile). The goal with a deload week is to dial back the volume and/or intensity, allow your body and mind to recover, and enable your fatigue to dissipate so you can attack another hard training block with fresh legs and high motivation. Although deloads and tapers share many of the same principles, they’re structured slightly differently from one another.
A deload is usually a week, primarily for scheduling purposes and convenience. It doesn’t need to be a week, though. There’s nothing magic about deloading for 7 days vs. 6 days vs. 9 days. The magic is in the overall concept; allow fatigue to go away while keeping fitness levels high.
The main goals for a deload week are to:
-Maintain enough training stimulus to not lose fitness
-Restore mental energy and boost motivation (for the phase following the deload)
-Allow aches and pains to subside and muscles to repair
-Allow soft tissue extra time to recover and repair
-Allow the nervous system to recover
Deloads can take 3 forms: planned, intuitive, life-based. I prefer using deloads intuitively, or sometimes based on life obligations, but what’s best for me isn’t the best for everyone. Some people truly need to plan their deloads, or else they won’t take them. Here are some examples of each:
Planned deload: In a 12 week training block, week 6 or week 7 is a deload.
Intuitive: You take a deload based on biofeedback and training performance (changes in RPE on typical runs, Resting HR, motivation to train, structural pain, energy throughout the day, sleep patterns, appetite are all signs to be mindful of)
Life-based: You take a deload based on your life circumstances (stress, travel, poor sleep, scheduling, etc.)
There are pros and cons to each of these. A keen sense of awareness in regards to both your personality type, as well as your general tendencies towards training is crucial. If you’re the type of person that struggles taking rest days and lives and breathes for training, a planned deload is probably smart. If you’re very in tune with your body and how you feel, or if you know your schedule is unpredictable, taking intuitive or life-based deloads is fine.
It’s important to note that not all training plans need deloads, and not everyone who trains need to consider deloads. Many people don’t train hard enough to merit a deload. Their “life-deloads” are commonly just a week of poor prioritization or excuse making. But if you’re still reading this, there’s a pretty good chance that you’re motivated and highly consistent with your training. My general guidance for a deload is that if you’re just training for health and general fitness, don’t worry about taking them. Life will likely throw them at you periodically, but even still, they shouldn’t be required. In fact, If you're not training for something specific and you feel like you need a deload regularly, your program is trash and/or you’re a mess with your outside the gym habits. On the other hand, if you’re training for a performance goal (e.g. running 5 miles as fast as possible), a deload may be appropriate. The plan below includes a suggested deload week, which you can adhere to or deload intuitively. After completing a well-executed, well-timed deload, you should feel highly motivated, very energetic, and ready to attack the next several weeks of training.
The taper is conceptually the same as the deload, but with slightly different timing considerations. Refer to the program below to see how to structure a taper week.
Now that you’ve developed an understanding of the lesser discussed, yet highly pertinent intricacies of running success, I’m going to provide you with what you’ve been waiting patiently for, a full 12 week training plan. This plan is not a perfect prescription for everyone, and making small adjustments to it based on your schedule, recovery, and other goals besides running is encouraged.
But it should give you an idea of how to train to get better at running. The program will involve lifting 3 days/week in an upper/lower/full body split. The lifting will not be programmed (I’m not that generous). But the running volume and intensity is distributed in a way that accounts for lifting fatigue. I highly encourage you to keep the lower body volume low, but the intensity high. Somewhere between 6-10 sets per muscle group per week is sufficient the legs if you’re pushing your sets hard. Upper body volume can (but doesn’t have to be) a bit higher, but you must still account for systemic fatigue accumulation from all training. I’m not a proponent of high volume training for tactical athletes, but I’m a very big proponent of high intensity training (training with close proximity to failure).
If you need a refresher on the types of training runs, this can be found in part 2.
Week 1-4 (base building - highly condensed, this would ideally be ~3 months)
*Remember - There is no written rule that states you have to train on a 7 day schedule or a Mon-Sun rotation. It’s ok to follow an asynchronous program or do different runs on different days, depending on your schedule/preferences.
