How to dominate at your local parkrun (hint – you have to run hard)

RunningI would consider myself a decent runner. I have been the first female finisher at my local parkrun 4 times now with a PB of 19:24 and I have broken 19 minutes for 5km (once) in a sprint distance triathlon. The photo is of me running the Noosa Half Marathon in 2012 for a time of 1:28:33. The following year I ran 1:27:21. At the moment I am not running at those speeds, but I do believe that one of the essential components of my training that allowed me to achieve my fastest run times was repetitions or reps at my 5km pace or faster.

Repetitions or reps

Training your body, as well as your mind, to run at 5km pace is imperative to improving your 5km time. When I was at my fittest running wise I was performing 7 x 1km reps on a 5:00 cycle once a week. I ran these reps at my 5km race pace or just faster. Yes, it was tough and it hurt (a lot!), but it was effective. I have been running consistently for over 10 years now, so I am a fairly experienced runner. If you are reading this blog post then I am going to assume that you are fairly new to running and are looking to improve your 5km time. Alternatively, you may be an experienced runner who has let their training slide due to work or family commitments. If this is the case then you already know what you need to do – start running those reps again and do them hard!

For the less experienced runners, I would suggest starting with 400m reps with a 2 – 3 minute rest in between, depending on how you are feeling. Start with 4 and see how you feel. If you feel absolutely exhausted, stop there and aim to increase the number of reps to 5 within the month. As you feel faster and stronger, increase the distance of the reps to 600m, then 800m. Eventually work your way up to 5 x 1km reps at your goal 5km pace, and even a touch faster.

If you not yet at the point where you are aiming for a specific time in the 5km, then begin by performing the reps at your 5km effort. By that I mean run the 400m reps at the effort that you feel you could maintain for a 5km race. As your running improves and you set your goal for a 5km race, then run your reps at your desired 5km pace.

I find tough sessions such as these reps to be more beneficial and slightly more enjoyable, or should I say bearable, when you feel rested and refreshed. Don’t try to do this session after a heavy weights session with a focus on legs or if you had a huge day at work followed by a poor nights sleep. In order to get the most out of a session like this you really want to be in the right frame of mind to push yourself.

A brief review of interval training

Still not convinced about repetitions for improving your running performance? Let’s have a look at the science then. I have previously posted about the benefits of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) compared to a continuous moderate-intensity based training protocol for improving physical fitness. I started digging further into the scientific literature to look at the impact of interval-based training on running performance. I came across a fascinating and in depth article (well I found it fascinating but then I am a scientist and I love training) entitled Interval Training for Performance: A Scientific and Empirical Practice (1). This article provides a detailed review of the history of interval training, starting as far back as 1910, and the physiology of interval training. I won’t go into detail about the physiological responses of athletes during interval training in this particular post.

The pioneers of interval training include the 10 000m Finnish Olympic championship runner, Hannes Kolehmainene, who was using interval training in 1912 at his specific 10km pace. His training regime included 5 – 10 repetitions of 3 minutes 5 seconds every 1000m at 19km/hour (that is insane)!

Interval training was popularized by the Czechoslovakian Emil Zatopek, who was a triple gold medalist at the 1952 Summer Olympics in the 5000m, 10 000m and marathon events. Emil Zatopek was known to perform intervals at his critical velocity, which was calculated from his personal best in the 3km and 10 km events (2). In fact, he was known to repeat up to 100 X 400m repetitions per day with 200m recovery in between (that is even more insane). Clearly this amount of reps is not necessary to do well in your local parkrun, but surely you are now understanding the effectiveness of repetitions.

The 1960’s saw the first scientific reports on interval-based training pioneered by the physiologist Per Oløf Astrand. Astrand studied 3 minute intervals and considered that this was one of the best forms of training to improve VO2 max (maximum rate of oxygen consumption) (3). Astrand and Christensen, another researcher in the same lab group, published further studies throughout the 1960’s examining the metabolic effects of interval training. By the end of the sixties various groups had conducted research on interval training and the general consensus was that the performance of highly trained athletes could be improved by utilizing interval training.

The 1970’s and 1980’s saw more exceptional runners use interval training. Examples include Sebastian Coe, a British middle-distance runner who won four Olympic medals, including the 1500m gold medal at the Olympic Games in 1980 and 1984, (4) and the North African runner, Said Aouita, another middle-distance runner who held the world records for the 1500 to 5000m.

As the technology to study the physiological responses to interval training became more advanced, it became evident that interval training performed at velocities close to the velocity associated with VO2 max results in improvements in VO2 max, in mitochondrial density and the rate of lactate removal (5), all of which will improve performance. One particularly relevant study showed that moderately trained recreational runners can improve both running economy and VO2 max within a short period (6 weeks) by exchanging parts of their conventional aerobic distance training with more intensive distance or long interval training (6).

Finally, I came across one recent study that should give you further motivation to start implementing intervals or reps into your training. This study is entitled Four weeks of sprint interval training improves 5km run performance (7). This study compared 20 participants, who engaged in a sprint interval-training program 3 times per week for 4 weeks, to 10 participants that did no training and found a significant improvement in 5km performance for those that engaged in the interval training. Although this study was conducted on untrained males, the results suggest that improvements in 5km performance can occur in as little as 4 weeks.

If you are ready to dominate at your local parkrun then start incorporating reps into your training today. Yes they are going to be hard and yes they are going to hurt, but if you REALLY want to improve your time then you must do reps.

Please refer to the Disclaimer on the About me page before embarking on any exercise program.

  1. Billat, L. V. (2001). Interval Training for Performance: A Scientific and Empirical Practice. Sports Med. 31: 13-31.
  2. Ettema, J. H (1966). Limits of human performance and energy production. Int Z Angew Physiol. 22: 45-54.
  3. Astrand, I., Astrand, P. O., Christensen, E. H, et al. (1960). Intermittent muscular work. Acta Physiol Scand. 48: 448-53.
  4. Sebastian Coe. BBC Sport. 9 August 2000. Retreived 23 May 2010.
  5. Brooks, G. A, Fahey, T. D., White, T. P. (1996). Exercise physiology: human bioenergetics and its application. 2nd ed. Mountain View (CA): Mayfield Publishing, 191-5.
  6. Franch, J., Madsen, K., Djurhuus, M. S., et al. (1998). Improved running economy following intensified training correlates with reduces ventilatory demands. Med Sports Sci Exerc. 30:1250-6.

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