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Office Slob to Thureophoros: A Guide to Running
A consolidation of my advice from various threads, all in one place.
This is about taking running back from the knock-kneed femaels and the twinks in the park. It is about restoring this crucial skill to its most proper practitioners, namely men who want to be fast and strong. It is a hidden talent that lurks in many of us – the ability to advance at unexpected speeds, and to cover great distances faster than almost any other land animal.
The speed and endurance of amateur runners has been in precipitous decline for decades. We have grown weak and sick from bad food and from sitting overmuch upon our asses. It is time to change this, and to transform yourself.
You have heard of cucked training plans like “Couch to 5k.” These have been written to ease women and unmotivated people into running short distances as slowly as possible. The authors of this phaggotry hope that you’ll be satisfied with the most minimal of achievements.
Throw that out and listen to me, for the principles are simple:
How to Start
Unless you train seriously in some other endurance sport, you probably won’t be fit enough to run continuously for more than a few overtly uncomfortable minutes at a time.
How can you ever work up to running for an hour or more, when you can’t manage even five minutes?
The answer is intervals. You break the longer run that you are aspiring to do, down into a bunch of very brief runs that you can manage, with periods of walking rest in between. You gradually increase the length of your running intervals, and decrease the length of your recovery walks, until you are running continuously.
For your first run, you’ll need a stopwatch. Walk briskly for ten minutes to warm up. Then start your timer and break into a moderately-paced run. This is important: You are not all-out sprinting. That comes later. You're not shuffling either. You want a middle, constant pace.
Your breathing will become more laboured and your desperation will rise. When you are perhaps 75% of the way to exhaustion, stop running and mark your time. Then, walk until your breathing is nearly, but not quite, normal. You should still feel your beating heart, but you should be able to talk normally. Mark your time again.
At this point you have defined two intervals:
a) The time you can run at a moderate pace until you are nearly out of breath; and
b) the time of active rest you need until you’re prepared to run again.
Repeat a) the running intervals and b) the walking recoveries enough times to yield about 25 minutes of run-walk intervals in total. Ideally you’ll be running around 10 intervals, but if it’s a little more or a little less, that’s OK.
Be flexible here and push yourself, but avoid extremes: If you’re doing two ten-minute running intervals, you can probably run continuously already, or near enough. If you’re doing 50 intervals of 20 seconds each, that’s probably too many, and you should focus on losing weight and cycling or rowing to develop a better aerobic base.
With each interval, a) will become harder and harder to maintain, and b) will seem less and less sufficient as recovery. That’s the point. You must try to hold it together. This will become easier, if you avoid the temptation of pushing too hard early in the workout. The goal is to take each of your running intervals at roughly the same pace, with the exception of the last one, where you’re encouraged to run faster in defiance of the weakness that remains in you.
You want to finish the workout feeling pretty tired, but not destroyed. If you can’t get through your training session, that means you’re running too hard or too long, or you’re not letting yourself recover enough. If you feel things falling apart as you progress, it’s better to increase your walking recoveries, than to compromise on the speed or duration of your running intervals. Make adjustments until you find the right running and the right walking intervals, such that you finish about 90% exhausted.
When you're done, catch your breath and walk ten minutes to cool down. With the warm-up, the cool-down, the running intervals, and the walking rests, you should have something in the neighbourhood of a 45-minute session.
For the next 72–96 hours after your first workout, you’ll probably experience delayed onset muscle soreness. This might even be bad enough that you’ll have trouble walking, but you should know that it’s not an injury and nothing to worry about. Your muscles are simply learning what it is to run. Rest for four days, and try to do some low-intensity walking or cycling to get some blood into your leg muscles. When you return to running, you’ll repeat the warmup, cooldown, and the ten a) and b) intervals from your first run. There’ll be almost no muscle soreness after this second run. You’re a little bit tougher now.
