To get the most from training and racing, you need to do your running workouts at the right speeds, run negative splits, and preface speedwork with more aerobic work, says Dr Jason Karp.

When I was in high school, my electronics teacher had a silly, fortune cookie-type saying to remind his students of how to handle electrical wires: 'One hand in pockey, no get shockey.' Like touching wires with both hands, there's a wrong way to do almost everything. For example, going down a park slide head first, throwing a paper airplane at your high school teacher, and failing to buy your twin brother a birthday present and claiming you forgot his birthday would all be considered as errors of judgement (OK, so I don't always make the best decisions).

Although there are many paths to success when it comes to running, there are also wrong ways to train and race. As a coach, I see the wrong ways far too frequently. Although training and racing errors won't have as severe a consequence as electrocuting yourself, errors in your training and racing will prevent you from meeting your potential. In honour of my electronics teacher, here are some common running errors with advice to help you correct them.


Wrong: Doing workouts too fast or too slow
One of the biggest errors runners make is running workouts at incorrect speeds. Run your workouts too fast, and you may not meet the purpose of the workout. At the very least, you'll add unnecessary fatigue to your legs without extra benefit. For example, say you want to improve your maximal rate of oxygen consumption (VO2 max), and you plan to run kilometre repeats at the speed at VO2 max (100 per cent maximal heart rate). If running each kilometre in 4:00 elicits VO2 max (and max heart rate), running each one in 3:50 will certainly also elicit VO2 max. But why run each kilometre in 3:50 when you can run it in 4:00 and still get the same benefit? Running faster is not always better.

On the other hand, if you run too slow in your workouts, you may not obtain the desired benefit at all. For example, research has shown that cardiovascular benefits are minimal when running below about 60 per cent of your maximal heart rate. As a coach, I've noticed that the most difficult type of workout to run at the correct pace is the lactate threshold (tempo) run. Many runners, especially those who are inexperienced with this workout, have difficulty holding back the pace and finding their fastest sustainable aerobic pace.

Right: To meet your physiological needs, run workouts at the correct speeds
To determine the correct pace, you must appreciate the purpose of each workout. Running at the correct pace will more specifically target the physiological variable you're trying to train, such as VO2 max or lactate threshold. Since the goal of training is to obtain the greatest benefit while incurring the least amount of stress, the aim should be to run as slowly as you can while still obtaining the desired result.

To optimise training, these pacing guidelines should be followed:

  • Recovery and long runs: 1 to 1½ minutes per kilometre slower than 5K race pace; 65 to 75 per cent max heart rate.
  • Lactate threshold (tempo) runs: about 6 to 9 seconds per kilometre slower than 5K race pace (or about 10K race pace) for slower, recreational runners (75 to 80 per cent max heart rate); about 15 to 18 seconds per kilometre slower than 5K race pace (or about 9 to 12 seconds per kilometre slower than 10K race pace) for highly-trained runners (85 to 90 per cent max heart rate). The pace should feel 'comfortably hard.'
  • Long intervals (2 to 5 minutes): the speed at VO2 max (about 3K race pace for highly-trained runners); reaching 95 to 100 per cent max heart rate by the end of each work period.
  • Short intervals (1 to 2 minutes): 1,500 metre race pace.


Wrong: Running the first leg of a race too fast
I used to coach a talented runner who ran the first couple of kilometres of every race too fast, only to slow down dramatically during the latter segments and end up disappointed with the result. He thought he was better than his workouts and he let his competitive spirit and pre-race adrenaline obscure his knowledge of his true fitness level. It was frustrating to watch him start off so well and get slower with each successive lap of the track.

The faster you run the first kilometre of a race, the more your muscles rely on anaerobic metabolism to produce energy. With the greater reliance on anaerobic metabolism and muscular work comes an increase in muscle and blood acidosis and the accumulation of metabolic by-products that cause fatigue. Whether the race is a kilometre or a marathon, you can't put running time in the bank. You will end up losing more time than you gained by being 'ahead of schedule' in the beginning. No matter how strong your will is, the metabolic condition caused by running too fast too early will force you to slow down during subsequent stages of the race.

Right: To run your best race, run even or negative pace
Although race strategy sometimes dictates that you change the pace during the race to challenge your competitors, the best way to run your fastest possible race is by starting out at the pace you can maintain the entire race. While it may feel easy, especially in the marathon, to run the first couple of kilometres of your race at the same pace as the last couple, your patience will pay huge dividends during those last kilometres. Ideally, the second half of your race should be equal to or slightly faster than the first half (i.e. negative splits). To negative split a race requires accurate knowledge of your fitness level, confidence to stick to your plan when others have taken the early pace out too fast, and a good dose of self-restraint.

