Training

The 4 most important sessions in a running week

Aug 16, 2020

nick bester - important training sessions

Before I mention the 4 sessions which I believe to be most important, your recovery runs can be just as important and should not be skipped.

The routine I follow for the 4 most important sessions are usually done on a Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday but you adjust the days. I occasionally skip sessions here and there but try my best to do these important ones religiously week in and week-out.

They are as follows:

1. Track/Interval Tuesday:

The main session within the week that improves and builds on your speed. When you initially start doing track sessions, the speed work often leaves you stiff, fatigued and barely able to walk, never mind run the following day. But as with anything, the more you do it, the more your body gets used to it. Track Tuesdays always hurt just as much but you get more used to the feeling and recover a whole lot quicker.

When looking to improve times over the 3k, 5k and 10k distance, shorter and faster intervals are the most beneficial. I would say the ideal track volume for shorter distance goals is somewhere between 3k-4k or 12 – 15 minutes.  Below are some examples of what some of these sessions might look like:

  • 20 X 200 meters (30 second recovery)
  • 10 X 400 meters (60 seconds recover)
  • 5 X 800 meters (75 seconds recovery)
  • 3 X 700 meters (75 seconds rest), followed by 7 X 300 meters (45 seconds rest)
  • 5 X 2 minutes (60 seconds recovery), followed by 8 X 30 seconds (30 seconds recovery)
  • 2 X 3 minutes (90 seconds recovery), 2 X 2 minute (75 seconds recovery), 2 X 1 minute (60 seconds recovery), 2 X 30 seconds (30 seconds recovery)

When looking to improve over the half marathon, marathon, or ultra-marathon distance, longer intervals are what you are after, building on stamina. You should be looking for around 6k-8k or 20–28 minutes of track volume.  An example of some of these sessions would include:

  • 20 X 400 meters (60 seconds recovery)

  • 10 X 800 meters (75 seconds recovery)

  • 7 X 1km (90 seconds recovery)

  • 4 X 1mile (2 minutes rest)

  •  5 X 5 minutes (2 minutes rest)

  • 2 X 5 minutes (2 minutes rest), 2 X 4 minutes (90 seconds rest), 2 X 3 minutes (75 seconds rest)

Just in case you were wondering, Kipchoge’s group usually does around 15km worth of track volume on their Tuesday session, but let’s just completely stay away from that.

2. Hill Repeat/Tempo Thursday

Runners often ask me which of these is more important, hills or tempo? The truth is they’re both just as important. I know one thing is for certain – I put this to a vote –  around 80% of runners prefer doing tempo sessions over hills (for obvious reasons). Depending on what you’re training for, one might take preference for a few weeks, but generally it’s pretty important to alternate between them every week.

Hill Sprints vs Hill Repeats.

If speed is what you’re after, then hill sprints is the session for you. If stamina is what you’re after, then hill repeats are the way to go.

An example of a typical hill sprint session could look something like this:

  • 14 X 25 second hill sprints (recovery is on the way down)
  • 18 X 20 second hill sprints (recovery is on the way down)
  • 25 X 15 second hill sprints (recovery is on the way down)

An example of a hill repeat session could be as follows:

  • 12 X 40 second hill sprint (recovery is on the way down)
  • 10 X 60 second hill sprint (recovery is on the way down)
  • 8 X 75 second hill sprint (recovery is on the way down)

Given what has happened over the past few months and no sign of official races going ahead anytime soon, I set myself a target of doing 16 weeks of consecutive hill repeats/sprints. I’ve currently completed 13 weeks and have 3 weeks to go. The point of this was to:

  • Build as much muscle as possible so that my body is able to handle the training load comfortably when I focus my training on a marathon.
  • Improve form.
  • Build the power needed to improve my speed over a shorter distance (3k, 5k, and 10k).

Tempo

There are many different definitions of what tempo is. but I classify tempo running as 85% effort level, a pace somewhere between your 5k – 21k pace. It should feel like you’re ‘working’ but not ‘racing’. You should be able to say a few words but not hold a conversation. When your session is done you shouldn’t feel as if you have emptied the tank – that’s not the point, save that for racing. I know it’s tricky when doing tempo in a group and it starts getting competitive with the speed constantly picking up, but trust me you’re far better off sticking to your plan, rather than getting caught up and feeling fatigued for a few days.

It’s also a great idea to add in a ‘float’ within your tempo sessions. This is a section where you reduce your speed by about 10%, giving the body a slight break before you start your next tempo set. If short distance goals are your target then ideally you want to be doing 4k–10k worth of tempo volume. A typical tempo session for this would be something like:

  • 4 X 1 mile tempo (0.5 mile float between sets)

  • 4 X 2km tempo (0.5 km float between sets)

If you’re aiming at longer distance goals, then longer tempo sessions are crucial within the build-up to a race to successfully chase down your target time. If this is your next goal then I’d highly recommend you do 2 weeks of tempo for every 1 week of hills.

A typical marathon tempo session would include anything from 14k–30k and would be as follows:

  • 5 X 3kms (0.5km float between sets)
  • 5 X 4kms (0.5km float between sets)
  • 5 X 5kms (1km float between sets)

Tempo sessions should be constant running without taking breaks but rather use the float as recovery.  I firmly believe in ‘progression tempo’ sessions. This is where you start off at an easier pace and gradually increase your speed as your run goes on. Running this way gets your body used to picking speed up the longer the run goes on for, which is the mentality that I and my athletes start a race with. It’s a lot more enjoyable and effective running a race this way, where you line up with the mentality of aiming for a negative or equal split, rather than going all out from the beginning and hitting a wall half way through. This session should only feel tough the last 3k-4k, at which point you should be going faster than your threshold pace. A tough session to get right but one that is so rewarding when you do.

3. Time Trial Saturday

This is the session in the week where you put all your training to the test allowing you to gauge exactly where your current speed and fitness are at. I often recommend doing this session on the same route where possible. This just gives you an accurate measure to see whether you’re improving or not. I loved doing my 5km ‘fitness test’ at Dulwich Parkrun. Even though Parkruns are generally a ‘fun run’ and not a ‘race’, it’s a great event to put your fitness to the test with generally some good competition around you. Even though you’re going as hard as you can for this weekly ‘fitness test’, your times should be as quick as they are in a race, the main difference is that you taper for the race as well as mentally and physically prepare for it.

4. Slow Longer Run

Regardless of your distance targets, the long run certainly should not be neglected. The distance might vary, for example, someone with short terms goals could have a longer run of 10k–15k, compared to someone with longer distance goals who could do 25k–35k.

The other 3 sessions I’ve previously mentioned are ‘harder sessions’.  This run should feel like an ‘intermediate’ effort. If you push hard in your long run, this will leave you stiff the next day, which isn’t what you are after and far from ideal for recovery.

I’m a firm believer in throwing a ‘Hot Spot’ or a pickup within your longer run. My definition of a hot spot is a 1km pick-up in the middle of your run, on a nice, fast, flat or downhill piece of road, done As. Fast. As. Possible! The point of this is to get your heart rate as high as possible and your legs turning over as quickly as possible. After this 1km hot spot, if you need to stop and catch your breath then do so, allowing your heart rate to drop before carrying on with your run. By only doing 1 hard km within your long run and the rest of it easy, you should be left feeling relatively fresh on a Monday, ready to kick the week in the a**. Like I’ve said previously, I skip sessions here and there, but these are the 4 within my training week I try do religiously week in and week-out!

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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