Brian Metzler—Do you train and train but never seem to improve your race times? If so, you’re not alone. Even if you’re a good runner, accumulated fatigue from increased mileage and the same challenging workouts week in and week out can slow you down. Here are five ways to change things up in training to stimulate better results.
1. Immerse yourself
The fastest way to learn a language is through immersion. In a language immersion camp, everyone is required to speak nothing but the language being studied for a week or a month or however long it lasts. A running immersion works similarly. Of course, taking on too much running too quickly can lead to fatigue and injury, but if done right, a running immersion can help you build your aerobic base and train you to run while fatigued.
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When adding more mileage to your weekly running diet, do it with caution. Add miles slowly, with 5- to 10-percent gains over two or three weeks and as much as 20 percent over a span of two months. Immediately going from 30 to 35 miles per week shouldn’t affect you much, but you’ll definitely feel the effects of going from 30 to 50, both in leg fatigue and the mental stress of finding time to fit it in.
You’ll need to find out what works for you, but a few ways to increase your mileage include adding three miles or so as a cooldown after an interval workout, adding a second run on a day of easy running, adding 15 minutes to weekly maintenance runs and adding 20-25 minutes to your long run every other week. But make sure you’re still taking at least one or two off from running each week so you don’t literally run yourself into the ground.
2. Mix it up
As runners, we’re often guided by a Type-A, right-brain mentality. And while that’s mostly a good thing, it means we often do interval workouts on a track with a stopwatch. Makes sense, right? Because a track offers a fast and precise surface, it’s the best and most reliable place to run 8 x 800m in exactly 3:25 or repeat miles at a seven-minute pace.
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But if you want to break the mold a bit, consider doing more fartlek workouts and vary the length of your hard efforts. Instead of running three minutes at race pace, run hard without looking at your watch or heart rate monitor. Hard to the next stoplight, run hard to the next tree or run hard until you think it’s time to back off for a rest interval. If you really want to be bold, leave your watch or heart rate monitor behind altogether. By casting aside the crutches and running more on feel, you can get more in tune with your body, especially when you’re fatigued. You’d be surprised at how good it feels to be so primal.
3. Go off-road
Even if it is convenient, running all of your miles on the roads can be painful and boring. Taking an extra 10 to 20 minutes to get yourself to a soft-surface trail can go a long way in maintaining your running zest and reducing the impact on your body. Running trails, especially undulating routes that twist and turn and climb and descend, let you avoid the repetition of the exact gait pattern on every stride. Instead, every step is different and you’re subtly shifting your weight and changing directions, and that forces your body to engage dozens of little muscles in your feet, legs and core that normally go unused while you’re using the larger, primary muscles of a consistent road or track gait.
4. Run hills
If done right, hill workouts usually aren’t fun, however they can put some pizzazz in your otherwise mundane interval workouts. They can also go a long way in building dynamic muscle strength that can come in handy when you’re fatigued and struggling to finish the last miles of your next half marathon. And running uphill is actually easier on your body because there is less jarring impact.
There are essentially two ways to run hills—either short and fast reps (say 8 x 20 seconds) that send you into oxygen debt right away or longer reps (8 x 1 minute) that start at a moderate pace but eventually increase in intensity because of the incline. The shorter reps (done on a slightly steeper hill) build strength and power, while the longer reps (done on a long, moderately sloped hill) build speed and add horsepower to your anaerobic engine. With either type of hill workout, stress good form; a short, quick arm swing, upright posture and soft, midfoot or forefoot footstrikes maximize the training effect and eliminate unnecessary muscular strain.
5. Run a PR
A PR doesn’t always have to happen at a goal race. That means that, even without too much specific fine-tuning, you might find yourself in the best running shape of your life at some point this summer and pop off a personal best when you least expect it.
By running a 5K to half marathon midway through your training cycle, you not only get a great all-out workout that stokes your competitive fire, you also get a huge confidence boost (especially if you approach or set a PR). You might consider tapering a bit before a key race to ensure maximum results, but you could always use your non-key races to kick off a weekend of high-intensity training.
A version of this piece first appeared on Triathlete.com.