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Running Workout Types: Knowing and Manipulating These Runs to Optimize Your Training

The goal of training is to be able maintain a higher pace or speed over a set distance.

Naturally, we run different speeds at different distances. With training we can extend our ability from a shorter distance at a higher speed to a longer distance at a higher speed. Training is about the steps we take towards improving speed and endurance over distances, and one of the best ways to do this is through different running workout types.

I started running about two years ago and learned many lessons through this journey. One notable lesson was when I started training for my first marathon was when my coach and his plan exposed me to a wider range of workout types.

The key scientific insight about training for smart runners is that you need to leverage different types of running stimuli in order to build up different physiological changes. For example, you run shorter and harder segments with rest periods to build up your speed, and you run longer and a slightly easier to build up your endurance foundation. Finally to prepare for your target race at a target time, you do race simulations and tempo runs during your training to prepare your body and mind for that target speed over the full distance.

In this post, I want to define some of core run workout types you can do and how those different runs can contribute towards your training.

Toxic or Junk Miles

Like most newbie runners, most of my initial running was running as best as I could at a certain speed over a certain distance. All of these run were at more or less the same pace.

These runs are typically described as “easy” runs in the ensue that they are not fast enough to improve your aerobic capacity or maximum speed nor are they long enough to improve your endurance. As such, from a training perspective they are called toxic miles or junk miles.

While some might claim an easy run improves recovery [1] or adding distance or volume per week at an easy pace will improve marathon times [2], there isn’t enough evidence to support these claims.

While the science says we should avoid these easy runs, I’d contend that truly new runners can benefit from easy runs. These runs help you get used to running, enjoy the sport, build up muscles and bones, and improve up without burning out.

That said, once you are beyond the foundational stage of becoming a runner, junk miles at an overly easy pace won’t help your training and should be avoided.

Why Different Run Types? Intro to Supercompensation

As a new runner, any miles you run help you improve, but as you gain more experience, you learn the importance of different types of runs. Quite simply different run types contribute to different improvements. The role of a coach, training program or smart plan is to use these different run types to build up the enhancements you need to be a better run at your target race.

Much of positive effects of training come from a process called Supercompensation. Basically our bodies initially respond to training stress (longer runs, sprints, etc.) by being temporarily weakened, before then growing back stronger. The initial weakening is offset by an overcompensation. This is where we make gains.

The training we do modifies different systems in the body, including cardiovascular, muscular, biomechanical, and even neurological. There are different types of training and running workouts that cause different stress and, as such, lead to different improvements.

Four Core Run Types

Here are the four core run types everyone should do:

1. Interval Training

Intervals or interval training is the concept of alternating high and low intensity exercise. For example, you run closer to a maximum speed and then rest or run at an easy pace to recover.

If you are a beginner, then your initial training for a 5k might be a short jog for high intensity and walking for the low intensity. This run/walk training is how I trained for my first 5k

If you are a more advanced or experienced runner, then your interval training would mean a fast run. Depending on your race goal or distance, your intensity and distance will vary. If you are training for full or half marathon, then your intervals might be a slightly higher pace than your race pace for 10- to 20-minute durations. By contrast, if you are focusing on a 5k or mile, then your intervals will be focused on a much higher speed over a lower duration.

Like sprint training or High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT), interval training is considered “speedwork,” and it primarily builds up your aerobic capacity.

Whether you are an elite athlete or beginner, interval training is arguably the most important type of workout. Intervals build up your speed and your cardiovascular system as expressed with a running metric like VO2 Max.

The challenge with intervals is knowing how to structure the workouts, what your target pace should be and managing other variables. We will look at this briefly in a later section.

2. Long Runs

Along with the limitation on our top speed, everyone has a limit to how far they can run. The long run another key workout, and its goal is to help you increase your distance. Long runs are of particular importance when training for a half or full marathon as well as even longer runs like ultra marathons. Long runs are easier than intervals and run below the target race pace.

Long runs improve a number of aspects including our muscles and bones, but its primary purpose is developing our aerobic endurance. Unlike aerobic capacity which is your maximum speed and maximum capacity on the cardiovascular system to exchange and usage oxogen, aerobic endurance is more like different “gears” in a car. You are using a moderate gear or level over a longer distance. This is often referred to as your training economy.

Most smart plans and training systems advice at least one run a week that is longer than the others. Long runs are a structured way to extend your ability to run longer and longer distances as you prepare for a specific race distance goal.

3. Tempo Runs

Tempo runs are somewhere between an interval and a long run. They are run for a shorter distance or duration than a long run but at a higher pace. One example of a tempo run would be running about 20 minutes at the maximum pace that you could maintain for an hour. Tempo runs might also be split into multiple segments with some rest or slower pace like intervals.

Many coaches like Jack Daniels claims tempo runs “are one of the most productive types of training”. Unfortunately there is much debate and lack of a scientific evidence to back up the alleged benefits, especially when compared with Long Slow Distance or High Intensity Interval Training.

