The Essential Guide To Training Intensity for Runners

Training intensity trumps volume
when it comes to training priorities.

You shouldn’t worry so much about how far you run in training. 

I mean it’s important, but it’s just one of many of the variables that you can tweak to influence your performance.

From my experience age-group runners are spending way too much of their time worrying about how far they’re running and are spending far too little time thinking about something even more important - how hard they’re running each session.

Intensity, not distance, should be your main focus when structuring your training.

Intensity, not distance, should be your main focus when structuring your training.

Focus On The Right Thing

A race is almost always a given distance so I can see the appeal in wanting to hit close to the distance in a long run or wanting to build your weekly mileage to a certain number.

The trouble is, it’s the intensity that you run at that determines how much volume you can sufficiently recover from. The longer the run, the easier it needs to be if you want to recover quickly and maintain consistency in your training.

It’s how hard you run that determines the major physiological benefits you get from the training session. Things like whether you're running aerobically or anaerobically, burning fat or sugar or learning to clear or tolerate lactate, amongst other things.

All of these contribute significantly to your performance and shouldn’t be overlooked.

Your body’s ability to cope with racing a certain distance safely, confidently, and without injury is the direct result of your preparation.

Understanding the different training intensities and their benefits will help you to find your optimal volume and to gain each of the physiological benefits that the different intensities provide.

Different training intensities provide different benefits.

Different training intensities provide different benefits.

Intensity Matters

When you look at the training of the world’s best runners, you’ll see that there’s a wide variation in the intensities they train at and in particular, the gap between the intensities of an easy run and a hard run is quite substantial.

I became a professional endurance coach 9 years ago this March.

In that time I’ve worked with literally thousands of age-group athletes in our lab, online and out on the roads, tracks and trails and what I have noticed is this…

The large majority of these athletes - when they come to us -  are living in an “intensity grey zone” where there is little difference in pace between an easy run and a hard run.

This “grey zone” means that easy sessions are done above the intensity that fully contributes to the development of your aerobic system but below the intensity that fully develops your anaerobic system.

This is not a ideal and in my opinion is a leading contributor to overtraining, injury and poor performance.

To really unlock your potential you need to begin to understand the roles that different intensities play in your training and how this should change as your fitness and the season develops.

Knowing how hard to run each workout ensures you make the most of every session.

Knowing how hard to run each workout ensures you make the most of every session.

Measuring Intensity: A Series

Training intensity zones provide the framework from which to base the intensities in your training. As this is an important topic requiring a fair amount of detail to explain, I will be penning down a series posts that cover the aspects of training with intensity over the coming weeks.

The post following this introduction will outline the different training intensity zones and once you understand these, you’ll know what benefits each intensity provides.

I will also be posting about the pro’s and con’s of running by feel, pace and heart rate so you can begin to understand the different options for measuring intensity during training.

It is my hope that once you have a solid grasp of what intensity is, and start to pay more attention to how hard you’re running in each session, you’ll start to see breakthroughs in your training and overall performance.