When you race, you don't run at some arbitrary intensity. The percentages of the VO2 max and lactate thresholds you can sustain for a specific amount of time are predictable. The longer the race, the lower the per cent VO2 max at which you'll run it. Research has shown that the speed at VO2 max can be sustained for only about eight to 10 minutes. Talented, highly-trained runners therefore race 3,000 metres at 100 per cent VO2 max, 5,000 metres at 90 to 95 per cent VO2max, and a marathon at 80 to 85 per cent VO2 max (about 95 per cent of lactate threshold).

Workouts, which should be performed at specific speeds that correspond to specific percentages of VO2 max or lactate threshold, are invaluable for providing knowledge of fitness levels and for predicting average race pace (assuming you account for variables like the terrain and the weather). As I tried to convince my overzealous athlete client, your workouts don't lie.
The guidelines below can be used to predict your race pace from your workouts. Run the first kilometre of your next race at that pace. The pace differentials listed are for highly-trained runners and will become progressively smaller in relation to your lactate threshold (LT) runs the longer it takes you to run the race.

5K pace: 12 to 19 seconds per km faster than LT runs; about 6 to 9 seconds per km slower than long intervals.
10K pace: about 6 to 12 seconds per km faster than LT runs; about 15 to 19 seconds per km slower than long intervals.
Marathon pace: about 9 to 12 seconds per km slower than LT runs.


Wrong: Doing speedwork without first running enough aerobic mileage
While speedwork and lots of races seem to be the method of training at most high schools, they are not the best way to meet your potential as a distance runner. Speedwork delivers more bang for your buck, improving performance faster than simply running lots of kilometres does, but short-term success may be achieved to the detriment of long-term development. While interval training increases your stroke volume (amount of blood pumped with each beat) and cardiac output (amount of blood pumped each minute), sending more blood and oxygen to your muscles from a more powerful heart won't do you much good if your muscles are not equipped to use the extra oxygen.

Right: Before picking up the pace, have a solid aerobic base
As legendary coach Arthur Lydiard claimed, lots of aerobic running forms the basis of any distance runner's training program. Whether you're training for the 1,500 metres or the marathon, it all starts with mileage, because aerobic running develops many physiological and biochemical traits needed for good endurance. It increases the number of red blood cells and the amount of haemoglobin contained within them, giving the blood vessels a greater oxygen-carrying capability. It also increases muscle capillary volume, which provides more oxygen to your muscles. Finally, it increases mitochondrial volume and the number of aerobic enzymes, allowing for a greater use of oxygen.

The more you attend to these qualities of aerobic metabolism, the more you will ultimately get from your subsequent speedwork. Since recovery is an aerobic process, being more aerobically fit allows you to recover faster during the rest periods of your interval workouts – meaning you can begin the next work period sooner. A faster recovery also allows you to run more repeats in a single workout. Since one of the keys to maximising VO2 max is to spend as much time as possible running at VO2 max, the benefit of being able to run five one-kilometre repeats compared to three is obvious.

The more aerobically fit you are, the faster you will also recover between workouts. The rapidity with which you recover from intense workouts will dictate how often you can perform other intense workouts, which may ultimately influence your ability to reach your running potential.

So, how much aerobic work is enough? A difficult question, and the answer depends on a number of factors, including your genetically-determined propensity to continually adapt to high mileage and tempo runs, the amount of time you have to run, and the specific racing distance for which you are training. Obviously, the longer the race, the more mileage you need to meet your potential. My study of the training characteristics of the 2004 USA Olympic Marathon Trials qualifiers found that the male marathoners averaged 144km per week with a peak mileage of 193km for the year of training leading up to the trials, while the female marathoners averaged 116km per week with a peak mileage of 153km. The best way to determine how much aerobic work you need is to slowly and systematically increase your mileage from month to month and year to year, taking care to note how you respond to the training stimulus. Don't increase your mileage unless your prior training and racing experience gives you reason to believe that you will continue to improve with more mileage. If you haven't reached a plateau in your performance at 80 km per week, there's no reason yet to increase your mileage to 90.

If you want to get the most from your training and racing, it's time to make some changes. Do your workouts at the right speeds, run negative splits, and preface speedwork with more aerobic work. By changing the errors of your running ways, you will soon be rewarded with new personal records.


Jason Karp, PhD
Jason is an internationally acclaimed running coach, speaker and writer. He contributes to numerous international running, coaching, and fitness magazines and is the author of four books, including his latest releases, 101 Winning Racing Strategies for Runners and Running for Women, which can be ordered at his website The 2011 IDEA Personal Trainer of the Year, Jason is a frequent presenter at fitness and coaching conventions worldwide.