Updated: Mar 12, 2020
Becoming a better runner focuses on two key areas: speed and distance. When speaking of speed, I'm referring to the time it takes you to reach the finish point from the starting point. Distance refers to the length of a run in miles, kilometers, or another measure.
Speed definition. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary speed is:
the rate at which someone or something moves or travels
the rate at which something happens or is done
the quality of being quick
That is as good a definition as any other. Speed can also be considered an expression of power. Sprinters are powerful.
When speaking of distance, I speak of endurance, both muscular and cardiovascular. However, when I speak of muscular endurance and cardiovascular endurance, definitions are not so clear-cut. As of writing this, the Merriam-Webster dictionary does not offer definitions for muscular endurance or cardiovascular endurance. If you were to search online, you would likely find many definitions, some that are accurate and some not so much, with plenty of overlap from one definition to the next. I will define the terms as follows:
Muscular endurance is an expression of a muscle's ability to perform repetitions. This effort may not leave a person breathing hard, therefore exhibiting little effect on cardiovascular ability. The bicep curl is a good example of this. If you perform a bicep curl to failure, your muscle will give out, but you likely will not be gasping for air. By that same logic, performing a squat to failure may or may not tax the cardiovascular system, but it has a better chance of doing so. For example, if your one-rep max for the squat is 315, performing this one rep may tax your muscles but not leave you gasping for air. However, if you perform 15-25 repetitions with 185 pounds, it might.
Cardiovascular endurance is the ability of the cardiovascular system to deliver oxygen to the body over extended periods of time, such as in the process of running long distances. Understand that while muscular endurance is on display during running to some degree, your cardiovascular ability may give out before the muscles in your legs do. For example, if you walk a mile versus run a mile, given that you can currently do both, your legs will likely not be much more fatigued from one over the other. However, if you run a mile, your cardiovascular system will be taxed to a greater degree than if you walked that mile.
To run effectively and efficiently, a person must have muscular endurance and cardiovascular endurance. For example, if your legs can carry you but your lungs cannot keep up, then you will not become a better runner. If your lungs can keep up but your legs cannot carry you, then you will not become a better runner. The muscles in the legs, and indeed throughout the body, and the cardiovascular system must function properly and be trained effectively for you to become a better runner.
Running, as well as many other forms of exercise, can help a person improve his or her health and fitness. When using running as exercise, as well as other types of training, the cardiovascular (circulatory) system and respiratory system receive stimuli. This stimulus causes the breathing to accelerate, heart rate to increase, and the flow of blood through the body to increase. The body attempts to deliver oxygen to the various parts of the body involved with running, while at the same time keeping the entire body in a safe state, for example, by releasing sweat to help the body cool to keep from overheating due to the exertion involved with running.
During the process of running, you will improve your cardiovascular (circulatory) system and respiratory system. You will improve lung function, heart function, and blood vessel function.
The Different Types Running
Most people have a basic idea of what running is, how it is displayed, and the types of exercise that can improve it. However, I want to take a few moments to break running down into a few distinct categories.
Sprinting (short-distance running)-in Olympic sprinting, the 100-, 200-, and 400-meter sprint are current contested events. To put this distance into context of miles, the 400 is roughly a quarter-mile and the distances shorten from there. This type of exercise, training, and competition focuses on max speed over short distances. However, sprints may cover other distances, such as 300-, 600-, 800-, or 1500-meter distances, especially in training, though distances above 400 meters are generally considered mid-distance events, especially in competition.
Mid-distance running-distance running is commonly referred to as anything over roughly two miles, so by that logic, mid-distance running would be anything above the 400 (quarter-mile) but below two miles. This type of running still has a strong focus on speed but starts to get into the realm of cardiovascular endurance.
Distance running-as noted above, it is commonly accepted that anything over roughly two miles is considered distance running. However, this definition gives way to wide interpretation. For example, a 3k, 5k, half-marathon, marathon, and ultra-running are all examples of distance running, but place far different levels of strain on the body. At the same time, the exercise and training for the different distance running methods vary widely, though overlap occurs.
Training Methodologies for Running
When training for running, people may commonly find themselves focusing on either speed or distance. This approach is acceptable and is the path to becoming a specialist. However, unless a person is looking to become a high-level sprinter or distance runner, he or she should focus on both. The reason for this is that both methods of training have merit, in that each train the body in different ways. By training for both speed and distance, a person will be fitter as well as healthier overall, and will likely see better progress in running.
Training for speed- to some people, training for speed focuses solely on sprint style of workouts, specifically runs that cover distances of no more than 400 meters or quarter-mile. This type of exercise, training, and competition focuses on max speed over short distances. This approach may include sprinting 50-400 meters at a time with long rest intervals between sprints, though some sprints will have short rest periods between, to improve recovery time needed. Generally, there will be some focus on running distances greater than 400 meters, such as 1-2 miles, for general improvement in cardiovascular ability.
