Real-World Running

Adapting scientific theories to your training plan is the key to running faster. Four top age-groupers tell Joe Beer how they’ve done just that


Scientific training theories are all very well but, when you’re not in the laboratory, the real world has a nasty habit of getting in the way. The secret to running faster is to adapt those theories to your own circumstances: your capability, your goals, your free time and your location.


This feature looks at four athletes’ favourite run session and how it benefits them. Each one competes at a different multisport distance or event. More importantly, each is an age-grouper with real-world pressures on the time they have available to train, and yet, when it comes to the run, each of them can compete with the best in their category.

As a coach, I’ll add my two pence worth to interpret their session and explain what it achieves for them and also how you can adapt it to meet your needs.

Best foot forwards

As a multisport athlete, you aren’t like a ‘normal’ runner. When it comes to racing, by the time you start running your legs are already heavy from the previous running, swimming or biking sections. However, with training, experience and mental preparation you can still improve your race run times.

Running is very much about being lean, or at least at the lighter end of your personal weight range. So, if you’re still 2-3kg heavier due to Christmas, you won’t run well. It’s time to lose that weight if you want to run faster. You also need to run efficiently so you waste as little energy as possible, and that means running smoothly, because smooth running means faster running. Some of the favourite sessions of the athletes featured here involve training near to race pace to get that smooth, fast feeling ingrained.

So, without further ado, let’s meet the four age-groupers who have agreed to reveal their run secrets. Each has picked their favourite session from the training programme they’re following at this time of year. They have adapted their sessions to suit their particular situation and needs, but each one is based on scientific training principles to develop a specific area of their performance. It works for them – just check out their top three results – and, with a bit of adjustment, it could work for you too…

The sprint-distance athlete

Name Debbie Sheridan
Age 50
Occupation Primary School Teacher
Lives Birmingham and Anglesey, North Wales
Years in triathlon 6
Weekly training 8-12hrs
Top 3 results 1st 50-54 Cotswold Sprint Triathlon 2006 – 1:06:25; 2nd 50-54 Bala Triathlon 2006 – 2:37:22
3rd 45-49 National Age Group Champs 2004 – 2:30:46

“My favourite session for this time of year is the ‘7-7-7’. Warm up for 12mins, before doing 5 x 1min fast, hitting 85% HRmax with a 1min jog in between. Then do 7mins @ 81% HRmax, 7mins @ 83% and 7mins @ 85%, continuously. After that, cool down with gentle running for 15mins.

“I really enjoy doing this session on the tracks around Newborough Forest, which is also sheltered from the prevailing winds. The warm-up is fairly straightforward along the main road to the forest, then I turn off and head through the trees. The quiet of the forest inspires you to run and I enjoy the change of pace. By the end of the third 7min set it begins to feel hard as my HR rises. Typically my HR can be averaging 160, 163 and 168bpm for each of the 7min sets, with a max of 172bpm.

“I take a track that leads to the beach as a cool down and finish by cooling my legs in the sea. I use a carb drink before, during and after the session, followed by real food or a recovery drink.”

Benefit: Fatigue resistance

Coach Beer’s analysis
This session deals with a longer interval than most people run and, with no rest between each 7min effort, it makes Debbie think about fatigue resistance as she ups the pace slightly for each effort. This is a good way to get used to running off the bike and to understand how the same pace can feel progressively harder.

Coach Beer’s tweaks for you
Debbie rightly uses the terrain and atmosphere around her to inspire her running and the soft surfaces mean there’s less impact compared to tarmac. The pace is fast but controlled and so lactic acid build-up only really comes into play if she gets it wrong or her fitness base is too small. If time is tight, you still get a solid 21min workout in the core of the session, enough to cause physiological changes without wrecking her. If you’re starting out, you can run a ‘4-4-4’, where you still go into the 80% HRmax zones, as Debbie does, but for less time. Importantly, you must still do it continuously – this isn’t a go-rest-go set. It’s about increasing your effort in a controlled manner. Less time doesn’t mean greater effort – when you can comfortably manage the ‘4-4-4’ session, move up to the ‘7-7-7’. This sort of session will help you run off the bike and improve your pace judgement.

The Olympic-distance athlete

Name Pete Robins
Age 35
Occupation Digital Media Advertising
Lives Raynes Park, South West London
Years in triathlon 8
Weekly training 8-12hrs
Top 3 results 1st 35-39 Ardingly Triathlon 2006 – 1:10:54; 7th 35-39 Royal Windsor Triathlon 2006 – 2:14:44; 1st 35-39 Sevenoaks Triathlon 2006 – 1:24:48

“I’ve probably got two favourite sessions: the ‘7-7-7’ [see Debbie Sheridan session –Ed], because of its specific nature, but then as a contrast I enjoy my weekly run home from work.

“Effort-wise, it’s pretty much all base/zone 1 (around 75% HRmax) at this time of year. I run from Central London, along the Thames and end close to Wimbledon. It takes between 1:30-1:45hrs. I manage to fit most of my gear and work stuff into a rucksack, which I hope helps build my strength.

“Given it takes at least 50mins on public transport to do the same route, it really feels like I’m beating the ‘commute system’ that traps most London workers. One of my business partners thinks I’m mad, but he played rugby for Wales as a flanker so what does he know?”

Benefit: Leg strength and aerobic endurance

Coach Beer’s analysis
This session is the key to being a multisport athlete: you need to multitask and use the time that others waste – and using your journey home to train is a perfect example of this. As long as you have no chronic back injuries and your rucksack doesn’t weigh the same as a small car, it’ll improve your leg strength. But remember: strength is nothing without speed so your rucksack must be light enough to allow you to move your legs quickly.

