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June 4, 2020

4 Essential Runs to Improve Speed, Boost Endurance & Train Smarter

Not all runs are created equal. Or perhaps I should I say, not all runs are meant to be executed the same way.

By Allison Lynch

I’ve been a runner since middle school, when I first discovered running by participating in my hometown’s track races each summer. Back then, I had no race strategy and I didn’t know what “peaking” meant. I didn’t wear a GPS watch and I didn’t know my pace.

Today I’m a little wiser thanks to the coaches, doctors and physical therapists who have educated me on proper running form and helped me overcome various injuries and frustrating training plateaus. With 16 years of running experience under my belt, I’ve learned the hard way that success comes down to the numbers and the science behind the art of running, but not necessarily how I feel about my body. I’ve had days where I wake up and feel like garbage, but then I set a personal record in my race. Oftentimes, pre-race nerves and our own self-doubt cloud our ability to trust our fitness gains.

Running, Heart Rate & Training

If you’re looking to start running, WHOOP can be a great tool for monitoring effort (strain) and recovery–two things that runners can easily underestimate. With WHOOP, I can monitor the following:

Depending on what kind of run I’m doing, my heart rate data is going to look very different. WHOOP takes a lot of heavy lifting off my plate by monitoring my heart rate from the wrist. I use the data to reassure that I’m doing the right things, and to incorporate additional days of rest if I notice my body isn’t recovering properly. The following four runs are crucial to any competitive runner’s training, and should be monitored appropriately to avoid overtraining and maximize fitness (for beginners, I also highly recommend hiring a coach and joining a local club for support and running resources).

1. The Long Run (Heart Rate Zone: 70% of Max)

Training Zone: Aerobic

My Pace: 7:30-8:00/mile

The Workout: 12 miles at recovery pace

Often coined as the “Church of the Sunday Long Run,” running longer distances on Sundays is a quintessential part of the running culture. It’s a perfect way to cap off a tough week of training and spend time alone on the roads thinking about everything from existential life questions to what kind of donuts you want for brunch. The long run is a sacred time of reflection.

Your long runs should be approximately 25% of your total weekly mileage. For instance, I run 45-50 miles per week. My long runs are generally 11-13 miles. During these runs, I should feel relaxed and able to hold a light conversation. These runs build your endurance, allowing you to sustain aerobic movement for extended periods of time. Mentally, they teach you how to be patient and how to settle into a smooth, relaxed (but not sluggish) pace.

In the chart below, my long run lasted about 90 minutes and my heart rate averaged 139 beats per minute. It felt comfortable without feeling lazy. My WHOOP data shows which zones my heart rate fluctuated between, and gives me reassurance that I wasn’t pushing my body harder than I needed to be (I stopped twice to stretch and grab water, hence the dip in HR). Some people may feel comfortable at different paces or heart rates, so it is important to pay attention to cardiovascular effort relative to your max.

2. Speed Intervals (Heart Rate Zone: 95-100%)

Training Zone: VO2 Max

My Pace: 4:00-6:00/mile (depending on length of interval)

The Workout*: 2 minutes rest between each interval, 5 minutes rest between sets

4x mile repeats: 6:01, 5:58, 5:55, 5:59

4x 400m: 75s, 74s, 73s, 75s

*Note: volume and pace will depend on what you are training for. This workout was in preparation for a 5k.

Speed intervals are an important part of training because they tap into your max aerobic capacity, allowing you to improve your VO2 fitness and train your legs to have faster turnover. These types of workouts are where you feel “the burn” associated with lactate buildup and short rest. Typically, your body can only handle 1-2 workouts like this a week. For me, I can only do 1 as it takes me 3-4 days to fully recover before I can put that much stress on my body again. Below is a mobile screenshot of the data, and the various peaks represent each interval.

3. The Progressive Run (Heart Rate Zone: 85-88%)

Training Zone: Lactate Threshold

My Pace: 6:30-6:10/mile

The Workout: 4-mile tempo starting at 6:30/mile, cutting down to 6:10/mile

The goal for this workout is to stay in a hard, but comfortable zone without feeling totally gassed at the end (the way speed intervals often feel). Physiologically, you are running at your max threshold before your body starts generating more lactic acid than it can handle to reconvert back into energy. Here, my heart rate is usually around 160-170 bpm. These runs are the trickiest, because it’s easy to want to go faster because you know you can, but that’s not the point.

Going faster than needed during your tempo runs will ultimately detract from your training, because you’re not learning how to maintain composure in a threshold state, and you are increasing recovery time needed. For these runs, I start out at a comfortable pace around 6:30-6:40/mile, and pick it up to about 6:20/mile towards the end.

This is not my race pace, so it shouldn’t feel like I’m racing. Again, I can’t rely entirely on feel, so it’s good to check my heart rate and WHOOP strain to make sure I’m in the right zone. My WHOOP data captures my HR data as I warm up, and then you can see it increase to the 160s as I increase my pace.

4. Race Day (Heart Rate Zone: 90-95%)

Training Zone: VO2 Max

My Pace: 5:45-5:55/mile

The Race: Local 5k

Time: 18:24

Pace: 5:55/mile

Race day is a day you either dread, or can’t wait for. If you’ve done the work, there’s nothing to fear. The sample of data below is from a 5k I ran in Boston. According to my HR data, I probably could have pushed a little harder to average a few beats higher per minute, but effort-wise I remember the race felt good and was a solid start to the cross-country season. 

The biggest mistake you can make as a runner is to treat all your runs equally. If you go the same pace for each run, you’re not going to get faster. If you’re constantly exacerbating your heart rate and staying in elevated training zones, you’re going to burn out. By monitoring your runs day by day, specifically your heart rate and your recovery (WHOOP calculates resting heart rate, heart rate variability, and quality of sleep and factors this into an overall Recovery score), it’s much easier to stay on par with your training, and to know when your body needs to rest.

Allison Lynch is a member of the Boston North Track Club, a competitive USATF New England sprint and mid-distance group that competes regionally and nationally. She has competed in distances including the marathon, half-marathon, 5k, mile, and 800m.

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Allison Lynch

Allison is the Marketing Communications Manager at WHOOP. She runs competitively for the Boston North Track Club, is obsessive about her recovery, and would eat tapas at Barcelona in Boston every night if she could.

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