The Question: How do I best prioritize my hard and easy runs?
The Answer: Understanding the point of a training session lends real purpose to getting out the door each day. Everyone has a certain state of fitness and health, and training provides a stimulus to which the body adapts. If you're currently sedentary, the stimulus could be as simple as walking around the block. If you can run five kilometres in 25 minutes (a five-minute kilometre), then running a kilometre in 4:30 would be a new stimulus . After you train, you'll have a period of recovery, where you might feel fatigued or even a little sore, followed by a period of adaptation where you'll bump up to a new level of fitness.
Let's use the 25-minute, five km runner as an example. Say you come home after work and head out for a run. After an easy warm-up trot, run one kilometre at a faster pace than your five km race pace, rest for three minutes, then do it two more times. After that, have an easy cool-down and some stretching, re-hydrate and eat a good meal. When you go to bed that night, you are not actually more fit; your body is adjusting to the new stress. If you've run really hard, you'll be a bit tired the next day. Once you adapt to that, however, you will be more fit.
If you're just getting into running and heading out two or three days a week for three or so km, that is probably enough of a stimulus. If you are training for a longer road race, here is roughly how I'd order the runs:
1. a regular easy day run at chit-chat pace
2. as above but with a few easy strides (quick but relaxed runs of 100 metres with an easy walk in between)
3. a long run, "long" being a relative term but at least 10 to 15 minutes longer than your "regular" run
4. a workout with intervals (an interval workout is as described above; a run with some faster-paced sections and a specific recovery in between).
Take a look at how many days you're going to be able to train in a week and try to spread them out somewhat evenly - i.e., if you're going to get in four, then ideally you're going roughly every second day, and typically the weekend will be set aside for a long run since you might have a bit more time. If you are running six days a week, be sure to have two interval workout days.
This concept applies at an elite level as well. Chris Winter, one of our team members in Guelph and an elite steeple chaser (Youth World bronze medalist and Canadian record-holder, 4th ranked in Canada last year) is just returning to running after dealing with an injury and we prioritize his days in the order listed above. His body can handle a very high load of training, but he still needs time to adapt to impact and the stresses of running. If we plan well, he'll see continued improvement in fitness, speed, and motivation, as will you.
Dave Scott-Thomas is the head coach of the University of Guelph and Speed River Track and Field teams. He has coached Olympians and 17 national teams.