I've tried writing this post twice, but it keeps wanting to be book length. It will satisfy no one - it has a lot of math which will bother most (and won't satisfy the scientists). Don't worry: I also show how one can ignore it.
Continuous runs are defined differently by different people and thus there's confusion about the terms. There are recovery runs, easy endurance runs, pace runs, fast continuous runs, tempo runs, long stamina runs, time trials and races. I define them by per cent effort.
A standard "everyday" run is done at 80% effort. If one does a variety of distances at a variety of paces, the average is 80%. What this means is not obvious to most: if one typically runs 10 miles in 80 minutes, then 100% (racing) would be 10 miles in 80 x 0.80 or 64 minutes. It doesn't mean that one could actually run that fast; one would probably have to do some training at race pace. What then would 85% effort be? 64 / 0.85 or about 75 minutes. Already it becomes difficult to do the math in one's head!
One can calculate what 80% (or any other per centage) is for any distance. The more data one has, the more personalized it can be, but with only a weekly average or one race result, one can approximate. The equation I use is: 1.075 times log (miles) minus log (minutes) equals a constant. [Beyond 3.5 hours, it becomes 1.213 x log (miles) - log(min)=c.] This is based upon a linear regression of world records.
For a 3 hour marathon [180/0.8=225], the constant is 0.8272, which gives one mile in 6:43, 2 miles in 14:09, 10 miles in 79:50 and 20 miles in 2:48.
A recovery run is simply a run done at 75% effort. If one always ran at 75%, one would slowly lose fitness (70% is about a slow walk), but they are necessary to include if one also does runs at 85-90% and one doesn't take a day off. At 80%, one maintains one's fitness, above 80%, one gains. One can continuously improve by running just a hair above the average 80% and as one improves, that 80% mark shifts continuously. Trying to run too much above 80%, however, leads to overuse injuries.
A fast continuous run is one done at 85%, a tempo run at 90%, a time trial at 95%.
Using the 3 hour marathoner as an example again, 2 miles at race pace (6:52/mile) is 80%, 4 miles is 85%, 7 miles is 90%, 14 miles is 95%. Unlike what author Jack Daniels states, a marathon pace run can be any type of run, depending upon length. The same holds true for tempo runs; there is no such thing as "tempo run pace," despite the popularity of Daniels (and McMillan's training calculator).
For the same runner at a training pace of 8 minutes per mile, 10 miles is 80% and 20.5 is 85%. A long stamina run is thus the same as a fast continuous run, just done at a slower pace. To reach 90% at this pace, one would have to run 32 miles (42 miles is 95%)!
How to avoid all the math
One can also define these runs subjectively, which is far easier once one has a feel for them. Imagine doing a very long run. When one first thinks about where one is in the run, one is at 80% (except for those who compulsively check their watches every mile). The point at which one first thinks the run is getting difficult, of how much further it is to the planned end of the run, of whether it would be okay to quit, one is at 85%. When one reaches 90%, one has to make a conscious effort to keep going without slowing down and usually has to convince oneself every mile to do just one more mile. At 95%, one is forced to quit or walk; the reason this is not 100% is because with a race, one has competition, one tapers, one mentally prepares for that specific run.
Another way to look at these levels of effort is to think about how often one could do them. At the end of an easy endurance run, one should feel like one could do it again immediately, if one had to (though it wouldn't be easy). One can run 80% every day (I defined it that way). One could run 85% every other day. One could run 90% twice a week. One could run 95% at most once per week. If one looks back at the example of the three hour marathoner running at race pace, this turns out to be 14 miles per week regardless of the type of run! [2x7, 3.5x4, 7x2, 14x1] This turns out to be an important feature of marathon training; 75-105 minutes at pace per week (75 for a 2:30 runner, 105 for 3:30) is one of the best indicators that one is able to reach one's goal.
The upshot. Really.
The next posts detail other types of workouts, but one never has to do anything but continuous runs (unless one's a track racer). My best 10K and best marathon were both done just with continuous runs. The trick with continuous runs is that one cannot expect to improve if one does exactly the same workout every single day; sometimes run further, sometimes run faster than usual. That's all!
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