How to improve your running in the off-season

As the season draws to a close, maybe it's time for a change; namely more running and run races. Andy Blow explains


For most people the ultimate question is: ‘What is the meaning of life?’ Yet, for triathletes, the greatest dilemma is more along the lines of: ‘How can I achieve multiple personal bests next season, while crushing my rivals like ants?’


One popular approach is to swim, bike and run like a maniac all winter and then expect results across the board next year. But those treading this path usually learn that improving all three sports at once is like the Holy Grail quest, and leaves you with a broken body and spirit.

A more measured and long-term approach is to work selectively on one element of the sport until you master it. And why not your running? After all it’s often the most crucial discipline, the one on which most races are won and lost. Endless swimming can be boring. Lapping the pool every day may well make you more slippery in the water, but its mind-numbing properties and inevitable ‘eau de chlorine’ whiff won’t have a positive impact on your social life.

The gains made by increased run training are for life, not just for Christmas. This is because any advances that come from focused running overload in the off-season can easily be maintained with a few key sessions during the rest of the year.

It will make you more robust and resilient to run training and racing – and will also make you more aware of how to pace yourself. Get motivated to race competitively and you will sharpen up while your rivals fatten up on stodgy comfort foods.

Add to this the tremendous psychological benefits of making measurable improvements in your running and you are faced with a win-win situation. You can’t beat the feeling of a new personal best to inspire you when the UK is shrouded in darkness and Hawaii seems a long way away….

How to do it?

Well, ‘steady as she goes’ is the mantra. Dave Bedford (World Cross-Country Champion in the Seventies) was famous for a regime of up to 240 miles per week, impressively fuelled by six to eight pints of the amber nectar most nights. While this may sound like fun, it’s not a strategy that’s recommended in more traditional coaching manuals.

Measured progression is key, initially increasing the frequency of steady sessions (the number of runs each week) before later adding volume. Do this in the early autumn, allowing for shorter sessions with more recovery time for muscles, hydration levels and energy stores.

Even running twice daily can be a good idea. For example, a day with a 10-mile total, split between a four-mile easy run in the morning and six-mile tempo in the evening (to work and back?) increases the quality attained in the six, but has added overload from the easy four. Believe it or not, running twice daily, twice a week could actually make you less injury prone in the long-term. To make this phase as safe as possible, build up slowly, applying the old adage of a maximum 10% per month increase.

Once frequency is up to a point where you’re running steadily most days of the week (five to seven days for experienced athletes; three to five for novices) and have been doing so for about a month, it’s essential to introduce more specific sessions. The three basic weekly ingredients of this are: speedwork, longer runs and tempo/hard steady-state runs or races.

Speedwork should aim to coax out your basic mechanical efficiency at just above race pace (this could be 5km, 10km, half or even full-marathon pace depending on your goals). Critically it needs to be gently progressive in either distance or pace to have the desired effect. A classic example of this is Peter Coe’s training method for his son, Seb. Coe Senior moved the cone that marked the end of his son’s rep a little further each week without telling him, while demanding that Coe Junior ran the same times. This clearly worked like a dream.

Longer runs might combine one of your twice-daily sessions from 2 x 45mins to 1 x 90mins. In the winter, this should ideally be done off-road on a hilly course. This will increase strength and aerobic efficiency, while the softer surfaces will be kinder on your hips, knees and legs.

High-end tempo runs and low-key races are great to nudge your lactate threshold (the point at which your body becomes anaerobic and lactic acid builds up) to a higher pace. Running for 20-50mins at your maximum sustainable pace is the prescription here. Generally, training runs tend to be just below threshold and races at or slightly above, as the adrenaline of the competition squeezes that little bit extra out of your mind and body.

In reality, a mixture of the two is the goal: races can accelerate improvement, yet doing too many risks injury and fatigue; tempo runs alone won’t create a great breakthrough, but are relatively safe. See Off-Season Run Races box above for ideas about where to compete.

Retaining bike and swim fitness

Relax. Just because running comes to the fore, it doesn’t mean you’ll start swimming like a breeze block and that your biking legs will turn into twiglets. One or two sessions a week (maybe alternate two bikes/one swim and vice versa) is enough to hold onto your existing form for a few months. Make sure that the sessions that you do contain an element of race-specific speed and technique practice, though, rather than cruising through easy workouts.

Once late February/early March arrives and your focus shifts back to a more balanced programme, you’ll be surprised by how quickly your other sports improve as you throttle back the running and refocus. From then on, keep up with regular key sets of run speedwork and tempo (plus the odd long one every few weeks) to maintain your newfound form.