From here on out, your goal is to run three times a week, ideally once on the weekend and twice on weekdays. Try to evenly space your workouts throughout the week. On every weekend workout, that is to say the first run of the week, you must move time from b), your walking rests, to a), your running intervals. That is to say, time a) must increase every week, and time b) must decrease by about the same amount. Even if it’s just a few seconds, you have to make these adjustments. It will seem hard at first, but within a month, you’ll find that you’re making substantial progress here. As always, push, but don’t destroy yourself. Remember you have to do this same thing again in 48 hours.
Also after the first month or six weeks, you might consider adding a fourth run every week – one in which the goal is to see how long you can run continuously. Walk to warm up, do a few intervals to get the blood flowing, and then go for it. Here we’re no longer stopping at 75% tired, we’re fighting until we really can’t stand it anymore. Recover fully, do a few more intervals, and then walk to cool down.
Eventually, one of two things will happen: You’ll find yourself running for twenty minutes or longer on this additional run; or you’ll run out of time to move from your walking rests to your running intervals on your regular workouts.
Either way, once you can run for about 20–30 minutes without stopping, the run-walk intervals are over with. You can still walk briefly to warm up and cool down, but from this point on, you should only ever run. If you’re not already running four times a week, now is the time to add that fourth session. Over a period of weeks, you should aim to get all of your runs up to at least thirty minutes. Then you should pick at least one (if not two) of your weekly runs, and try to push these even longer, eventually towards the one-hour mark. You’ll make this progress very quickly now.
Once you can run for an hour or more at a time, you’ll meet most conventional understandings of what it is to “be in shape.”
Now that you’re no longer a noob, it’s time to leave the mindset of noobery behind. For the rest of your life, which we hope will end with death in battle, you’ll no longer think about time, and gradually increasing it. Instead, you’ll think about distance, and how much of it you are covering.
To this point, you’ve probably been running about 15 miles / 25 kilometres a week, split across three or (ideally) four runs. You’ll now aim to increase that weekly distance slowly according to simple, flexible principles:
1) For the first week after abandoning noobery, and every two or three weeks thereafter – provided you are healthy and remain uninjured and feel the divine will pushing you forwards – you should think about increasing your weekly training distance.
2) However strong you feel, your distance must increase by no more than one mile or 1-2 kilometres for each day of the week that you run. You should start this increase by phasing out your walking warm-ups and cool-downs with slow jogs, or slower-paced runs.
3) Try to keep one of your runs – ideally the Sunday run – a bit longer than the rest. This Long Run will become a weekly ritual, and one of increasing importance. Don’t overdo it though. At lower training volumes, don’t let it exceed 30–35% of the weekly distance, or 25–30% at higher volumes.
4) Beyond 25 miles/40 kilometres per week, it’s time to think about adding a fifth run. Beyond 35 miles / 55 kilometres per week, you should probably add a sixth run. Many prefer to retain one rest day a week even at high distance, so whether you ever add a seventh day of running is a matter of personal taste. Particularly those with rigorous lifting programs will find they must have one day free for total rest. Others don’t feel strong unless they are running every day. If you’re an everyday runner, consider making one of your runs especially short, and place this just after your Long Run. Thus, the remaining 5 days of running can all be at moderate distance.
5) You can’t increase distance forever. You must look within yourself to find a reasonable limit, which is not so much that you’re repeatedly subject to injury and exhaustion, but not so little that your legs fail to harden. For many people, this will be around 45 miles / 70 kilometres per week. More naturally talented runners will see incredible gains at lower distances, while the less talented will have to run higher volumes for the same fitness. Wherever your limit is, it should be well within your capabilities. You should not always be striving for maximum distance and failing to meet weekly goals.
Aside from the beginning and the end of your runs, which should be a little slower, the optimal running paces are generally those at which you inhale for two foot-strikes and exhale for two foot-strikes. This encompasses a wide range of speeds. Don't obsess too much about your pace or heartrate or anything like that. Keep your head up, look forwards, and think only about how you feel. Breath in, two footstrikes, out, two footstrikes.
