If you're a regular runner, you've likely already taken advantage of the spring weather, reloaded your motivation and hit the trail. It may already have become a habit to head out the door five or six days a week. Maybe you've even taken your ear buds out so you can hear the music of meltwater in the creeks (helpful in getting out of an early-season rut) as you hit your favourite trails again.
If that's you, it's time to move past that familiar routine – to gently push your limits. A smart way to do this is to tweak your run time. To do that carefully, look at two key, and slightly technical-sounding, training concepts: stimulus/response and load. The former simply means you're going to ask your body to do something new (the stimulus) and, with a bit of recovery time, you will adapt to it (the response).
This is the base of alternating between hard and easy days, a practice many runners are familiar with. Load is the total stimulus you place on yourself and you can vary that by adjusting volume and intensity. Intensity is complex and we'll get to it another time, but volume is easy to measure, a snap to adjust and learning its patterns can be very potent.
I like to use minutes to quantify volume. They're easy to track and the focus is on the time spent on your feet and how you feel, not just how fast you can cover a certain distance, which can get stressful. We can use the stimulus/response concept to develop patterns not only for longer or shorter days of running, but also for lighter and heavier weeks.
I usually suggest you build for two weeks and then reload on the third. For example, if your weekly running program in minutes is 50-20-30-20-30-20-0 (on the seventh day you rest), your total weekly volume would be 170 minutes. By adding five minutes on two easy days and five or 10 minutes to the long run, the next two weeks could be 60-20-35-20-30-25-0 (190 minutes) and 65-20-35-25-30-30-0 (205 minutes). The following week would be a return to something closer to Week 1, and would give you a chance to reload. Then you could build for two weeks again, going a bit higher than the preceding cycle.
Following that basic pattern three times would allow you to build for two months, and at the end of that time you'd be covering territory you'd only dreamed of before, and ideally feeling bouncy and fresh along the way.
Dave Scott-Thomas is head coach of the University of Guelph Gryphons cross-country team and the Speed River Track and Field Club. A 24-time national Coach of the Year, he has more than 30 national team athletes, including five Olympians, under his guidance.