However, it should be noted that all competitive runners train for speed and most recreational runners will as well. By that I mean, if you are a marathon runner trying to improve your marathon time, you are training for speed. A decrease in time correlates with an increase in speed—it's that simple. However, at the same time you're still training for distance—overlap in the training styles occur.
The only way a person is a purist only training for speed is if that person never tries to increase distance. For example, if you only train 800-meters or less and never try to increase distance, you're only training to improve speed at distances of 800-meters or shorter. Training in this manner does occur, but may not be the best path to results.
Training for distance- distance running, when including mid-distance and long-distance, is generally accepted as running distances more than two miles. However, this definition gives way to wide interpretation. As already noted, a 3k, 5k, half-marathon, marathon, and ultra-running are all examples of distance running for which a person may train but place far different levels of strain on the body. At the same time, the exercise and training for the different distance running methods varies widely, though overlap occurs. A focus on sprint work may occur, but will be used by and large with the intent to integrate bursts of speed into distance running, to overcome an obstacle or competitor.
In reality, all competitive runners train for distance to some degree. The sprinter generally has longer runs, such as a 2-, 5- or 10-mile run, though the exact distance varies based on the sprint event, runner, and coaches training methodology.
The only way a person can be a purist to training only for distance is if the person never tries to increase speed and only tries to increase distance. Essentially, you would always have to target the same speed and per mile pace and only increase the intensity of the workout by adding to the duration of the run.
The overlap- training for running, regardless of competition for athlete or goal of the recreational runner, focuses on speed and distance. The way this is approached varies based on the runner, goal or competition, and training/coaching style. For example, the speeds and distances used by the marathon runner will differ from that over the sprinter, just as the training for a sprinter at one run club will vary from that of a sprinter at another run club.
Running on a Treadmill versus Running Outside
For no good reason outside of competition, there seems to be an ongoing debate as to whether a person should run on a treadmill or outdoors. Simply put, do what works for you. There are proponents of each methodology and pros as well as cons to each approach. I'll list of some of the pros and cons of each. These lists will not be exhaustive, but rather some of the perceived top pros and cons.
Easy to track stats
Entertainment distraction (TV, for example)
No variance in environment
Cannot account for changing terrain
Requires less work due to treadmill assist
Easier to complete due to lack of environment factors
Changing environments may equal less boredom
Provides real-world application of running
Requires full effort of body (no treadmill assist)
Harder to complete due to environment (this may or may not be a pro based on who you ask)
On city streets, running can be hazardous (curbs, cars, weather conditions, etc.)
Environment can impede running performance (extreme heat, cold, etc.)
No real-time tracking (unless you have a running watch, app for your phone, etc.)
Can be just as monotonous as treadmill running
Track running is kind of the middle-ground for road running and treadmill running. This is especially true of indoor tracks. The positives of indoor track running are:
Easily measure distance
Track time with a stopwatch
No concerns about weather
Can stop for water or rest at any time without concern for surroundings
Fewer hazards ((curbs, cars, weather conditions, etc.)
Less boredom (maybe)
What does the running world say?
If you search the internet even briefly, you'll runners and coaches who make broad claims about the efficacy of treadmill running versus road or track running. These people may even cite studies that support their point of view. However, if you look enough, you'll find studies that conflict, studies that used on small populations, and otherwise find studies that do not definitively determine what the best approach is. In reality, no study can determine this.
One of my credentials is a run coach certification through Run S.M.A.R.T. Project by Jack Daniels, PhD and his team. Daniels notes in his book 'Daniels’ Running Formula' that treadmill training is a reasonable option when properly utilized. He provides examples of persons who could not run outside, such as the sailors on a Navy vessel or the people living in areas where extreme heat or cold occur (Texas in the summer or Wisconsin in the winter) and notes how treadmill running can allow these people to train year-round in a safe and effective manner.
Daniels himself used treadmill running when working at university and he coached various athletes who used treadmill running, such as the man who posted a 2:09:00 marathon time while using the treadmill to clock 20-mile runs each week. But still, though he is an expert in the field, this is just his opinion. And now I'll give you my opinion.
Unless you are a competitor, do what works for you. In the beginning, I ran in place in my apartment on main street (this sucked). It was during the winter and weather can get bad (below freezing, sometimes sub-zero temps, and snow with ice). At least once every winter, the city posts a "do not travel," meaning unless necessary, locals are not to be on the roads.
Come spring, I began running outside. I had a five mile stretch that started at my apartment and covered the running trails that were a few minutes from my place. During the spring, early summer, and early fall, this was a comfortable path to run. I'd sweat my butt off, only passed the occasional runner, biker, or pedestrian, and had a wide, hazard free trail to run. There were some issues though.
A river ran beside the trail. During the warmer months, the area around the run path became very humid and every breath was like taking a deep breath in sauna. On top of that, much of the trail had no canopy, meaning I was exposed to the sun for five miles every day. Beyond that, when I tried to extend my path into the wooded area in the "swampy" section, I was attacked by mosquitoes. I literally got bit upwards of 50 times (okay, maybe it was less, but those little bastards started biting me as soon as I entered the area and did not stop until I exited). Still, I ran this path for years. Then I moved into the country.