For a few years, even in the absence of specific training, new runners will continue to see gains in speed – especially as they lose more civilian fat and become experienced in managing and compartmentalising pain and exhaustion. Sooner or later, though, to see further improvement, you’ll have to begin specific speed and endurance training.
Advanced Running and Seasonal Training
Nobody can train at high intensity every day of the year. Rather, dedicated endurance runners train in phases. Your increase the intensity of your training to achieve a period of optimal fitness, when there will be great hunts, or raids, or campaigns, or (alas, in our civilian world) races you want to win. Afterwards, there will follow an off-season, where you scale back the intensity of your training, think about new goals, and work on other aspects of your fitness.
Until this point, your focus has been on avoiding injury and increasing your weekly distance. More advanced runners retain this interest, but they also begin to think more seriously about pace. How fast are you running, over what distances, and how can you get faster? Now that your legs are hard, they’ll need new kinds of stress to get harder.
So far, your weekly runs have had only one distinction: The Long Run was longer than the rest. From here until forever, you’ll observe a second distinction. Some runs, workout runs, will be faster than the others.
You will keep your Long Run, where you complete 25–30% of your weekly distance. Now, however, you’ll pay attention to your pace on this Long Run. You'll start at a slow and comfortable pace, but you’ll want to run some of the middle or end distance at brisker paces, bordering on fast. The idea is to train your body to run hard even when tired.
Beyond speeding up some portion of your Long Run, you’ll add one or two structured workout runs to your weekly schedule. There should always be a day or two of slower, recovery running between Long Runs and workouts. If you run long on Sunday, then you should add your workouts somewhere between Tuesday and Thursday.
You should introduce these changes one week at a time. So, increase your Long Run pace one week, add a workout the next week, and a second workout the third week.
As you are introducing these harder paces, keep your distance constant. Never increase intensity and distance at the same time. Only after you have settled into a harder regimen for a few weeks should you consider distance increases again, if you want them.
Once you have introduced this increased intensity, it will be especially important to keep all your other runs slow. Their purpose is to provide gentle aerobic stimulus and increase blood flow to your muscles and help them adapt. Particularly runs after workouts and Long Runs should be at very slow, recovery pace. If you are a six-day-a-week runner, never take a day off after the Long Run. Your leg muscles need the blood flow of a recovery run to heal and adapt. Take the second day off.
There are whole books full of training plans and workouts. Read them, by all means, for ideas and inspiration, but if you understand the principles of endurance training, none of them are necessary.
The time-honoured principle, discovered independently by endurance athletes in different sports, is that it is optimal to do fifth of your training hard and the rest easy. Assume a 50-mile / 80 kilometre week: 40 miles /65 kilometres will be relaxed, and 10 miles / 15 kilometres will be hard.
How hard? Well, aside from your easy, conversational runs, you need to develop three other kinds of paces, specifically for workouts:
1) Interval pace: You’ll periodically run intervals over a variety of distances, generally from 200m to 1000m. Whatever the distance, interval pace is the pace at which you’re about 85–90% of the way to exhaustion by the end of that specific interval.
2) Tempo pace: This is the maximum pace you can sustain for 45 minutes to an hour. Tempo pace can start out fun, but it will start to feel increasingly uncomfortable after even ten minutes.
3) Marathon pace: This is a little bit slower than tempo pace; it is basically the maximum pace you can sustain over multiple hours. It’s how fast you’d ideally run a marathon.
Marathon pace is just under the brink of hardness, and so marathon-pace distance is a special case: Every third mile / kilometre at marathon pace does not count for the hard-distance total. If you run nine marathon-pace kilometres during your Long Run on Sunday, you only get to add six kilometres to the hard distance tally. Assuming an 80-kilometre training week, you’d still have 9 hard kilometres to run elsewhere.
