I’ve talked to a lot of runners who have less than a year of experience in the sport. Their main goal is to get faster over 5k or 10k and break a performance plateau. All admirable goals!
Typically, their training is in the 15-30 miles per week range which is a good starting point for a new runner, and they’re doing 1-2 speed workouts a week. The most common solution proposed by new runners to get faster is to run more (or harder) speed workouts.
This strategy will only partially work, and it is not a long-term solution to breaking through a performance plateau.
The biggest handicap new runners have is a small aerobic base – also called running endurance or stamina. Aggressively increasing mileage can be a sure path to injury for new runners (especially if they aren’t doing enough core work).
So how do you improve running endurance without increasing injury risk? Simple: alternative aerobic exercise. Because I’m going to focus on building a solid aerobic foundation in this post, I’m going to focus on alternative aerobic exercises to running, not lifting or strength workouts. You can read more about those here and here.
How I Improved Running Endurance and Reached New Levels of Fitness
Twice in my running career I’ve used supplemental forms of exercise to drastically improve my level of fitness. The first was before my senior year of college as I was preparing for my last cross country season. For two months, I spent over 3 hours every week cycling and pool running (in addition to running 80 miles per week).
I came back to campus and won the last 3k of our team time trial (we did 2x3k). My fitness had reached an entirely new level and I was running with much more talented runners. My coach figured that my cross-training was the equivalent of an extra 15 miles per week – so I was doing the same amount of work as somebody running almost 100 miles per week, without the added injury risk.
I narrowly missed being All-ECAC (East Coast Athletic Conference) by less than one second and improved my 8k personal best by 59 seconds.
After I graduated college, I transitioned to three months of triathlon training to prepare for a few sprint triathlons. While my weekly mileage was cut by nearly half, I was swimming and cycling for 4-5 hours per week.
After I resumed running, I debuted at the 10k cross country distance and ran 33:41 (much faster than I thought I could run) and ran a personal best in the mile.
The power of triathlon training is incredible and can undoubtedly increase your fitness levels. Consider a premium training plan to bring you to that next level. This plan is written by Patrick McCrann, a Boston Qualifier and multiple Ironman Competitor.
The Benefits of Alternative Training
I saw huge gains in fitness with only a few targeted months of consistent cross training – and so can you. During these intense training cycles, I didn’t even feel fatigued or burned out. Mentally, I was excited for every day of training because by mixing in various forms of exercise you keep things fresh.
I wasn’t getting bored by only running every day either. The cycling, swimming, and pool running was a welcomed change to my normally structured routine of only running. Keeping your training fresh from a mental perspective will help you avoid staleness and losing motivation.
Physically, I got stronger than ever. I was doing more cardiovascular exercise than I had ever done with barely any extra injury risk. If you’re injury-prone, this is exactly how you improve your personal bests.
The added benefits of all this zero-impact exercise is the strengthening it will do for muscle groups that normally don’t get worked during running. Cycling and swimming in particular work very different muscles and increase overall athleticism.
Swimming is a second tier form of exercise for runners – it’s just not specific enough. For the most improvement in your running, stick to exercises that closely mimic the motion of running. The best are:
- Pool running – use an AquaJogger Belt to keep your form correct: high cadence, don’t overextend your legs, and keep a straight back. If you’re experienced, you can skip the belt for a harder workout.
- Cycling – road biking is preferable, but mountain biking will also help. Use clip-in shoes if you can and try to keep your cadence above 90 rotations per minute.
- Elliptical machine – effective, but not very fun. Keep your cadence high to mimic running.
- Swimming – Learn proper technique, don’t drown, and do faster workouts for an extra aerobic boost.
While most of these forms of exercise are fairly specific to running, at some point you’ll need to increase your running mileage to reach your true potential. To be a good runner, you have to run a lot. Alternative training can help bridge the gap, especially for injury-prone runners, but you can’t plant potatoes and harvest carrots (I love that line!).
If you don’t know how to break through your performance plateau and want some help, consider joining a step-by-step program on how to become more consistent with fewer injuries. Details here.
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