• Chris

A Short Guide to Distance Running


One of the most common phrases I hear as a running coach and strength and conditioning coach is “I only want to work in my fat-burning zone because that burns the highest amount of fat.” It’s true that working in the fat-burning zone burns the highest percentage of calories from fat. However, it does not burn the most calories overall. With that said, I am going to clear up what each exercise zone does to your body, how to know when you are in each zone, and the benefits they provide.

Like any other element of fitness, runner’s pace is influenced by numerous factors. Below are the main factors influencing a runner’s pace:

Muscle fiber type: Not everyone is born to be an elite distance runner. There are two major fiber types: slow twitch (type I) and fast twitch (type II). Everyone has a combination of both fiber types, but people who are primarily slow twitch dominant are better at running slower longer distances, and people with a higher percentage of fast twitch are better at running faster shorter distances. Characteristics of each muscle type can be altered by doing the corresponding training. Muscle fibers can also increase in size by giving them the proper stress stimulus, heavy with long rest to increase the contractile filaments, and moderate with short rest to increase the metabolic component (read “How Muscle Is Made”). However, whether fiber types can be transformed is still a matter of debate.

Running economy: Running economy is directly related to a runner’s weight and gait and is a primary indicator of running performance. The less weight runners carry, the moreenergy they can save, thus use for running farther and faster. A runner’s gait also affects running economy. The more efficient a runner’s form, the more direct his movements will be and the better his running economy. Even if you are self-coached, it is a good idea to have your gait analyzed by a biomechanics expert who specializes in runners.

Fuel utilization: During high-intensity aerobic activity (>70 percent VO2max), the majority of energy comes from carbohydrates. However, through training this can be switched toward a higher fat-utilizing ratio. Fat has more energy than carbohydrates; therefore, the switch allows athletes to run further and faster since there is more energy available. Four hundred and sixty molecules of ATP (energy) are produced for every molecule of fat, whereas only thirty-six molecules of ATP are made for every molecule of carbohydrate. This means fat is twelve times more efficient than carbohydrates. The switch to better fat utilization can be triggered by running longer distances and performing ventilatory threshold training or exercising on a low-carb diet. Although medical clearance should be sought prior to any sever dietary restrictions during exercise. It is because fat is so much more efficient than carbohydrates that athletes need to take time training in a slow steady state prior to engaging in HIIT.

Each Training zone is reflected by a target heart rate range and associated benefits. The following is a chart listing training zones with corresponding purposes and outcomes of training in that zone.

Training Zones by Percent Max Heart Rate
Distance Running Training Zones

Warm-up: This zone is used for exactly what it’s called, warming-up. It is performed between 50–60 percent of your max heart rate (MHR, fastest your heart can beat) and should be systemic (whole body). The more systemic the routine is, the shorter your warm-up can be. Remember, a warm-up for some could be a complete workout for others. Make sure you keep your heart rate in the correct region. Toward the end of the warm-up, heart rate should gradually build its way up to the focus training zone of the training session.

Recovery Pace: When we work in this zone, we are working at 60–70 percent of our MHR. This zone is popular because it is known as the fat-burning zone. However, while it is burning a higher percentage of fat, it is doing so at a significantly slower rate, this means you burn fewer calories overall and lose less weight in the end. While exercising in the fat-burning zone, you are primarily burning fat as energy, but because you are working more efficiently, consuming less oxygen, and activating less muscle, the total energy you are using is less. As you increase your effort, a higher percentage of energy comes from carbohydrates rather than fat, but you are burning more calories overall because calories are energy, and you need more energy to work at the higher intensity. The fat-burning zone can be more properly used for your recovery pace during metabolic workouts. When performing intervals, drop down to this pace for your recovery phase before raising it up again, or for the day before an exceptionally hard work out or race.

Base Building: The most fundamental aspect of metabolic training is building your base, yet far too often I see people struggling through intervals without a proper base built up first to help them sustain the high intensity of interval training. Yes, it is true; intervals are how you get faster. However, trying to perform quality intervals without a base is going to get you nowhere fast, please refer to the PROformance Training Systems PROgression Model to see how building a base is a necessary perquisite to injury free HIIT training. Otherwise known as “moderate pace,” this zone runs between 70–80 percent of your MHR and is the pace you keep when you are going for a steady state easy or long run. You should be in this zone between faster-training sessions. This zone should encompass most your running volume (80–90 percent). Here are the three basics to building your base before you get out there and become a roaring roadster with no gas.

1. Long steady distance (LSD): LSD is where you build your aerobic base, which all distance races feed upon. When first incorporating these distances, they can be as low as 60 percent effort for your body to get use to spending long periods of time on your feet. But eventually you want to get them up to 80 percent effort (but no higher! 80 percent is roughly the aerobic threshold; if you start to work harder, you are no longer working aerobically, thus not focusing on the goal of the workout). At first perform one LSD run every two weeks, and then once your body becomes accustomed to them, you can step it up to once per week if it does not hinder your performance for the rest of your weekly training. The distance of your LSD should be 20–30 percent of your total weekly mileage. So, if you are running sixty miles per week, then your LSD day should be twelve to eighteen miles. Higher mileage and frequency runners stay toward the 20 percent end, and lower total mileage and frequency runners use the 30 percent value. But make sure to take your time building up to that distance, increasing your mileage no more than 10 percent per week. Remember building up too fast only increases your chance of injury, and you cannot get faster when you’re on the injured list.

2. Hills for strength: I know I said do not throw in intervals without a proper base first. However, hills offer you something speed intervals do not, strength. For your muscles to get stronger, they need to fight against a resistance (in this case gravity via going up a hill), not increase speed (two hundred meters on a track). It is resistance not speed that builds muscle, and for this reason, hills should be done during the middle to later stage of the base-building phase to increase strength sowe are stronger once it is time to introduce speed workouts in order to blast through faster track intervals with a lower risk of injury. [CE1] When starting hill repeats, begin with six to ten short and intense repeats lasting eight to ten seconds, adding one more repetition every week. After you reach fifteen repetitions, move up to four to eight repetitions of twenty- to thirty-second hills, at a calmer yet still fast pace. Build up to twelve repetitions, and then perform four to six repetitions of sixty- to ninety-second hill repeats at race pace, building up to eight to ten repetitions. The key points to remember with hills are the shorter the duration of the hill repeat, the steeper the hill and longer the rest.

The hill training chart below will give you an idea of how hills can be performed depending on your goal. This chart is not to be taken as one size fits all advice, but as a guideline to build upon when devising your program. The shorter the hill, the faster you run the repeat and the longer the hill, the slower you run. Regardless of hill length, rest is relatively equal since the lack of speed on longer hills is made up by the time-under-tension running up a longer grade.

Hill Prescription