Everyone has different talents, and will inevitably end up excelling at one of these paces more than the others. If you like intervals, you might think about specialising in middle-distance track events. If you like tempo runs, then 5K, 10K and half-marathon races will be your thing. If you like marathon-pace runs, well, your destiny is obvious. Wherever your talents and preferences lie, though, it’s a good idea to cultivate all three paces, for they’re mutually supporting and we can never know in what predicaments we’ll find ourselves.
Now to the workouts:
We want a mixture of intervals over 200m, 400m, 800m and 1000m; of tempo runs from three to five miles / five to eight kilometres; and of marathon-pace excursions of 10 miles /15 kilometres or longer. There are theories about how you should progress through these different workouts, whether you should start with short, fast intervals and progress to longer tempo runs, or the opposite, or do both on the same run, or whatever. Study the recommendations of famous coaches, by all means. Some of their training plans and workouts achieve unimaginable brutality and wring from you suffering and fitness you never thought possible. But you can also experiment. As long as you meet your hard distance quota and vary your workouts across all of these categories, you’ll get stronger, and the details just aren’t as important as many think. You should also invent your own workouts, because training is not about doing what teacher says.
In general, though, you’ll want to structure interval training like the run-walk intervals you began with as a noob. You’re shooting for the same kind of exhaustion. A simple rule is to run the interval, and then jog a recovery of equal or (if the intervals are longer) somewhat shorter distance. Ten 400m intervals with ten jogging 400m recoveries is an extremely standard workout. The recoveries count towards your hard-distance total, so this workout alone gives you five miles or eight kilometres. 400m tracks are common, but you don't need a track to do intervals, and it's probably best you don't run on one, because we want to get strong in the real world, and not in artificial gym environments. Also tracks are unnecessary because exact distance doesn't matter, as long as you are running the same distance for every interval.
Tempo runs are similar. You should be uncomfortable the whole way, but just over the brink of pain – not far into it, as in interval running. From about 10 minutes in, you should be fantasising about stopping. A good workout to build up to is a three-mile /five kilometre tempo run, followed by three minutes of rest; then a two-mile /three kilometre tempo run, followed by two minutes of rest; and a one-mile / 1,5 kilometre charge to finish. That’s six miles or almost ten kilometres for your hard-distance total.
Marathon pace is a thing you will have to discover with experience. It is a pace that feels quite fast and even uncomfortable, but that, to your surprise, you can maintain indefinitely. It is probably best to put some marathon-pace distance in the second half of your longer Sunday runs every week. You can also add tempo miles to your Long Run, or even intervals if you want. In general you should feel free to pick and choose from different workout paces on the same run to build up to your weekly total of hard distance.
Be flexible: If you don't like 200m intervals, then forget about them and run longer intervals instead. Ideally, though, you’ll visit each category (interval, tempo, marathon) every two weeks. That is to say, every two weeks, you should have done some intervals, some tempo running and some marathoning. That’s it.
Before and after the workout you want a warm-up and a cool-down of a few miles /kilometres. Generally, your workout runs should weigh in at eight to ten miles / 12 to 16 kilometre mark. If you are experimenting spontaneously with your own workouts, the main danger is that you will decide, when it begins to get hard, that you'd rather stop. Thus it is important to make reasonable plans ahead of time, as to your workouts, and stick to them.
The higher your weekly running volume, the bigger your hard-distance goals become. A few years ago, I was routinely peaking at around 90 miles / 144 kilometres a week, which meant that every week I had an enormous hard-distance assignment of 18 miles / 29 kilometres to get through. This is why higher-volume runners will either need to incorporate serious workouts into their Long Runs, or plan for two workouts a week.
Injury: Muscle soreness is common even for very experienced runners. Most of the time it doesn’t mean anything and will disappear as you run and your muscles become warm. Pain that increases as you run is an injury and requires rest to recover. If you are repeatedly injured, you must reduce or maintain your distance for a month or more before seeking to advance again.