Week 1: Upper body lift + 3 mile easy run
Week 2: Upper body lift + 3 mile easy run + 3x100m hill repeats
Week 3: Upper body lift + 3.5 mile easy run +4 100m hill repeats
Week 4: Upper body lift + 3.5 mile easy run +5 100m hill repeats
Week 1: Non impact conditioning (30 min zone 2 on any machine)
Week 2: Non impact conditioning (35 min zone 2 on any machine)
Week 3: Non impact conditioning (40 min zone 2 on any machine)
Week 4: Non impact conditioning (45 min zone 2 on any machine)
Week 1: Lower Body lift
Week 2: Lower Body lift
Week 3: Lower Body lift +1 mile easy run
Week 4: Lower Body lift + 2 mile easy run
Thursday: REST day
Week 1: Full body lift + 2 mile easy run
Week 2: Full body lift + 2.5 mile easy run
Week 3:Full body lift + 2.5 mile easy run
Week 4: Full body lift + 3 mile easy run
Week 1: 4 mile LSD
Week 2: 5 mile LSD
Week 3: 6 mile LSD
Week 4: 6 mile LSD
Week 1: Upper body lift + repeats (6x400, 1x800 all @ goal pace - 1:1 work/rest)
Week 2: Upper body lift + repeats (5x400, 2x800 @ goal pace-1:1 work:rest)
Week 3: Upper body lift + repeats (4x400 @ 3 sec < goal pace, 3x800 @ goal pace -1:1 work:rest)
Week 4: Upper body lift + repeats (3x400 @ 5 sec < goal pace, 4x800 @ goal pace -1:1 work:rest)
Week 1: 2-3 mile easy run
Week 2: 2-3 mile easy run
Week 3: 3-4 mile easy run
Week 4: 3-4 mile easy run
Week 1: Lower body lift + 15-20 min non impact
Week 2: Lower body lift + 15-20 min non impact
Week 3: Lower body lift + 15-20 min non impact
Week 4: Lower body lift + 15-20 min non impact
Thursday: Fartlek (8-10 min easy run warmup & cooldown)
Week 1: 16 minute fartlek: 4x4 min rounds 1:30 easy/coast, :30 build, 2:00 @ 5 mile pace
Week 2: 20 minute fartlek: 5x4 min rounds 1:30 easy/coast, :30 build, 2:00 @ 5 mile pace
Week 3: 24 minute fartlek: 6x4 min rounds 1:30 easy/coast, :30 build, 2:00 @ 5 mile pace
Week 4: 25 minute fartlek: 5x5 min rounds 1:30 easy/coast, 1:00 build, 2:30 @ 5 mile pace
Week 1: Full body lift (minimal/no lower)
Week 2: Full body lift (minimal/no lower)
Week 3: Full body lift (minimal/no lower)
Week 4:Full body lift (minimal/no lower)
Week 1: 50 min LSD
Week 2: 55 min LSD
Week 3: 60 min LSD
Week 4: 60 min LSD (cover more distance than wk 3 @ same effort
*Week 9: Deload*
Monday: Upper (normal lifting) + Fast 2 mile run (RPE 7.5)
Tuesday: non impact 25-30 min (zone 2)
Wednesday: Lower lift, no conditioning
Thursday: 20 min fartlek (spend a total of 8-10 minutes @ goal pace)
Friday: Full body
Saturday: 30 minute LSD
Week 1: Upper body lift + repeats (4x800 @ 3 sec < goal pace, 1x1200 @ goal pace 1:1 work:rest)
Week 2: Upper body lift + repeats (2x800 @ 5 sec < goal pace 1:.8 work: rest, 2x1600 @ goal pace 1:.8 work:rest)
Week 3: Upper body lift + repeats (2x800 @ 5 sec < goal pace 1:.75 work:rest, 2x1600 @ goal pace 1:.8 work:rest)
Week 4: Upper body lift + repeats 3x1600: round 1 & 2 @ 3 sec < goal pace 1:.75 work:rest, round 3: as fast as desired
Week 1: 2-3 mile easy run
Week 2: 2-3 mile easy run
Week 3: 3-4 mile easy run
Week 4: 3-4 mile easy run
Week 1: Lower body lift + 15-20 min non impact
Week 2: Lower body lift + 15-20 min non impact
Week 3: Lower body lift + 20-25 min non impact
Week 4: Lower body lift + 20-25 min non impact
Thursday: (8-10 min easy run warmup & cooldown)
Week 1: hill repeats 6x 2:00 hill (5-8% grade) @ RPE 8 (9 on last 2)
Week 2: 25 min tempo @ goal pace (can go slightly faster or slower depending on feel)
Week 3: hill repeats 7-8x 2:00 hill (5-8% grade) @ RPE 8 (9 on last 2)
Week 4: 30 min tempo @ goal pace (RPE 8)
Week 1: Full body lift (minimal/no lower)
Week 2: Full body lift (minimal/no lower)
Week 3: Full body lift (minimal/no lower)
Week 4: Full body lift (minimal/no lower)
Week 1: 60-70 min LSD
Week 2: 65-75 min LSD
Week 3: 70-80 min LSD
Week 4: 80-90 min LSD
(assuming event is following monday - if yours is different day, use similar structure)
Monday: Upper body lift + 20 minute easy run w/ 4-5 60-90 second builds to goal pace
Wednesday: Lower (minimal volume) + easy run
Thursday: 15 min tempo @ goal pace
Friday: upper lift (optional)
Sunday: 20 minute easy run w/ 4-5 60-90 second builds to goal pace
Summing It Up
Running faster is pretty simple. If you just run more, you’ll eventually get faster. But this is the approach most people take, and most people aren’t running 5 miles in under 32 minutes. Most people are running just under the cutoff time of 40 minutes, or perhaps unable to crack 40. Most people get injured constantly from running. Most people experience “burnout” from training for running because the return on effort (ROE) isn’t there.
As mentioned in part 1, genetics undoubtedly play a key role in your ability to run. Some people may never be capable of running a 32 minute 5 mile. But there are plenty who are capable that simply never will due primarily to self-sabotage and lack of awareness. I have no control over your potential for self-sabotage. If you ignore everything written and continue to do it your way, that’s on you. But I hope this series of articles has at least made you more aware of the general approach that works and the many that don’t. I’m always hesitant to make guarantees, but I’d be willing to bet big that Implementing ~80% of the strategies provided throughout the 3 articles (and making micro-adjustments based on your unique circumstances) will lead to better running performance, likely by a significant margin. It’ll just take some discipline, patience, and trust in the process.
Thank you for reading! I’d love to hear your thoughts or questions on this article (or any of the 3). Feel free to add them to the comments section below!