Pete keeps his HR in zone 1, which chills him out and gives a good feeling about beating the traffic. If you want to ensure you do a long run make it a point-to-point like this (for example, work to home). This saves you time and won’t affect your weekends, so you can leave them free for brick sessions, long rides or others.

Coach Beer’s tweaks for you
You can tweak this session by running just part of your route home (park your car halfway or hop on public transport for the rest of the journey) or running in your lunch hour. When daylight and your fitness allows, you can gradually increase the distance you run as much as needed.

Running to, or from, work saves time and allows you to beat the traffic but be sure you don’t get into a rut of doing it too many times a week, or racing it. Finally, remember: it requires discipline to stay around 75% HRmax level like Pete.

The Duathlete

Name Lee Piercy
Age 33
Occupation IT Project Manager and Business Analyst
Lives Bournemouth
Years in triathlon 8 (on and off)
Weekly training 8hrs
Top 3 results 1st 30-35 European Duathlon Champs 2006 – 2:03:24; 3rd 30-35 World Duathlon Champs 2006 – 1:57:31; Overall winner of Castle Combe Duathlon Series 2006

“This time of year my favourite session is a tempo run lasting approximately 1hr at a HR always below lactate threshold. I’m fortunate enough to live near the sea in Christchurch and close to forest and off-road tracks.

“I start with 15mins in zone 1 (<145bpm) as I make my way through fields towards Hengistbury Head (Nature Reserve and headland). As I climb to the top of the cliffs, I progress to zone 2 (145-160bpm). I then join the promenade and face either a stiff head or, if I’m lucky, tail wind.

“From here I pick up the intensity while keeping my HR below my lactate threshold. I then run up the ‘zig zags’ in Southbourne and meander through some side streets until I reach home. The route is around 9 miles. I’m typically exhilarated and energised after this run and feel like I’ve run at what I‘d deem to be a comfortable but swift pace, unlike a zone 1 recovery/low intensity session, which can leave me feeling lethargic at times.”

Benefit Aerobic endurance

Coach Beer’s analysis
This session speaks volumes for Lee’s maturity when it comes to training. It builds steadily to allow his blood flow, hormones and muscle temperature to get prepared for the harder work to come. Many athletes fail to do this and rush in to a session too quickly.

Coach Beer’s tweaks for you
Lee’s core effort is below lactic build-up point. This stimulates him without hitting the higher ‘red’ zone where his running technique could fall apart. It’s about doing just enough to get the stimulation from the tempo effort without having to kill yourself en route. Why? Well, Lee wants his best effort in his target races, not in the middle of nowhere, when there are no medals on the line. HR-wise you would expect to build up to 75-80% in the early stages then in the tempo effort aim for around 83-85% HRmax. However, if you don’t use a HRM this would mean a steady build-up where you can easily talk, then a 20min period where you can say up to six words before needing to breathe properly.

It’s hard to pinpoint the exact effort but tempo should feel comfortably fast without racing flat out. This session can be done in a lunch hour and as a second run later in the day – after you’ve swam/biked. It can even be used as a brick session for 70.3 (Half) Ironman athletes in the last 3-10 weeks before the race.

The Ironman athlete

Name Daron Perkins
Age 41
Occupation Social Work Team Manager
Lives Isle of Wight
Years in triathlon 14
Weekly training 6-12hrs
Top 3 results 4th (vet) The Longest Day 2006 – 11:01:34; 1st Isle of Wight Tri 2005; 7th Weymouth Middle Distance 2003 – 4:30:43

“My favourite session is a very hilly cross-country run over the Downs to the Hoy Monument (erected to commemorate the visit of the Russian Tsar Alexander 1 in 1814).

“My warm-up is a gentle stroll up the first hill, which is outside my door and takes about 6mins. After that, my aim is generally a brisk cruise but I have well-known time markers for various gates and landmarks and, given some of the hills are a challenge, it’s more like a fartlek session.

“I’ve been running the route for 12 years and I usually aim for 1:21hrs with a HR below 135bpm, which is my aerobic threshold. The air is clean, the views are absolutely great and I’m usually alone with my thoughts.”

Benefit Endurance building

Coach Beer’s analysis
Daron gets things spot on by warming up with a gentle stroll and breaking up the overall effort with changes of pace, called fartleks. Notice how all the athletes here take great care to cruise into the run instead of bolting straight out of the door.

Daron’s HR may seem low to some but he’s a ‘low beater’, with a HRmax of only 167. It means he stays below 80% HRmax, something less fit athletes couldn’t do running up a slope, let alone a hill. It also means the easy bits are easy and the harder uphill parts of his run are still very controlled and aerobic.

Many people think of fartleks as being fast, speed work, but the word actually means ‘speed play’, and here Daron’s ‘playing’ with running easy and seeing how fast the course lets him go. This approach builds good endurance and helps longevity – he’s still near the front at races (he was 15th at 2006’s Longest Day). If you want to follow in Daron’s footsteps, so to speak, it’s important to choose a course that’s not too hilly or you’ll blow past 80% HRmax and begin gasping.

Coach Beer’s tweaks for you
For beginners, and anyone who finds running a challenge, keep to rolling courses. Think cruising rather than pushing. Stave off the threat of long run boredom by including time checks (but don’t rush to meet them) and changes in terrain.

Get time in the bank and enjoy your run. But please, please, please don’t try to keep up with faster runners. Remember: it’s your longer run, not theirs.


Joe Beer is a former 220 Triathlon Coach of the Year and author of the training manual Need To Know Triathlon