The Question: I've been adding hills and stair climbing to increase my endurance but I know I need to vary things up. Are there any benefits to running slower but longer? Or am I just looking for the easy way out?
The Answer: Your plan to add some variety is a good one - it helps with motivation and overall fitness. As for the endurance end of things, if you're aiming to be a fit person, you don't need to overdo it; be sure to include strength, flexibility and core work as well. If you're working up to a race, however, aerobic endurance becomes much more important
You'll need to build up time on your feet, especially if you're thinking of half marathons or longer. Running longer, even if more slowly, is absolutely part of that equation. By no means is it "the easy way out."
In my experience, most athletes preparing for longer events worry too much about intensity, and they sacrifice duration, volume and consistency. To train to run fast, you don't need to hurt as much as you think; you do need to get out consistently and build volume, even if it is run/walk. This is critical physiologically (for increased muscle capillarization, fuel economy, connective tissue adaptation, etc.) and psychologically (you just need to be prepared to be moving for a few hours if you're going to run longer distances).
Most runners naturally fall into an acceptable pace during these runs and I would not micromanage the effort. I recommend running at "chit-chat" pace, an effort at which you could carry on a conversation with a friend. If you start huffing and puffing, it's too fast and you can back off, and if it feels too slow it probably is and you can pick it up. Anything in between will be giving you some benefit. Save the intensity for your specific quality sessions once or twice a week.
If you want to build endurance, increase your longest run each week by five to 10 minutes and your regular-day runs by three to five minutes. Build this up for two weeks; every third week do a bit less to reload. It's like compound interest, it might not seem like much in the short-term, but over time it can have a huge effect.
Here's a bit of an easy trick to help you out. Once or twice a week run short hills or stairs to keep your speed up. You only need to run fast uphill for 12 to 15 seconds, and then take a 60 to 75 second rest. I know, this does not seem like much and it isn't! But it will sharpen your neuromuscular system, it'll be fun and let you feel fast.
If you really want to run longer hills for endurance, that's fine. Incorporate them into your quality days. It could be as simple as surging up every hill and a bit past the crest on a nice rolling country road, or running a few flights in your apartment building after you put in some easy warm-up mileage.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Dave Scott-Thomas is the head coach of the University of Guelph and Speed River Track and Field teams. He is a 19-time Canadian University Coach of The Year and has coached Olympians and 17 National teams.
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