How to train for middle distance races
Run these three workouts weekly
For runners, the marathon is the Holy Grail and they can't wait to find it. Compete in a few 5K or 10Ks then jump straight to 26.2 miles. From my perspective, that's a mistake. Middle distance races, in the 20K to 25K range, while viewed by some as merely stepping stones to the marathon, can offer rewarding and challenging experiences that will be enjoyed by any who race.
Another plus is the dreaded "wall" that runners hit somewhere between 18 and 22 miles in a marathon doesn't appear in a middle distance competition no longer than 15.5 miles. Therein lies a key value of these races. Training for middle distance races enables your body to make the physiological adjustments necessary for marathoning.
Once your competitions start lasting longer than a hour, you begin to deplete glycogen stores and your body starts to burn fat for energy. Running at the point of this changeover, you may feel sapped of energy or lethargic, then as the fat burning starts, you feel good again. Doing long runs can help make this transition become smoother and less distressing.
The middle distance racing program outlined here is designed to prepare you to record a personal best. If your goal is more modest, the program still applies. However, you may want to do fewer repetitions and/or at a slower pace.
If this is your first attempt at a certain distance, check out a race projection table. Based on your best efforts at other distances, these tables can fairly accurately prediction your time at a new distance. Race projection tables are found at websites for Running Times and Runner's World.
Just as it is in the marathon, the long run is the key ingredient of training for middle distances. To maximize their value in improving race performance, long runs need to be run at a pace 20 to 30 seconds slower than your projected goal pace on race day. Running at a pace a minute or slower than race pace will still almost guarantee you will finish the race, however, the result will be less than your potential best.
A long runs needs to be done every week. The length of your long run the first week is the longest distance that you can run comfortably. The next week lengthen your run by one to two miles and continue the progression of adding a mile or two each week until three weeks before your race you run a distance that is about two miles longer than the race. For example, a would-be half marathoner would run three 15-mile runs.
If possible, do your long runs on a course where you know some mile splits so you can calculate pace. Your goal will be to run an even pace. An ideal course would have some rolling hills.
Hill running, which I talked about in the April issue of Silent Sports, is a key ingredient in middle distance training as well. Look for an opportunity to do repeated surges up the same hill or a route where the inclines come one after another. The point is that there should only be a short period of time between runs uphill. A hill with an 8 to 10 percent grade for 300 to 400 yards is ideal since a well-conditioned athlete should be able to run the full distance hard without backing off.
If this is your first experience with hill training, start with three to four repetitions and increase it by one or two per week up until you're doing eight to 12 climbs. You should feel fresh enough to attack each hill. Once you start to plod on the way up, it's time to end the workout.
Even if the race you are training for is run on a flat course, hill running is still vital. Hill running strengthens the quadriceps muscles and puts you in an anaerobic state. Speedwork, while necessary, can lead to injury if done excessively. Hill running, which causes less stress to legs, gives your training week a second day of anaerobic running.
Speedwork is my least favorite workout but critical to putting together a best effort. To be strong enough to run a personal best means being able to sustain a fast pace. Whereas intervals of 400 to 800 meters will be run significantly quicker than goal pace, even mile repeats still need to be a few seconds faster than your projected race pace.
You can do these on the track with jogging recoveries or on the roads. Off track intervals are measured by time with sprints ranging from two to eight minutes. You can vary the intervals, for example, by running a series of three minute intervals or do a sequence of two, then three-, then four-, then five- and then six-minute sprints. The goal is to finish the workout having recorded 25 to 30 minutes of fast running.
Your weekly speed workouts should gradually add two to four minutes of fast running. When you begin an interval and your legs refuse to accelerate because they are feeling dead, end the workout.
You will need to do three hard workouts a week: the long run, a hill session and speedwork. Each of these should leave you feeling spent but exhilarated. Doing those workouts faithfully will almost guarantee a satisfying race. The other four days of the week are for easy recovery running. Three to five miles a day is about right for these workouts. Don't feel guilty about taking a day off.
One advantage of middle distancing racing is that unlike the marathon, which leaves you walking stiffly to the post race activities and descending stairs backwards for a couple days, you get to resume a normal life the next day.
Although Dave Foley ran his personal bests 30 years ago (20K 1:05:44, 13.1 1:10:04, 25K 1:22:57), he finds that the program he used then is still relevant for today's runners.