Updated: May 4, 2022
Written by Anna Tong, AES, CSCS
If you want to improve your running performance, it is important to plan and follow an individualized structured training program. Simply going out and run for as long as you can or as far as you can lead to mediocre improvement at best, but will not be able to bring your performance to the next level. In the worst-case scenario, you might end getting injured or overtrained. Then how about sticking to the usual route, distance/ duration, and intensity/ pace? Likewise, it will not be enough to improve as our body requires different types of stimuli to build and adapt to the different types of physiological demands.
Before you can follow or plan a training program, understanding the terms and the difference between different runs will allow you to optimize your program, leading to improved performance. The types of runs available are distinct from each other, and although all of them would generally improve aerobic fitness, different types bring about various physiological adaptations.
Here’s a brief breakdown of the 8 different types of runs:
A base run, also known as a ‘Recovery Run’, is considered an easy run that typically lasts from 30 minutes to an hour. The run is generally performed at a low intensity, around training zone 1-2. The purpose of the base run is to develop basic aerobic fitness. It is usually prescribed into a program to increase the weekly training mileage and to allow recovery from a hard workout. It can also be prescribed before a challenging/ important workout to prevent accumulating fatigue that can potentially affect the performance.
Long Slow Run (aka ‘Fat Burning’ run)
A long slow run generally can be up to an hour or more, and it is typically performed at a moderately-low intensity (training zone 2-3). It is highly recommended to establish a basic level of cardiovascular fitness and muscular endurance before going for long runs to prevent overuse injuries. Long runs help to improve aerobic capacity. It also increases the musculoskeletal system’s ability to tolerate repeated impact from running and also improved the body’s ability to mobilize fat faster during exercise. The body’s ability to utilize fat faster during a workout helps to spare the carbohydrate stores in the body, thereby delaying the onset of fatigue and prolonging the exercise/ activity that you are doing.
A pace run is a steady run at race pace. In other words, the running pace can range anywhere from a marathon to a 5k pace. Regardless of the running pace, it should not exceed your lactate/ anaerobic threshold (no experienced runners will be running past their anaerobic threshold in any race). It is mainly done to develop a sense of the race pace and improve pacing accuracy during a race. To put it simply, you should be running at your predicted race pace for the race you are training for.
Tempo run, or known to some as ‘Lactate Threshold Run’, is a sustained run of 20-60 minutes (depending on an individual’s fitness) at a moderately-high intensity. The purpose of a tempo run is to improve the lactate threshold. Improved lactate threshold indicates a higher lactate tolerance, increasing your sustainable power, allowing you to run faster and longer. According to research, to improve the lactate threshold, it is required to train at or slightly above your anaerobic threshold. For those who find it difficult to sustain at (not to mention slightly above) the anaerobic threshold, particularly for less experienced runners, it is recommended to break up the run with short recovery periods, otherwise known as the ‘Cruise Intervals’. The typical duration of the runs within a cruise interval session ranges from 3-15 minutes, with the recovery duration ranges from 30 seconds to 2 minutes. Using a work-to-rest ratio as a guide, it is approximately 5:1 to 12:1.
As the name implies, interval workouts consist of repeated runs with recoveries in between each run. Intervals training is usually done at a high intensity and there are 2 types of interval training – Aerobic and Speed (refer to ‘Speed Intervals’ below). Aerobic intervals are done at a work-to-rest ratio of 1:1, and it can be done either by duration or distance. The duration is typically between 3-5 minutes, and the distance can range between 800-1200m. Due to the nature of the workout, aerobic intervals improves maximal aerobic power (VO2max) by increasing the body’s ability to transport and extract oxygen. The recovery intervals enable a runner to perform longer at high intensity in a training session compared to a single prolonged increased intensity effort.
Similar to aerobic intervals, the run is done with recoveries programmed between each bout of running. However, the difference between speed and aerobic intervals lies in the work-to-rest ratio. For speed intervals, the work-to-rest ratio can be 1:2 to 1:5. Compared to aerobic intervals and cruise intervals, speed intervals are run at a much faster pace (more effort) over a shorter distance (200-600m) or duration (15 seconds to 2 minutes). Therefore, the recoveries in speed intervals are much longer relative to the runs to ensure full recovery before the next run intervals. As speed intervals are performed at high speed/ intensity, it trains and improves running speed and economy.
Fartlek is a Swedish word that means ‘speed play’. Compared to the other types of runs, fartlek is less structured and the intensity can alternate between low and high throughout a run. It is a free form running at various training speeds, duration, and inclination. Fartlek training can improve overall aerobic endurance fitness, such as the body’s ability to tolerate repeated stress from running, maximal aerobic power, lactate threshold, speed, and economy (depending on how you programmed the run). Due to its flexible nature, fartlek also helps to break the monotony of training by having a chance of pace and/or distance.
Hill training refers to any of the runs mentioned above performed on hilly terrain. It can also be done on a treadmill with inclination (4-6%). Not only does hill running increase aerobic power, lactate threshold, and resistance to fatigue, it can also build strength specific to running. It is highly advisable to include hill training only after a phase of general conditioning to gradually build up base fitness as a safer approach (to prevent injury) to introduce more challenging types of training into a program.
Different types of runs support different training goals, which leads to various physiological adaptations. To maximize your running performance and fitness levels, you need to apply a mix of different workouts into your training program. Hopefully, this article helped explain the difference between each running type and provides you with some ideas on how best to train.
Most importantly, have fun exploring and varied your training! Happy running!
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