Those are words of caution, but they are not the only words men should hear. They must also be told to persist. A lot of promising athletes, afflicted with what are in fact minor training setbacks, declare that they have ruined their knees or their hips or whatever the first time they encounter a problem. No other field of athletic endeavour is as full of cucked injury phobia as running. Of course, consult the physicians and the astrologers. Make the appropriate animal sacrifices. Some problems, however, are inevitable and most healthy young men can achieve tremendous fitness and run astounding distances. The chances that your knees are destroyed the first time they hurt are infinitesimal.
Running form: A lot of ghey essays have been written about this matter. Mostly they are wrong. The good form that strong runners manifest is an expression of their strength. You can’t cargo-cult form to make it work in reverse. Imitating the form of fast runners won’t make you faster. As a general rule, your form will become better and better, the stronger you get.
All of that said: If you have strange wear patterns on your shoes or run awkwardly in other ways, you must take stock before embarking upon hard training programmes. The most common problem beginners have is called overstriding. They leap forward too aggressively and then, upon landing with their leading foot, actually brake themselves and destroy their momentum. Half of the hobby joggers in the park are overstriding.
If you think this is you, the solution is an increased stride-rate. Inexperienced runners have a relatively low stride rate, and a relatively long stride length, for their speed. They are like cyclists who are pedalling in gears that are too high. If you increase your stride rate, you'll reduce your stride-length, and effectively shift to a lower gear. Some people proclaim that 180 steps per minute is optimal. In fact there will be tremendous variation, but your stride rate should not be very low; 160 foot-strikes per minute or less would be something to consider improving. This also applies to specific situations. For example, if you get bogged down on a long ascent, you’ll often feel a lot better if you simply increase the stride-rate. Alternatively, on a long level sprint, your stride rate will top out and for more speed you'll need to think about shifting into a higher gear by emphasising the pushback of your legs.
Another matter that affects form surrounds the problem of the hip flexors and their tendency to become less flexible, particularly in strong men who run and lift regularly. Often significant improvements in form can be achieved with gentle, regular stretches of the hip flexors. The only rule is that you should never stretch before you run. This was a terrible innovation of the regrettable 1970s hippie runners, and it increases the likelihood of pulling a muscle. Run first, then stretch.
Watches, shoes, equipment: Running is a minimalist sport. The more you run, the more modest investments in equipment will pay off, but as a rule you shouldn’t be scouring the internet for all the latest running gadgets and hitting the road every morning festooned with dozens of strange rattling electronic baubles.
As a noob grinding out those run-walk intervals, you only need a pair of comfortable athletic shoes and light workout clothes. At this stage you’re running at extremely low volume. The chances that any joint or muscle pain you have is down to bad shoes, rather than the weakness you are trying to purge from your legs, is very low.
Once you begin to run continuously and ditch the intervals, though, you’ll want to start thinking about investing in specialised running shoes, and you’ll have to confront the bizarre world of marketing scams, natural running cults, and angry dogmatic people telling you what you absolutely have to do. The running store clerks will subject you to a pseudomedical procedure known as “gait analysis” – generally by filming your feet while you run on a treadmill – and try to sell you shoes designed to correct alleged pronation problems. Be extremely sceptical of anybody who diagnoses you with “over-pronation” and tries to sell you “stability” or “motion-control” shoes. These are heavy, unbalanced running clogs designed to reduce the inward roll of your foot. I swear upon Zeus that this is total nonsense. There’s no good evidence that over-pronation is even a problem, that it leads to injuries, or anything, and there is moreover no evidence that motion control shoes meaningfully correct it. My own research, conducted with RunScribe sensors, is that even the most overbuilt horrifying motion control shoes reduce inward roll by only a few degrees on average.
I would urgently recommend telling the running store nerds that you’re not interested in having your gait analysed. Try on different shoes and run a few paces in them, and pick the ones that feel the most comfortable and that fit your feet the best. Secondarily, you’ll want shoes that are light. Some will prefer shoes with minimal cushioning and little or no drop between the heel and the forefoot. Others like a little more cushioning and a little more drop. You should avoid dogmatism here and experiment for yourself. I find that minimal shoes feel comfortable and precise on shorter runs, but that at longer distances and higher training volumes, I prefer to have a little bit more between my feet and the road.
