Running: Distance, Frequency or Intensity?
There’s no adage when it comes to these key factors. Which helps more? Is weekly volume the secret to enhancing your performance? Improving as a distance runner means keeping a list of considerations, including core strength, weight training, nutrition, sleep, recovery, and supplements to name just a few. Unless you are an elite runner nearing your maximum potential, the best way to improve is by increasing your training load. However, even when trying to up the ante in training there are a number of factors that affect fitness, including distance, frequency and speed.
Let’s discuss each of these separately.
In general, the more miles that you run in a week, the better a runner you will become. After all, the only way to improve at an activity is to practice that activity often. Increasing the distance of your runs enhances aerobic fitness, improves metabolic efficiency, enhances mental toughness and helps the body adapt to the stress of running on tired legs. At a cellular level, increasing your run distance will increase capillary and mitochondrial density, improve red blood cell count, and increase the amount of hemoglobin in your blood – all of which factor into faster running times. Indeed, there is a reason why many elite runners consistently log 100 to 200-mile weeks, but even recreational runners can benefit from increased distance. However, for people who are not able to devote their entire day towards training and recovery, there reaches a point of diminishing returns.
The next factor to consider is frequency. How often one runs plays as big a role in fitness as weekly mileage depending on how often a runner already runs. For runners who run three to four days per week, adding an additional day can pay huge dividends. According to running coach Hal Higdon, for every day taken off from running, it takes two days to return to fitness prior to the break. Since recovery begins as soon as the last run ends, it is possible to have too much of a good thing, especially when training for a race.
Frequent running promotes fat burning, helps the body learn to use glycogen more efficiently, improves mitochondria production and provides important recovery benefits by forcing the body to adapt. Already a seven-day per week runner? Adding “doubles” into your training routine by breaking up your mileage into a morning and evening run can help your body reap an additional boost of these benefits.
Most coaches will tell you that there are two proven ways to get better: run more miles and run your miles faster. How does speed training affect running? For one, it trains the body to be efficient while moving fast, which is especially important for someone training for a race. By building functional strength, runners are able to stave off pain and discomfort in the late stages of a race for a longer period of time. Another benefit of speed is that it forces the body to work harder, which harkens back to the assertion that training is simply the adaptation of the body to stress.
As a runner reaches a plateau of the mileage that he or she is safely able to complete without risking family time or injury, running the miles faster is a great way to improve the amount of stress placed on the body. Besides simply running faster miles, speed work can play a huge contributing factor to improvement. By developing fast twitch muscle fibers, runners will burn more calories, improve their VO2 max and improve running cadence, which is necessary for improved efficiency and running form.
So, which helps more?
Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all answer when it comes to runners, so each variable is compared side by side, with a number of factors considered.
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Distance vs. Frequency
The question here is which provides the most benefit: a 50-mile week with five days of running, or a 50-mile week with seven days of running? Many physiologists will argue that the latter is more beneficial, because the aerobic, skeletal, and muscular systems are receiving daily stress. However, for a runner who completes 50 miles out of five days of running and cross trains vigorously for an additional one or two days, he or she will receive a performance boost due to the increased distance per run.
© Big Stock Photo
Distance vs. Speed
What about the runner who runs 50 miles per week at a conversational pace versus the runner who runs 50 miles per week with up-tempo workouts interspersed? With all other factors being equal, the runner who incorporates speed work will perform better than the runner who completes all of his or her mileage at an easy pace. As for a runner who completes a 100 mile week versus the same runner who performs a 50-mile week of quality miles, the 100-mile per week runner will have the edge, assuming low injury risk.
Frequency vs. Speed
The answer to this question is certainly more complicated than simply comparing speed or frequency with distance and there may not be an overall “right” answer. However, the runner who runs five days per week will certainly have a benefit over an athlete of similar ability who simply runs two fast-paced runs weekly. As the margins close, however, speed will produce a greater benefit. For instance, a runner who performs three high-quality runs per week will likely be a better runner than someone who runs the same mileage over four days.
In my opinion, frequency should be first, distance second and intensity third. That is how I train myself.
What Science Says
Researchers at the University of Madrid, Spain tried to conduct a valid scientific study1 on the effectiveness of such specific training schedules. They found that most distance runners need an easy pace for most of their training. Scientists divided ten professional runners into two separate groups and had them complete a 10.4-km time trial.
Over five months, all 10 runners followed an identical training program, except for one difference. One group performed two threshold runs every week, and the other did just one. The total mileage, intensity and strength training regimens were exactly the same. As I already mentioned, the key difference was the extra threshold training – thus with less easy running for the athletes in the first group.
In a nutshell, the runners repeated the 10.4-km run and researchers found that the ‘intensity’ group improved their time by 02:01, on average, while those in the ‘easy’ group enhanced their performance by 02:37. This leads us to the conclusion of the study, where scientists believe that 81% of running should be easy, followed by 10.5% performed at threshold pace and only 8.5% at speeds which exceed race pace.
1. Esteve-Lanao J, Foster C, Seiler S, Lucia A. Impact of training intensity distribution on performance in endurance athletes. J Strength Cond Res. 2007 Aug;21(3):943-9. (link) Read the full study here.