Add Variety and Purpose To Your Run

One of the most wonderful things about running is that after a few weeks and months, if you keep your runs at a comfortable, conversational pace, your body adapts to the activity, and it becomes easier. Distances and paces that once seemed impossible and agonizing become doable and enjoyable.

But if you always go out at the same easy pace and cover the same distance all the time without really challenging yourself, can hit a fitness, weight, and place plateau. Ultimately, if you don't challenge yourself by ratcheting up the pace or the distance, you're bound to feel like you're stuck in a rut. One way to avoid a rut—and boost your fitness— is to give each work out a purpose.

The Perfect Variety

But it's not just a matter of running all out all the time. That would be a recipe for injury.

It's also the variety—not just the intensity—that offers the benefits. Mixing up the type of workouts you do—say doing long runs one day, speed work another day, and tempo work another day—you're stimulating different parts of your physiology.

Take a tempo run, long run, and speed session—a mix of workouts recommended by many coaches. Each workout is designed to works the legs and lungs in a unique way. Tempo work promotes efficiency so you can push stronger for longer with less effort.The long run develops endurance; speed sessions build aerobic power.Use the other days to recover with rest, easy running, or low-impact cross training (with cycling, yoga or strength-training), and you'll build full body fitness.

With just three key workouts a week, you can get fit fast, without getting hurt. By focusing on quality workouts, you can get maximum results with the time you have.

Three Day Work Week

Each week do each of these workouts, designed by coach and exercise physiologist Janet Hamilton, coach of runningstrong.com. On the other days, rest, cross-train, or run easy. Don't do any of these workouts back to back; that could lead to injury.

Tempo

What It Is:

Different coaches define a tempo run in different ways. Typically it means sustaining a faster than usual pace without breaking into an all-out sprint. This is roughly your 10-K pace. (To find your 10-K pace, use the running calculator at runnersworld.com/tools)

Why It Matters:

Tempo work improves efficiency so you can faster over a longer distance with less effort.

What To Do:

So rather than running 3 to 4 miles at an easy pace, warm up with 1 mile of walking or easy running. Gradually speed up to your 10-K pace, and hold it for one mile. Then recover with three minutes of easy running. Repeat that cycle two more times, then cool down with one mile of easy running. If you're more experienced, start after a warm up, start with 10 to 15 minutes at your 10-K pace, and build up to 20 minutes. Then cool down.

How It Feels:

While running at tempo you should feel like you stepped just outside your comfort zone. You shouldn't be huffing and puffing, but you should be able to feel your breathing.

Keep It Honest:

Every two to three weeks, lengthen the tempo segment of the run.

Long Run

What It Is:

Any run that's longer than your typical run.

Why It Matters:

Long runs build your aerobic foundation, endurance, and mental toughness.When you push your body farther or longer than you usually go, you produce more mitochondria (the powerhouses of the cells), more capillaries (which bring blood to the heart), and train your heart to pump blood more efficiently.Plus, you're getting psychologically accustomed to pushing on even when you'd rather pack it in.

What To Do:

Start with a long run that's about one-third of your total weekly mileage. So if you typically run 15 miles a week, start with a 5-mile long run. If you're targeting a half-marathon, you will ultimately want to be able to tackle a 11-mile long run to comfortably complete the race. If you have a time goal for the race, your longest runs should be slightly longer than the race distance, say 13 to 15 miles for a half marathon, or 9 miles for a 10-K. If you're training for a marathon, and shooting for a time goal, you should have one or two 22-milers under your belt before race day.

How It Feels:

Get into a comfortable, conversational pace that you can sustain and finish feeling strong.You should be able to chit chat without getting out of breath. If you can belt out your favorite tune, step it up a bit.

Keep It Honest:

Add 1 to 2 miles every 3 weeks. "It's helpful to hold your long run steady for a couple of weeks before you progress – you should feel like you've "conquered" the distance before you progress," says Hamilton.

Speedwork

What It Is:

Sessions where you're alternating between bouts of very hard running(at 95% of your maximum effort)and recovery intervals. Typically these are done at your 5-K pace.

Why It Matters:

Improves aerobic capacity, and helps you turn your legs over faster.

What To Do:

Warm up with 10 minutes of walking and easy running. Then alternate between running at your 10-K pacefor 400 meters (or one-quarter mile), then recovering with 400 meters of easy running.

How It Feels:

During the bouts of hard work, you'll be running near your maximum effort. It should feel tough to say more than 1 to 2 words at a time.If you can recite the question"Am I running fast enough?" without gasping for air, you're not.You should be able to say "this…(breath)...feels…(breath)...hard." "The goal is to have enough recovery to be able to do the next speed interval correctly."Focus on matching your target pace, not beating it," says Hamilton.

Keep It Honest:

Start with two 400-meter repeats, then move up to 4 to 6 400-meter repeats, alternating that with 400 meters of easy running to recover. Once you're comfortable, start cutting the recovery intervals to 200 meters. If you want to switch things up, keep the recovery intervals at 400 meters, but lengthen the bouts of hard work to 600 to 800 meters.