The other piece of equipment to consider, is the running watch. These are GPS watches that can monitor your pace, estimate your heart rate, and help you time intervals and other things. You might find a running watch helpful even in the early stages of Noobery. You can use them to time your run-walk intervals, and might find the heart-rate and pace data they provide to be interesting or motivating. Just don’t develop the habit of glancing at your watch every five seconds. Keep your back straight and your head up.
You can spend a fortune on shoes and running watches, but you don’t have to. Older models, without the latest features that you don’t need anyway, work just as well and can be had at a discount.
Treadmills: Only for blizzards and hail storms.
Hydration: In general, the menace of dehydration is overemphasised. You should be able to get through your 45-minute run-walk intervals without drinking. In extreme heat, or on longer runs of 90 minutes or more, you should stash a water bottle somewhere, or carry a few Euros with you to buy a drink at a petrol station. If at all possible, avoid carrying water on your runs. If you’re doing long trail runs through the wilderness, get a hydration pack, to carry the water in a bladder on your back. I strongly advise against carrying water bottles in a belt around your waist.
Nutrition: First, as to workout-specific nutrition: You shouldn’t be bothering with this until you’ve advanced to longer runs of around 90 minutes or more. Running this long will slowly deplete the glycogen in your muscles; if you use it all up, you’ll discover a new form of exhaustion you’ve never experienced before, in which your legs become concrete and further running seems basically impossible. This typically happens to marathoners, but it can happen to you at much shorter distances if you’re not managing your carbohydrate intake well. Ideally, you’ll use specialised sports drinks with a 2:1 glucose/fructose mix. Glucose is the preferred fuel, but your body can only metabolise about 60g an hour. Fructose is metabolised by a separate pathway and allows you to exceed this bottleneck by another 50%. There are all kinds of philosophies about how much carbohydrate you should consume during longer runs, and when, and how often. I leave you to study the multitudinous advice for yourself. I generally go by feel. The main thing, is to remember that proper fuelling during a run will extend your range and power only somewhat. It’s not going to be miraculous, and if you’re having a lot of trouble maintaining energy for longer runs, the solution will be in fixing your overall diet, not your workout gel regimen.
About that general diet: If you’re not used to this, you’re going to experience your thrice-weekly interval sessions as intensive training sessions. You need to recognise that, in the scheme of endurance sport, these are extremely gentle workouts. You’re not actually burning that many calories. Don’t expect to spontaneously drop a lot of weight, and don’t start eating more to compensate.
My own experience, is that specific nutritional interventions start to pay off in excess of 45 miles / 70 kilometres of running a week. From this point, you’ll find that increasing your carbohydrate intake, to 60% or even more of your daily calories, will go a long way towards making you feel stronger on your runs. You achieve this primarily by focussing more on lean meats (fish and chicken), to reduce your calories from fat. When training at very high volumes, I’ve seen substantial benefits from pushing carbohydrate intake as high as 75% of daily calories, while keeping protein consumption relatively moderate.
Running at high volume takes a lot of time, and to save effort on cooking, I recommend getting a quality rice cooker, with a timer; and a sous vide, to cook all that chicken.
General fitness: Once again, your noob intervals – however tough they seem – are a gentle introduction to endurance sport. They do not, in themselves, constitute a complete fitness programme. You should also be moderately active on your rest days – whether rowing, cycling, or swimming, or even walking. Anything that gets the blood flowing through your leg muscles will increase the rate of your recovery and improve your progress.
This is also the place to acknowledge the unfortunate truth that endurance and strength training are in large part opposed to each other. Running even at moderate volumes, say 35 miles / 55 kilometres a week, will substantially limit strength gains. We must all make decisions about what kind of athlete we want to be, and where we’re most talented.