Variation is KEY to a Successful Training Program

Is your running dragging you down into the dumps?  Are you stuck in a serious plateau?  If so (and you want to do something about it), you’ll want to change up how you think about training.   Regardless of what race you might be training for, variation in what you do, how you do it, and even when you do it can be the difference between an average race and an awesome race!  The more your training varies, the more your body has to adapt and the more your body adapts, the stronger and faster you will be. Improving Running Performance.jpg

I could write a book on all the various philosophies, methods, and styles you can go about training for a particular race (hmmm, that’s an idea!).  Here are the nuts and bolts about how you can go about training for your next race.

Because our bodies adapt to stresses that are “unusual” or different, it’s so important to vary what we do in training to “confuse” our body and allow it to adapt to the new training demands.  Training variation is by far one of the most effective strategies you can use to have a successful block of training.  Boston.jpg

These 4 areas can be varied and might be the key to a successful, happy and healthy training cycle:


Some runs should be hard, but most runs should be easy.  You can follow an Easy, Hard, Easy model or find what works for you.  Just know that every day should not be hard as you’ll be hard-pressed to keep that rate up, you’ll end up unmotivated, or worse, injured.

Start by identifying your current fitness level – through racing, a vDOT chart or by feel – and doing runs faster (less often) and slower (more often) than your current training pace.  

There are lots of paces on the spectrum of running.  Hitting all of them will make us a more well-rounded runner.  Focusing most days on easy/recovery runs is one way.  Then touching on each of the “major” running paces (ie: tempo, threshold, interval, & race pace) will ensure we stay fresh, motivated, and healthy.  Mixing in cross-training days and off days will also play a huge role.

“Train smarter: If you run your easy runs harder than necessary, you 
won't be able to run your hard runs as hard as necessary.”
Smart Running Strategies
Smart Running Strategies

Race Distances

Being a “marathoner” season after season shouldn’t prevent you from working on your speed at some point during a calendar year.  You can spend an entire cycle working on your leg turnover, your strength, and being more efficient as you race shorter events.

Want to try speed work, but not sure what to do? Read from this list of articles:

Want some marathon legs? Read from this list of articles:

If you’re locked into 5k training season after season, you can benefit from spending a month or two working on building stamina (longer long runs and mile repeats).  This will get you out of the monotony of 5k specific training and also allow your systems to reboot and recharge.mistakes to avoid on race day


Training Locations/Surfaces

You’ll see benefits in your motivation, effort level, and injury prevention by switching the surface you run on.  Always running on the same surface (roads) can lead to overuse injury and the pounding can create issues with your legs.

Instead, try all these different types of surfaces: 

  • Grass 
  • Trail
  • Track
  • Treadmill
  • Roads

The variation will keep your mind and body sharp and you’ll get more benefit from the stimulation of the varying surfaces.  You can work different muscles and put less strain on the bones and joints that get used to running on a specific surface all the time.

"The woods are lovely dark and deep, but I have promises to keep, and 
miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep."

Don’t be afraid to mix it up and try different “styles” of running.  You might find something out there that captivates you and forces you to be an active runner rather than a passive one. 

Workout Distances

Always running repeat 400s or 20-minute tempo runs?  That becomes boring quickly! Sure, you’ll see if you’ve gotten faster, but the stimulus to always doing the same workout will quickly diminish.  *You’ll see less of a boost in fitness if you always do the same workout because your body will get used to what is coming.  This is why change and variation is another bonus!  

Instead, try repeats that challenge you – maybe repeat 800s or 1,000s, for example.  For more experienced runners, repeat miles might be something you try.  If you run repeats and “fall apart” at the end, you’ll want to run shorter repeats until you can handle the longer repetitions.  

Tempo running explained
Tempo runs for distance runners

Or, you can try doing a tempo run with a few minutes at a faster pace within the tempo.  The goal would be to return to the tempo pace at the same effort with a bit of speed injected into the middle.  This would simulate a pick up in pace during a race.  

You may also want to try a ladder workout, for example:

400, 800, 1000, 1200, 1000, 800, 400

Try the repeats at 5k pace or half marathon pace. Adjust the recoveries to match the type of workout you are running.  Changing what workouts you run will prevent getting stale, will help you boost your performance, and keep your mind and body engaged in the workout.

You have to figure out what works for you by experimenting far away from peak races.  Don’t shy away from change because change is scary.  Be smart and go slow.  Make small changes at a time when you can focus on easy running, rather than in high or heavy mileage.

Want similar articles on Smart Training? Check these out:

What pace is best for my intervals?

Incorporating speed work into a running plan

Having a plan for consistent running

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