Bring Your Running Workouts to the Next Level

By Eric Leach, DPT

Many people run for various reasons, whether it’s to stay in shape, improve their health, or excel in a competitive sport. However, setting up an effective running workout involves more than just hitting the pavement. This blog is designed to guide you through creating your own running workout in three simple steps. By the end, you will be able to identify your specific running needs and select the right training programs to address your weaknesses.

How to Measure Intensity in Running

Running intensity can be measured in various ways, including heart rate (HR), VO2 max, lactate threshold, and rate of perceived exertion (RPE). Each of these metrics provides a unique perspective on the intensity of your workouts. To make informed choices, it’s essential to select one and stick with it. Heart rate is often the most cost-effective and accessible measurement, making it the preferred choice for many. Rate of perceived exertion, which rates your effort on a scale from 1 to 10, offers a subjective but viable alternative if you lack a heart rate monitor.

If you are using heart rate as your metric, you can estimate your maximum heart rate with the following equation:

220 – age = heart rate max

For example, if you’re 20 years old, your estimated heart rate max is 200. This number will serve as a reference point for your workouts. If you don’t have a heart rate monitor, we recommend using devices like the Polar H9 or H10, which allow you to monitor your heart rate on your phone or watch. Apple watches are not recommended for heart rate monitoring due to accuracy issues.

Now that you have two accessible ways to measure your intensity, let’s explore different methods to structure your running training and how each one can enhance your running performance.

  1. Long, Slow Distance Running

This type of running training is characterized by:

  • Working at 80% of your heart rate max
  • Running at a slower pace than you would in a race
  • Covering a longer distance than your typical race

Long, slow distance running is suitable for both beginner and expert-level athletes. For example, if you were preparing for a 10k race at 85% intensity, you would aim to run at 80% of your heart rate max for 12 kilometers, adjusting the intensity and distance weekly. If you don’t have a heart rate monitor, aim for a pace that allows you to maintain a conversation while running, often referred to as “conversation pace.”

This type of running offers several benefits:

  • Improves lactate threshold
  • Enhances fat utilization as fuel during higher intensities
  • Provides an opportunity to work on running technique and mechanics

Use this type of running when you are far from a race or when you need a break from higher intensity training, or on more active recovery days.

  1. Pace/Tempo Training

Pace or tempo running is characterized by:

  • Running at or slightly higher than race competition intensity
  • Running at your lactate threshold

Pace/tempo training is suitable for beginner to expert-level athletes and can be divided into steady or intermittent formats. Steady pace/tempo running aims to maintain a consistent pace or heart rate, while intermittent involves bursts and rests, with intensity slightly above your training intensity.

For instance, if you’re preparing for a marathon, you might use pace/tempo runs for shorter durations than a marathon, such as one hour. Over time, you can increase the duration or intensity.

This type of running offers several advantages:

  • Improves lactate threshold
  • Enhances running economy
  • Boosts race day speed

Use pace/tempo training when you have a race scheduled within the next 6 weeks to work on your running speed, intensity, and technique.

  1. Interval Training

Interval training involves alternating between high and low-intensity running, primarily focused on improving your VO2 max and heart health.

 It is characterized by:

  • Work intervals lasting between 3-5 minutes
  • A work-to-rest ratio of 1:1 (equal work and rest time)
  • Work intervals as close to your VO2 max as possible

Interval training is recommended for intermediate to advanced athletes. For instance, an athlete looking to enhance their running speed and intensity would incorporate interval training during the offseason and preseason to maximize their performance. Due to its intensity, this type of training is best limited to once or twice a week at any stage of running.

Interval training provides the following benefits:

  • Increased VO2 max
  • Enhanced anaerobic metabolism
  • Improved running speed

Use interval training to boost your overall running performance, but be mindful of the amount of time you spend on it in your running routine.

  1. High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)

High-intensity interval training is similar to interval training but features some differences in active and rest times.

It is characterized by:

  • Active intervals lasting 45 seconds to 4 minutes
  • Rest times of 1:0.75-1 (shorter rest than work)

The goal is to spend several minutes at or above 90% of your VO2 max

High-intensity interval training is suitable for advanced athletes. For example, athletes looking to improve their finishing ability in a race might include HIIT to train for faster finishes. As with interval training, even advanced athletes should focus on this type of training once or twice a week.

HIIT offers the following advantages:

  • Increased running speed
  • Improved running economy
  • Primarily used to enhance the final leg of any race
  1. Fartlek Training

Fartlek training is the most advanced training structure, combining elements of the previous training options.

It is defined by:

  • Incorporating slow distance running or tempo training, leading into interval training
  • Often involves running on hilly terrain to mimic interval training

HITT is commonly used by advanced runners due to its inclusion of interval training and heightened intensity. For example, an athlete aiming to prepare for the San Francisco marathon might incorporate hills into their program by adding one day per week of Fartlek running. This type of run includes a tempo pace, interval training, and hill work to enhance the athlete’s ability to conquer steep slopes.

Fartlek training has the following benefits:

  • Increases VO2 max
  • Improves lactate threshold
  • Enhances running economy and fat utilization


Most running programs comprise a balance of each type of training. Athletes preparing for races more than two months away tend to use lower intensity, higher volume running, while those with upcoming races focus on more intense running with shorter volumes that simulate race day conditions. If you’re new to running or designing your running program, be sure to include these types of runs on a weekly basis. If you’re returning from an injury, seek guidance from a sports therapist experienced in running workouts to help you get back on track!


  1. Haff, Greg, and N. Travis Triplett. Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning. Fourth edition. Champaign, IL, Human Kinetics, 2016.

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