Variation is the Very Spice of Running


While having a routine is an important part of training, doing the same thing all the time can get a bit boring. This risks undermining your motivation and sapping your enthusiasm. I have ostensibly structured my week around the main types of run, which in itself provides some variation. Herewith are some further variations…

We all have our favourite (and less favourite) running routes. Ringing the changes here helps to keep us fresh, and it is always good to go back to a route after a few sessions away to notice any improvements in our performance. If you use circular routes, then running the other way round (not backwards, although that would be a variation in its own right!) will give you a different experience and perspective. It is fascinating how familiar landmarks can look different when approached from another direction.

This is a measure of hilliness. Running up and down hills is excellent training because it strengthens leg muscles and improves cardiovascular performance. But note the reference to “less favourite” routes above – I am guilty of avoiding the more elevated routes if I am not in the right frame of mind! Remember the old running adage – “elevation brings elation”.

That which is underfoot. Road running is high-impact and can be tough on our joints, so mixing this with off-road running (trails, tracks or even the dreaded treadmill in the gym) can be very beneficial. Running on uneven surfaces can strengthen your ankles and help develop your core as you strive to maintain balance. Of course, it can also increase the risk of falling and spraining your ankle, to which I can fully attest! The softer the terrain, then the more energy that is absorbed by the surface, forcing you to work harder. Variation here comes from weather conditions – a long period of warm dry weather will harden the terrain.

Time of Day
We all have preferences when it comes to the time of day for our runs, although sometimes these may be dictated by our other commitments. The majority of major runs tend to start in the morning, so if you are competing it is good to practise morning runs. Having a regular time can also help with establishing good routines around nutrition. You can introduce further variation by having an occasional fasting run (probably no more than 5km)  to challenge how your body utilises its energy resources.

Running Dynamics
Under this heading are included all the things you can vary with your running. It is not just a matter of putting one foot in front of the other – although that is a good starting point. In the first instance, it is about developing good posture and technique – this may need a bit of experimentation in the early stages to find what works best for you. Beyond this, it is all about pace.  Your pace profile will vary according to the type of run – for example, the weekly “long run” will be at a slower and steadier pace than your speed runs. A lot depends on your running goals – to run faster over a set distance, or to run further, or a combination of both. High intensity interval training (HIIT) probably introduces the most variation in a single session, and this in turn leads to improved (i.e. increased) variability in your heart rate (a measure of fitness). It is good to be able to accelerate when you need to (good for running away from lions) and to be sure that your cardiovascular system will be able to respond rapidly to this demand, then return quickly to its resting state when the demand is switched off.

And how to run faster? The main variables are ground contact time (how long each foot remains on the ground between steps) and stride length (the distance you cover with each step). How these co-vary will depend on your fitness, fatigue levels (I know my stride length shortens as I get tired) and terrain characteristics (typically shorter strides and shorter ground contact time when running uphill). Running cadence (steps per minute) is another useful metric – it is obviously a function of stride length and ground contact time.

Final note….
Your pace profile and other metrics for any given run will be the final outcome of the eternal dynamic between your goals and ambition for the run and your ability on the day. Environmental factors also play an important role – maybe it was just too windy! Be honest with yourself, but also be kind to yourself!

Safe and happy running!

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