Why a running plan will make you fitter, stronger and prevent injury

Usually, my training and preparation for a running event involves gradually building up my mileage to match the race distance. While this approach works for me, there's no science behind it, and there's rarely any interval, hill or speed work.

This changed recently, when I registered for the 14 kilometre . The previous year was my maiden City2Surf event, and Heartbreak Hill and its sister hills broke me. As someone who self-admittedly stupidly prides myself on always running, I had to swallow my pride as the steep inclines reduced me to a walk.  

That's why in the lead up to this year's event I looked for a training plan that would build on my already strong running base and fitness level and help to physically and mentally prepare me for the hills. While many tailored running event programs run for eight to 10 weeks, I chose a four-week program. Here's what I learned:

Confidence booster

Like me, many day-to-day runners struggle with how to schedule their various workouts. Having a plan to follow took the guess work out of it for me and eased the pressure of having to build variation into my normally static routine. Featuring light runs, High Intensity Interval Run Training (HIIRT), HIIRT Hills, and strength straining, the plan I'm following targets the areas I need to work on for the race and has increased my confidence. I feel fitter, stronger and better prepared to take on the five hill climbs and the overall 224m elevation gain.

Strength training is important

A strong body will handle the constant muscle breakdown that running takes on the body and strength training exercises like squats, lunges, deadlifts as well as hamstrings and calf work have become a key feature of my training program.

Kevin Toonen is a Strength and Conditioning Coach for BodyScience and Founder of in Sydney. The former special forces military soldier says, "strength training is very important to a running program because it allows you to build up the muscles that are specific to running and work on your imbalances, which can help improve speed, the ability to recover and decreases your chance of injury."

Again and again, research has shown the benefits of strength training. One found that runners who combined endurance and strength training improved an average of 8.6 per cent in a four kilometre time trial, increased their maximum oxygen intake (V02 max) by an average of 10.4 per cent and ran to exhaustion 13.7 per cent longer than the other groups that either only ran or performed strength training exercises on their own

The good news is added strength and endurance training doesn't require extra time in the gym. Toonen recommends about 30 minutes of squats, deadlifts and/or 60-90 repetitions of some form of hamstring or glute work exercises, one to two times a week.

HIIRT so good

While High Intensity Interval Run Training hurts, it also really helped my fitness and running. Studies show that this type of training strengthens the cardiovascular system, increases VO2 max, stimulates the muscles more than long-distance running and can boost overall pace.   

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My twice-weekly HIIRT sessions have seen me run a total of six kilometres but in 400m, 800m and 1200m bursts, followed by a walk of no more than two minutes to recover after each effort. At times, I've wanted to give up but Toonen's booming voice echoes in my head: "approach each run as if it's the only one for the day, ensuring that you finish strong each time." Since upping the intensity of my training with short bursts of speed, I've noticed that my aerobic fitness has increased and my stride has become more efficient.

Rest and recover

Putting your training on pause seems counter-intuitive but run training plans have rest days for a reason. Toonen says the number one thing he looks for in a good run training plan is rest and recovery work.

"You can't perform well if you don't recover well," he says. "Wearing compression, having rest days, stretching, getting adequate sleep and eating well are crucial when preparing for a running race."

Mistakes matter

Toonen says the most common mistake he sees runners make is not training enough.

"A lot of runners don't take a training plan seriously, and don't give themselves the time needed to adapt to the large stimulus that most programs place on the body. To run comfortably, you need to be able to hold your body in a good running pose and this stems from strength and muscular endurance."

Other common training mistakes include not building up a base level of fitness before increasing mileage, not sticking to the recommended distance, jumping back into training as if nothing happened when you've missed a session due to illness or injury, cramming your training and running recovery or slow runs too fast.

The goal of one day completing an ultra-marathon inspires running fanatic Laura Hill to clock up the kilometres each week. With a day job in the corporate world, Laura loves nothing more than lacing up her runners and hitting the pavement to clear her mind and challenge her body.

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Have you benefited from a running plan? Share your experience in the comments section below.

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