Running: Increasing Distance and Endurance

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This article is part of our series: Training for Trail Running

Two trail runners in a field

Many runners want to go farther, whether that means someday completing a road marathon, an ultra trail race or an extra loop through the neighborhood. Whatever you aspire to, you’ll need to put in some work to get your body ready for running longer distances.

There are many philosophies on how to best train to increase distance and endurance. Here are several tried-and-true approaches:

 

Your first step is to consider your health and fitness level. Before starting any new training program, consult your physician. Once you get the go-ahead, you can train solo, but taking some classes, joining a running club and/or finding a coach or trainer usually helps you progress faster, and it’s often more fun.

 

 

A note for beginner runners: An article that talks of track workouts and training at different paces may sound like it’s only for experienced runners. But runners of any ability and experience level can benefit from following training tips like those given here. If you're new to running, start slowly. Consider running only a couple days a week instead of four or five and pay attention to gradually building up your base mileage rather than running fast. Don’t hesitate to mix walking with running and always listen to how your body feels. For more advice geared toward beginner runners, read the article, How to Start Running.

 

Add Mileage Gradually

When you want to run farther, it can be tempting to quickly increase the number of miles you’re running each week. Doing this can risk injury. Most experts recommend increasing your weekly mileage by about 10–20% and then sticking with that amount for two weeks before bumping it up again. For example, if you’ve been running 30 miles per week for a couple weeks, you can increase that by 3–6 miles (to about 33–36 miles) and run that amount for two weeks. Then increase your new weekly total by another 10–20%, and so on.

 

Change Your Pace

Training at different paces is standard practice for serious runners and an effective way to work on endurance. With a basic understanding of pacing, you’ll be able to get the most out of your workouts.

 

Train Based on Race Pace

Runners in a trail running race

Experienced runners will usually train at various race paces, such as a 5K or 10K race pace. (Race pace is simply the pace at which you can run a race of a certain distance.) Race paces serve as good benchmarks in a training plan and can help you determine other paces to run at.

To figure out your race pace for a distance you’ve run, you divide your finishing time in minutes by the distance in miles. For example, if you finished a 5K in 21 minutes, you’d divide 21 minutes by 3.1 miles to get 6.77 minutes per mile (which equates to 6 minutes and 46 seconds). You can also use an online race time predictor to do the calculations for you.

Once you know your race pace, you can use that as a point of reference to determine these other training paces:

 
Pace How to Measure It
Slow, easy pace About 2 minutes per mile slower than race pace
Tempo pace 25-40 seconds per mile slower than race pace
Speed pace Sprinting or all-out pace

 

Train Based on Heart Rate

A runner wearing a fitness watch stretches after a run

Training with a heart rate monitor can also be helpful when determining paces. For example, the pace of an easy run should be at about 60–65% of your maximum heart rate. (There are several formulas to calculate your maximum heart rate. The classic 220 minus your age formula is now considered inaccurate for older people. A revised formula208 minus 0.7 times your age, is better.)

To learn more, including how to calculate maximum heart rate (HRmax), read our article, Heart Rate Monitors: How to Choose and Use.

Here’s a breakdown of different types of runs and the corresponding heart rate, as well as an alternative way to estimate your heart rate:

 
Run Type Percent of HRmax How to Estimate It
Easy Run 60-65% You can carry on a conversation
Long Run 65-75% You can speak sentences
Tempo Run 85-88% You can speak single words
Speed Run 90% You can't speak comfortably
 

Using these different paces determined by race pace and/or heart rate, you can come up with a weekly running schedule that works for you to build endurance. For example, your week could look something like this:

 
Day of the Week Run Type/Pace
Sunday Long run
Monday Easy run
Tuesday Speed workout
Wednesday Easy run
Thursday Tempo or strength/hills
Friday

Rest day or very slow, easy pace with low mileage (this is a day for recovery)

Saturday One of the following: Speed, slow/easy, or short tempo (listen to your body and adjust accordingly)
 

To learn more about running at different paces, read How to Pace Your Run.

 

Train in Phases

Training in phases is a technique many experienced runners use when they’re training for a race or event. It essentially splits your training up into three periods, each one with its own primary focus. For example, if you have 6 months to train for a race, you can split your training up into three 2-month periods.

This method is an effective training tool because it allows you to combine different workouts over the course of your training to reach peak running performance. It also adds variety, so you don’t get bored of doing the same thing week after week during your training.

Phase workouts should be structured with this emphasis and mindset:

  • Period 1:  Endurance and Strength
  • Period 2:  Strength and Power
  • Period 3:  Power and Speed

When trying to up your distance and endurance, the work you do in the first and second periods is particularly relevant. Here’s some guidance on how to train in phases with an eye toward increasing your distance and endurance:

 

Period 1: Focus on gradually increasing mileage

A runner on a wooded path

The goal for this period is to gain endurance and strength to establish that all important base for the other training periods. It is more important during this phase to build up your base than increase speed. You can increase your base mileage by upping your weekly mileage 10–20% every two weeks.

