Training

10 Tips to train smarter, not harder

Jun 2, 2020

Runner training for a race

1. Mileage isn’t everything

Being a runner who comes from an ultra-marathon background, this came as quite a hard thing for me to come to terms with. Improvement can often become a bit of an obsession, but running harder, faster and further doesn’t always mean improving, in fact it can have the opposite effect. Try avoid the trap of thinking ‘running further means faster times’.

This is definitely not the case. Everyone is different and we need to find the balance between effective training and over training. What works best for me may not necessarily work for you.

Find your training sweet spot (by trial and error) and then stick to what works for you, making gradual improvements week on week.

2. Avoid back-to-back hard days and establish a routine

Allow yourself the time to recover. If you don’t, then the training session can actually have a worse effect on you, compared to if you didn’t do anything at all. When we train, we break our muscles down. Recovery is giving time to your muscles in order to rebuild. This is just as important as the training session itself, if not more important. Not giving yourself enough time for sufficient recovery will jeopardize your training, adversely causing a regression in your times.

3. Find hilly training routes

Most runners look at a hills and run in the opposite direction. Hills are hard, they slow you down and reduce your average pace, so why would you do them? Hill training and finding hilly routes is crucial to training, even if your target race is as flat as a pancake. Hills help build the muscles you need (especially your quads) for consistent, niggle free running. Other benefits include  increasing your heart rate, as well as helping you improving running form. It’s really easy to find the flattest possible route and make this your daily running route but if you choose the more difficult option, you’ll thank yourself when you start seeing the results.

4. Cross train and remain as flexible as possible

Cross training was something I completely neglected in my early running days. With the Comrades marathon being my main goal, I was fixated on always trying to increase my running mileage. I would have been far better off, had I known what I know now.

Most recovery sessions can be done on a bike or the Elliptical machine. These non-impact recovery sessions are very beneficial in the way that they reduce the amount of time it takes for your body to recover. Yes, I know as a runner, nothing is better and gives you more of a buzz than actual running itself, however, try incorporate a few non-impact recovery sessions into your training and you’ll see the improvement and speed at which your body recovers.

Running makes your muscles tight.  The more you run, the tighter your muscles get, so you need to give them the increased love and attention they need. I think I’ve spent more hours on my foam roller than I have spent looking at running shoes. It’s not the most fun thing in the world, but it really helps loosen tight muscles and it’s easy to do this for 10 minutes in front of the TV.Also try stretch as often as possible.

5. Keep training structured and train according to your targeted race distance

It’s vital to establish a structured routine that, if done consistently, will give you the peace of mind to know that you’re improving. A typical training week for myself and a lot of runners who I am coaching will look something like this:

– Monday (easy day): Recovery session (can be done running, cycling, or on the elliptical machine)

– Tuesday (hard day): Track (interval session)

– Wednesday (easy day): Recovery session (can be done running, cycling, or on the elliptical machine)

– Thursday (hard day): Tempo or hill session

– Friday (easy day): Rest or very slow jog

– Saturday (hard day): Usually a hard parkrun or race, but in this day and age, a virtual race

– Sunday (intermediate day): Easy longer run

6. Train according to the race distance

Whether I’m training for a 5k, marathon or ultra-marathon, I’ll still use the above structure in my training, but obviously vary the distances and intensities. Double run days can also be added if required. Track volume, the amount of hill repeats/tempo sessions and the distance of your long runs should be in-line with the targeted race distance you’re currently training for.

7. Fuel and allow yourself to mentally prepare before big sessions

Fast running is becoming more and more popular. Not eating or fuelling before an easy run is fine. However, when it comes to your tougher sessions, it’s important to fuel properly and provide your body with the energy that’s required to give your best for the session. Tough sessions burn a lot more calories than easier sessions. What you want to avoid is depleting your body during these sessions because once you’re at that level, there’s no coming back. I like to eat at least an hour before a hard session. A typical pre session meal/snack for me would be energy bars, protein bars, shakes, muesli – just thigs that are easy to digest, provide good energy and won’t leave me with a stitch. Porridge and bananas are also great sources of pre-session fuel.

Tough sessions can require just as much mental energy as they do physical energy. It’s not easy running a session at your threshold pace and maintaining that limit for an extended period of time. Your mind will always give up before your body does. I allow for at least 10 minutes to mentally prepare before these tough sessions, knowing that once I start, I’ll be able to give it my all and walk away knowing that was the best I could do.

8. Don’t run in your shoes for too long

Avoid doing any mileage in shoes that are worn out and need to be replaced. If it’s not physically obvious that your shoes need to replaced, but they feel flat and are causing niggles you didn’t previously have, then don’t try squeeze a few more kms out of them. It’s not worth the risk.  .

Now for the million dollar question – how many kms can you run in a shoe before in needs replacing? The answer is – it varies from shoe to shoe and person to person. I generally get around 500 – 800kms, occasionally 800 – 1,000kms per pair. I prefer not to run to an exact mileage rule, but rather according to the feel of the shoe. As soon as they feel flat (even if they physically look great and don’t show signs of being worn out) I get a new pair of shoes. A very common mistake made by runners is to over train in shoes, which can quickly cause injuries.

9. Pick the right race

You can’t race week in and week out, so be wise in choosing the correct race for you. Things I like to consider before picking my events are:  the time of year, what the route is like (hilly, flat, lots of turns), the size of the race, location of the race, amount of support etc. You can obviously race a lot more 5km races in a season compared to marathons, as you recover a lot quicker. What I like to do and encourage my other athletes to do as well, is to pick their main target races for the year. Then plot a race calendar around these and be sure not to plan any too close to the important races which could jeopardise them.

10. Set goals and measurable targets

A great way to do this is to run the exact same route once a week to see where your times are for that week and measure them according to previous performances. I used to do a 5km ‘fitness test’ every week at my local parkrun. I now do this during the virtual races and the solo time trials I’ve been doing. This gives me a great idea as to whether I am improving or whether I need to make minor tweaks to my training. It’s impossible to run a PB every week (even though we’d all love to).  You’re going to have good weeks and not so good weeks. The main thing to aim for is to try your best to be better, faster, stronger than yesterday and that’s all we can ask for.

Nick Bester


Nick Bester is a passionate runner and online coach who has achieved 3 silver Comrades medals, the fastest in a time of 6:28:52. He has also completed 23 consecutive sub-3 hour marathons.

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