Improving as a runner involves 3 things: 1. increasing your muscle oxygen uptake and utilization, 2. your ability to endure higher work loads for longer, and 3. increasing the amount of force you can exert on the ground.
Improving muscle oxygen uptake comes from exercising at a base-building intensity of 50-60% of your Threshold effort level. This is where your muscles have as much oxygen as they need to become more efficient at consuming it. You can sustain this effort level for an extended amount of time at a relatively low energy cost, which gives your muscles the time they need to adapt to the training, while minimizing the stress you put on your body overall.
Minimizing stress during your base building workouts is important, because achieving the second goal—increasing your endurance capacity—requires spending time around your Threshold effort level. Increased capacity translates into your ability to run faster for longer. Many people know this workout as a tempo run, but there is a lot of confusion as to why and how it should be done. The simple truth is, by training at and around your Threshold you are strengthening your running-specific muscles at the limit of their endurance ability. If you’re running Tempo too far below your Threshold, then you won’t see improvement in your capacity. If you’re running above your Threshold, then you won’t last long enough to create a sufficient training effect to improve your capacity. Having built your base before performing these workouts is critical. You won’t fatigue as quickly, which gives your muscles valuable minutes to adapt to the stress of the higher effort workouts. Over time your muscle fibers will strengthen, making what was once hard, much easier.
The third goal is achieved through sprint workouts and/or strength training. These workouts overload your muscles for short periods of time, which helps to train your body to recruit muscle fibers that are neglected at lower intensities. As your ability to apply higher forces improves, it becomes relatively easy to maintain a given submax speed. When you overload your muscles in these workouts, its critical to give them adequate rest in between sprints or sets. Resting length should be at least 2 and up to 4 times longer than the sprint or set itself.
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