Once I moved into the country, I did not have a safe path to run. There were no sidewalks, no running paths, and nowhere to run but on the road or in someone's yard. The roads were hilly, and this limited visibility. People sped down these roads with little regard for persons on foot. Simply put, these were not the best roads to run.
I began driving down to the trail, but this became a problem. To complete my non-running workouts, I had to hit the gym or use the equipment I had at home. To fit in a run after, I had to pack up any gear I needed, get in my car and drive 15-30 minutes (depending on traffic). Once at the path, I had to lock my water and everything else in the car, carry my keys with me, and complete my run. I then had to drive back home. This process could take up to 90 minutes, with only 30 minutes of that run time. Add in my non-running workouts, and I could easily have 150 minutes of time devoted to workouts each day. This was not manageable. My running suffered as did my other workouts. This was not ideal. This is when the treadmill became helpful.
Whether at the gym or training at home, the treadmill enables me to complete my workout in a convenient manner. For many people, that is the appeal of treadmill running. I ran outdoor for a few years and I've run on a treadmill for almost 10. There are pros and cons to each, all of which were already covered. Running on a treadmill can be boring, but Grace completes sessions with me. An engaging conversation makes the time go by easier. On top of that, we have a TV in the room, and I can watch training videos that help keep me in the groove. Especially for longer runs, this can be helpful.
The exception is if you are a competitor. While the treadmill can be used, the primary method of running should be on surfaces similar to what you will run in competition. For example, if you are a road competitor, then you should primarily run the road. If you are a track competitor, you should run the track.
Toe Running vs. Heel to Toe Running vs. Midfoot running
There are two distinct styles of running. The first is toe running, during which a person only contacts the ground with his or her toes and ball of the foot. This runner kind of “bounces” on the ball of the foot when running, without striking of the heel to the ground (or with minimal heel strike).
Heel to toe runners strike the ground first with their heels, then transition to the midfoot, before pushing off the ball of foot/toes and bringing the opposite heel to the ground.
Toe running can be less impactive for many people, as the style of running allows a kind of bounce that acts as an informal method of shock absorption. Heel striking in heel to toe running can be more impactive due to the entire weight of the body coming down on each heel with each step.
Midfoot running means the runner contacts the ground primarily with the midfoot before transition to the push-off. It is kind of a middle ground between the two other styles and my preferred foot strike pattern.
The running style you use is entirely up to you. You should go with what is more comfortable. If you do not know, then test out the styles of running and find which allows you to perform best while reducing impact.
Do note that most people will have different strike patterns based on how fast the person goes.
A Quick Note About Running Shoes
A good pair of running shoes will save your feet and help improve your runs. Proper running shoes will help absorb impact associated with running, thereby putting less stress on your joints and body overall. At the same time, shoes that fit well will help keep your feet from slipping inside of the shoe, allowing you to have a more stable step and to generate more power with each step as a result. This action will reduce effort on your part, saving energy during your run, which should allow you to run further. This is not to say that a shoe will increase performance in some drastic way, but instead a good shoe will help support performance.
The shoe you choose is up to you. While I could offer specific recommendations, each person, yourself included, has a unique foot, financial constraints, and style preferences that weigh into the choice. You must go with what works best for you.
Even if I were to offer suggestions, I could not say that one shoe is definitively better than the next, as this is an arbitrary statement based on preference. In the past, I used Nike, Fila, and other brands. Currently, I use Reebok.
Building a foundation
Just like I recommend cardio for our strength clients, I recommend some form or resistance training for our running clients. You must have a good foundation to excel in any one area, let alone multiple areas.
At Nathan DeMetz Personal Training we consider four moves to be foundational movements, upon which all other exercises will build. These are:
Squat—develops lower body ability, with focus on the anterior and posterior sections as well as lateral and medial sides of the body
Hip-hinge—primarily focuses on lower-body posterior muscles, but does work the upper body and anterior, lateral, and medial portions for the body
Overhead movement—develops overhead strength by building performance in the arms, shoulders, and torso across all sections, though some areas receive more focus than others.
Running—this is why you’re here, of course. You understand the need for running and desire to become better at. There is no need for us to go into greater detail here.
Though you are here for the running, I highly recommend you include some sort of resistance work. The way you do so is up to you, but I suggest you include at least 1-2 day per week during which you engage in weight-based or calisthenics-based strength exercises. Again, all our clients perform a squat, hip-hinge, and overhead press movement, though other exercises are generally included as part of the resistance portion of a running training program.
Nathan DeMetz holds degrees in Exercise Science, Business Administration, and Information Technology as well as certifications in strength and conditioning, sports nutrition, run coaching, and other areas. His credentials come from organizations such as Indiana Wesleyan University, Ivy Tech College, and the International Sports Sciences Association. Nathan has 17 years of personal and professional experience in the health and fitness world. He works with people from across the globe, including locations such as Kuwait, Australia, and the USA.