Find Your Training Sweet Spot

Are you running too little? Or too much? Find a balance, to achieve your goals and stay healthy.

Lisa Marshall |

Are you running too little? Or too much? Find a balance, to achieve your goals and stay healthy. – By Lisa Marshall

Image by Stephen Matera
Image by Stephen Matera

You’ve heard the warnings: run too much, and you’ll get hurt. But according to a new editorial in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, this dogma may not tell the whole story. The authors looked at injury patterns in several sports, and concluded that undertraining puts athletes at just as much risk as overdoing it – while training hard can ultimately serve as a ‘vaccine’ against injury. “Yes, overtraining can cause injuries,” says lead author Dr Tim Gabbett, a sports scientist with Australian Catholic University. “But if you progressively find your way to higher training loads, it can actually protect you.”

Running coach and founder/CEO of RunnersConnect Jeff Gaudette says he often sees runners struggling to find the ‘sweet spot’ between undertraining and overtraining: “Beginners ramp up too fast,” he says, “whereas experienced runners are so scared of overtraining, they often fail to get to a level they could probably handle.” Here’s how to achieve the perfect balance of workouts, depending on your primary goal.


Study after study shows that increasing weekly mileage too fast boosts injury rates. Gaudette recommends adding three to eight kilometres per week for three weeks, backing down to your week 1 load on the fourth week to recover, then picking up where you left off in week 3. As you build mileage, watch for signs of overtraining, such as irritability, insomnia, and fatigue.


First, work up to your ideal weekly volume – the more mileage your schedule allows, the better, but aim for at least 30 kilometres if you train primarily for half marathons, and 50 if your focus is full marathons. Each week should include a long, slow run of at least 90 minutes. Once you’re comfortable with the volume, change one easy run each week to a tempo run. Maintain for four weeks, then change another. One should be continuous (say, a six-kilometre run at half-marathon pace) and the other a ‘cruise interval’ (4 x 1km at 10-K pace, walking or jogging 60 to 90 seconds in between).


The heart and lungs adapt faster to training than muscles and joints, so while you may feel ready to sprint around the track tomorrow, your legs will protest. Start with hillwork, which challenges you without the impact of faster, flatter running: find a hill with a six- to seven-per-cent grade. Once a week, run uphill at about 5-K effort for 20 seconds, walk down, and repeat six to eight times. On your second week of hill training, throw in some strides on other days: At the end of two short- or medium-length runs, add three or four 20-sec pick-ups with brief rests in between. After three to five weeks, swop your hill workout for a track workout: for example, try 600 metres at goal 5-K pace, then 400 metres slightly faster, then 200 metres slightly faster. Jog 90 seconds to two minutes between each. Repeat two or three times, resting three minutes between sets.


Build up to two or three days of post-run strides and one hill or track workout weekly. If endurance is also a goal, keep your pace at the track consistent, but add sets and keep rests in between brief. If speed is your top priority, do the same number of repeats but slightly increase pace as well as length of recovery. Don’t push too hard, though, or you could get hurt: finish every interval session feeling like you could have done one more repeat. Long-term, consistent, moderate speed workouts will trump a few weeks of gut-busters.

GOAL: Weight Loss

Runners who want to lose body fat are probably eating too much for the amount they’re running, says sports nutritionist and dietician Kim Mueller. But eating too little can knock metabolism into fat-storing ‘survival mode’. So be realistic: a runner burns just under four times his or her body weight in kilojoules per kilometre. Often, adding running and keeping kilojoule intake the same can lead to gradual weight loss; but if you cut kilojoules, don’t surpass a 2 000-kJ deficit daily.


To break through a weight-loss plateau, mix things up. Once a week, go for a conversational-pace run of less than an hour before breakfast to prompt your carb-starved body to burn fat. Twice a week, do higher-intensity work, which burns more kilojoules and prompts a higher after-burn. Try this: after a 15-minute warm-up, run a minute at faster-than-5-K-pace, jog a minute, and repeat nine times.


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