Personally, I think there is some justification on both sides about pro’s and con’s of tempo runs, but I’d argue that part of the problem comes from word meanings. At its most basic, a tempo run is just a type of interval run but targeted at a longer distance. So, I use tempo runs as a way to become comfortable at a higher pace over a longer duration. In this way, I consider tempo runs valuable because you train for your target pace and distance.

In fact, I’d prefer a term like simulation run instead of tempo run, since what you are simulating in a tempo run or a time trial is your ability to run at your target pace.

Tempo runs can be dangerous, because you risk overtraining and injury, and like intervals, tempo runs are not easy to plan and structure. If you use tempo runs right, you’ll get comfortable at the right pace for your race. But you need to consider the variables like how fast, how far and for how long in order to get it right.

4. Races, Time Trials and Assessments

Races are where we measure ourselves. While many run for their health, almost anyone who trains for running is preparing for a race. Races are not even about winning or losing since most running is about self-improvement and the journey. They answer a simple question: have you improved or not?

Races can be used as form of training and is a way to improve your speed. Unfortunately long, hard runs like the marathon or longer does a lot damage to our bodies. It’s so stressful on the body that it might not produce a positive fitness improvement.

I group together races, time trials and specific assessments under the umbrella concept of assessments. These are running workouts that help you understand your current fitness level and whether or not your training is working. For example, you can’t know if your training program is working unless you do an assessment to check if you’ve improved your speed or speed endurance over a certain distance or time.

These assessment runs all help you track your progress.

Beyond the Core Four Workouts: Hills? Sprint? Fartlek? Repetitions?

For me, these four workouts should be the core of any run training program. Interval training trains you for speed, long runs train you for endurance, tempo runs train you for a combination of speed and pace over a distance, and assessments like races and time trials check on the progress and success of you and your training program.

Beyond these four core workouts, there are several other possible running workouts you can add, including hills, sprints (or repetitions), and Fartlek.

Hill training is arguably the one workout type that could be included with the “core four,” since hill training trains for strength. Many runners and coaches include hill training as part of their plans. Unfortunately there is a lot of variety to hill training, including how to do it and even downhill running. This makes hill training more difficult to quantify and include in a structured plan. Personally, I run regularly in hill areas, but I don’t specifically target hill runs unless I am preparing for a long, hilly race.

Sprints, repetitions, high intensity interval training and sprint training are run types that focus on developing your speed and cardiovascular capacity. They are essentially a form of interval training. If you are training for a shorter run or developing higher speed, these are definitely workouts to consider.

The Fartlek is Swedish for “speed play,” and it is stands for adding high intensity surges or progressions during longer run. There are various forms of this concept which include strides, surges, and progressions too. While not a core aspect of training or running, the idea is that these additions help you train you mentally and physically for later stages of a race.

While these additional workout types can be beneficial, you shouldn’t neglect the core four run types.

Science of Running: Full List of Manipulators to Run Training

In one of my favorite books on running, “The Science of Running,” Steve Magness provides a comprehensive and scientific examination at the various manipulators we can leverage to improve our running. His goal is to help coaches and athletes put together training programs to maximize performance.

In the book, Magness provides a full list of manipulators related to run training. These are the variables you use to build out a single workout or structure a full training plan, and they include:

  1. Speed: a. Within reps, workout
  2. Recovery: a. Length (between reps, between sets) | b. Standing/jogging/steady/with “stuff”
  3. Rep length
  4. Terrain: a. Hill, soft, hard, variable, etc.
  5. Volume (total/sets)
  6. Density
  7. “Stuff”: a. Aerobic/clearing | b. Sprint | c. Strength
  8. Surges
  9. Feedback manipulators: a. Knowledge of splits, reps, distance of reps, total workout, terrain, etc.

A full description of these goes beyond this post, but having this list can help you understand the challenge involved in structuring and tweaking your intervals, for example.

The Simple Idea: Smart Training Means Leveraging Run Types

In order to reach your peak potential, you need to practice different types of running workout types. The Theory of Supercompensation involves a process of breaking down through workouts and using recovery to make gains.

Along with running, you have to also include adequate rest, recovery and nutrition. If you aren’t recovered, aren’t eating right or are overstressed, you want improve too. A biomarker like Heart Rate Variability can be used to help you check if your stress and recovery for life and training.

Certain types of workouts support different running goals, and it is how you mix and match these different run types and their underlying variables that are able to maximize your performance and fitness levels.

To summarize training with different run types translates to the following ideas: long runs build up your endurance; short, hard, intense runs build up your speed; and targeted training or simulation runs test your speed endurance at a target race goal. Finally, you can use races and assessments to check-in on your progress. According to your experience level and your distance and time goal, you leverage a mix of these types of runs and a few other run workout types to structure your training for maximum benefits.

Hopefully this post helped explain these core workout types and some of the variables underlying how best to train.

Good luck and happy running!


Article credit: Mark Koester / CC BY
Cover photo: Maarten van den Heuvel

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