Do most of your runs in the first period at an easy pace, especially in the beginning, to allow your body time to get used to the increased activity. It’s OK to incorporate some strength workouts, such as running hills and doing general strength workouts. If you want to mix in some speed work, try some tempo and race-pace runs, but don’t overdo it and injure yourself. (Learn more about speed workouts in our article, Speed Training: How to Run Faster.

 

Period 2: Incorporate more strength and speed workout

A ground level shot of a runner on a track

Continue to build endurance by adding base mileage but add strength and speed work to build power. Hill workouts are a great option for building strength. Try these workouts to gain strength and speed:

  • Mile repeats: Run one mile (four laps on a standard-size track) at your 5K race pace then rest for four minutes. Repeat four times.
  • Repeat pace step-downs: Run four miles without stopping. Run the first mile (four laps around the track) about 20 seconds slower than your 5K race pace, and then each mile after that 10 seconds faster than the previous. Following this sequence, your final mile will be at a pace that’s 20 seconds faster than your 5K race pace.
  • Rhythm quarters: Run six to 10 400m laps with 40 to 60 seconds of stopped rest in between each lap. The goal is to run at a pace that you can maintain throughout every 400m lap. Ideally that pace is faster than your tempo (25–40 seconds per mile slower than race pace), but not as fast as race pace. If you can’t maintain that, then run the laps a bit slower. Rhythm quarters are a good workout to keep your heart rate at a certain state while not fatiguing you. This is one way of potentially raising your lactate threshold, which can help you maintain a faster pace over a longer distance.
  • Longer interval sets that incorporate speed: Run three 1200m laps (at tempo pace or slightly faster), with two minutes of slow jog rest in between each lap. Then do three 800m laps (at tempo or slightly faster) with two minutes of slow jog rest in between each lap. Finish with two laps of 200m (at speed/all-out pace) with two minutes of stopped rest in between each lap.

 

Period 3: Focus on speed workouts

A trail runner, blurred by speed, runs on a path in the forest

For most runners, the third phase is the time to focus on speed workouts and sharpening performance as race day approaches. You’ll still work on building strength and endurance, but not as frequently as you were in periods one and two. This is when you incorporate faster workouts with speed ladders, stride bursts, and shorter intervals at faster than race pace. Be sure to read our article on increasing speed.

 

Run Hills

Two runners run up a gradual hill in a city

Running hills is an excellent way to increase strength, which will pay dividends on your long-distance runs. Hill repeats, which are simply laps up and down a hill, are good for building speed and endurance. Look for a hill that has a nice steady, gradual incline rather than a sharp increase. You want to be able to maintain a consistent quick pace without maxing out your cardio. Two possible hill workouts to incorporate into your training include:

One-mile repeats: Run one mile uphill at a pace that’s at about 70–80% of your 5K race pace. When you reach the one-mile mark, turn around and do an easy, slow jog back to the start, then repeat. Do a total of four to six reps. If you’re training for a distance longer than about a 10K, aim for six reps.

Cut-downs: The idea of this cut-down workout is to reduce the distance of the intervals but keep the pace the same. Try to maintain a pace that is at about 70–80% of your 5K race pace.

  • Run uphill for one mile; jog slowly down; repeat
  • Run uphill for three-quarters of a mile; jog slowly down; repeat
  • Run uphill for a half mile; jog slowly down; repeat

You’ll notice these workouts don’t allow for much rest between reps. The idea behind that is to keep your body working at a pace that brings you close to your lactate threshold. Doing so can potentially raise your threshold, which can help you to maintain a faster pace over a longer distance. Doing speed workouts are another good way to work on increasing your lactate threshold—learn more in our article, Speed Training: How to Run Faster.

 

Strength Train

Improving muscle strength is a good way to work toward increasing your endurance and distance. As a runner, you may think that strengthening only running-specific muscles is the best approach, but when you’re trying to run longer and farther, you actually want to start with general strength exercise. General strength training incorporates non-running-specific muscle groups so you become stronger overall, which can help you take on more mileage and endure longer runs.

There are many different exercises that you can do at home or the gym to become a stronger, more efficient runner. For one sample workout, read Training Exercises for Running.

 

Nutrition and Hydration

Two runners stop to drink water

Staying properly fueled while training is extremely important. If you don’t eat and drink right, you may suffer from fatigue, muscle cramps, nausea or worse, which will prevent you from reaching your distance and endurance goals. Here are some basic hydration and nutrition guidelines to follow:

  • Pre-hydrate: Drink 17–20 fl. oz. about two hours before you run so you’ll start off properly hydrated.
  • Maintain hydration: Drink about 5–10 fl. oz. (or a few good long drinks) of water every 15–20 minutes while running.
  • Eat up: For runs lasting about an hour or more, consume 200–300 calories (mostly from carbohydrates) per hour while running.

Learn more in our Hydration Basics for Running article and Nutrition Basics for Running article.

 

Rest and Recover

It’s important to allow your body time to recover after hard workouts. As a general rule, don’t do back-to-back days of hard workouts and give yourself at least one day off from running per week. Proper rest can help prevent overuse injuries, restore your energy levels and keep your motivation high.

To give your body a break from the pounding of running, try doing some light cross-training on your rest day or between hard running days.

 

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