Developing the aerobic metabolism is the number one goal of any distance runner. Why? Take a look at the percent energy contributions from the following three metabolisms, keeping in mind that aerobic means “with oxygen.”
|Distance||Aerobic %||Anaerobic %||Phosphogen %|
*There is a debate as to the exact percentage for the 1,600m, ranging from 80% to 85%.
The second key with the aerobic metabolism is that you can improve it year after year. This is why the best marathoners in the world tend to be older than the best sprinters in the world…and it’s why many masters runners, who come to running later in life, continue to run faster year after year.
The way I like to think about the aerobic metabolism is that you’re building your engine when you train aerobically. Now, you need a strong chassis to handle this engine (so LMLS and SAM work daily – videos here), but the key to your long term success as a runner, and the way you’ll run PRs at a variety of distances, is to continue to improve your aerobic system.
What follows are four fundamental aerobic workouts. They are presented in roughly the same progression that you would do the workouts, one per week for the busy adult and perhaps two per week for serious high school and collegiate athletes. The long run is the key aerobic workout of the week and I’m assuming that you’ll be doing a long run virtually every week that you’re training.
The key with all of these aerobic workouts is to run by feel, rather than running at specific paces. There is a time and a pace for race pace work, yet most of the time you simple need to run by feel. Running by feel allows you to train at the right level for that day. If you have higher than normal life stress and the assignment for the day is a progression run, you’ll still do the workout, but you might run slower than you did a few weeks prior. That’s fine! The key is that you have an aerobic stimulus and if you properly recover that night and the next day, you’ll have gained a bit of fitness. Distance running is a game of incremental steps forward; consistency is our goal, even though it’s not a glamorous goal. That’s fine – you didn’t think distance running was going to be glamorous, did you?
As you’ll see, all of the aerobic workouts are simple in their structure, yet as the iconic jazz pianist Thelonious Monk said, “Simple ain’t easy.” There is nothing easy about these workouts, so don’t deceive yourself into thinking that a simple workout won’t have you running near your capacity by the end of it.
These workouts should be done in the foundational phase of training. Foundational work is different than “base building,” a term that has historically meant putting in a bunch of easy miles, without strides and without non-running work. Foundational training is training that includes strides, LMLS and SAM, rope stretching, plus things like pool walking or pool running a time or two each week to ensure proper recovery. You’re laying a foundation, not building a base. When you and your coach have done a few months of this work you can move on to doing some race specific work (work that may or may not have you tapping into the anaerobic metabolism during the workouts). You’ll need a coach to help you organize your training sessions, your training weeks, and your blocks of training, but if you can’t hire a coach for an entire year, doing 1-2 of these workouts a week, plus a weekly long run, plus all of the components in foundational training, will put you in a great position to do race pace work when you hire a coach.