top of page

Your Cheat Sheet: Understanding 10 Different Runs in a Marathon Plan

Remember the day when you first looked your new training program and thought to yourself, "what the heck have I gotten myself into?"

Was it because of the MONTHS of work you just signed up for?

Or the new, scary distances you'd be conquering?

Or was it this new running language that you were 95% sure was all made up?

Ok, it might have been a mixture of all three.

But regardless, if there's something EVERY runner should learn, it's what the heckin-heck all these different running terms/words/things mean.

If you've ever been confused over a threshold intervals run vs a fartlek, you're not alone, even if you've been running for 10+ years like I have.

Why all the confusion anyway?

  • Because we have a lot of different ways of saying the same thing


  • there are enough differences between 2 different but similar runs that they still need different names, but belong to the same "running family".

What the heckin-heck am I talking about?

I'm talking about a fantastic (and convenient) glossary that was published in a recent research article: "The Training Characteristics of World-Class Distance Runners: An Integration of Scientific Literature and Results-Proven Practice."

Just to clarify, this doesn't mean YOU have to smash all of these different type of runs into your next training plan because you "have to be" a world-class distance runner!
Always run your own race; train the way that's best for your mind and body; and trust your training.

At the same time, why not learn from the best and years of running data and discover exactly why type of runs they use?

Because you might find, you're already doing it.

***Ok, so maybe you already have a solid marathon training plan that you know and love. But do you have hip mobility exercises, a runner-specific strength workout, and speed and sequencing drills so your body knows how to MOVE like a runner?? NO? Click HERE!***

3 Different Categories of Runs

Let's start here, where everything is fairly big picture. Then we'll dive into specific details. This week's research article gives us 3 umbrella terms where all the other runs neatly fall under one of these 3 categories:

Continuous Runs:

  • "The specific training methods for long distance runners consist of varying forms of continuous long runs and interval training." (we'll get here in one second)

  • "These training methods bear different labels of low-intensity training (LIT) is considered an important stimulus for inducing peripheral adaptations (e.g., increased mitochondrial biogenesis and capillary density of the skeletal muscle)."

  • (this means long runs help you create more mitochondria-little organs inside your cells that create energy-which in turn supply your muscles more energy allowing you to run longer, harder, faster etc. Long runs also help stimulate more blood pathways to be created via capillaries which in turn allows more oxygen and nutrients to flow to your muscles and more waste to be carried away from your muscles. Biology is freaking COOL!)

  • "Accumulated volume of low intensity running seems to be a characteristic of those with better running economy and continuous running is probably most beneficial in stimulating these adaptations. High volumes of low-intensity training likely promote better “neural entrainment,” decrease movement variability, and reduce energy cost of movement"

  • Basically, by running long and easy, you give your body the time and opportunity to practice running well. By practicing in this easy zone, it gives your body the chance to become efficient (reduce energy cost of movement) and consistent (decrease movement variability).


  • While not formally defined in this week's research article, intervals are described as periods of time at different paces.

  • This could include smaller or longer chunks of time at faster paces, slow easy paces, recovery paces, even rest periods.


  • Speed work is described as short intervals, "runs with near-maximal to maximal effort and full recoveries"

So with those 3 categories covered, let's dive into the different types of runs.

Continuous running

(What do all these different types of running do? See the definition above for continuous running)

Warm-up/Cool down AND/OR Easy Run:

  • "Low-intensive running (typically 3–5 km h−1 slower than marathon pace)

  • Last part of the warm-up may approach marathon pace predominantly performed on soft surface.

  • Typical duration for warm-up/cooldown: 10–30 min.

  • Easy runs: typically lasting 40–70min…typically applied prior to or after hard training sessions."

Long run

  • "Low-intensive steady-state running (~1–2 km h−1 slower than marathon pace).

  • Typical duration: 75–165 min for marathon runners.

  • The running pace is not necessarily constant throughout the session. This training method is more specific for marathoners"

Uphill Run

  • "Low-intensive steady-state running uphill (grades 3–6%).

  • Typical duration 20–45 min (6–10 km)"

Threshold Run (also called tempo run)

  • "A sustained run at moderate intensity/half-marathon pace.

  • Typical duration 20–50 min (7–15 km).

  • The session should not be extremely fatiguing"


  • "An unstructured run over varying terrain

  • 30–60 min, where periods of fast running are intermixed with periods of slower running.

  • The pacing variations are determined by the athlete’s feelings and rhythms, and the terrain"

Progressive Long Runs

  • "A commonly used training form used by African runners.

  • The first part of the session resembles an easy run. After about half the distance, the pace gradually quickens. In the final portion, the pace increases to half-marathon pace or slightly past it.

  • Typical duration: 45–90 min. Athletes are advised to slow down when the pace becomes too strenuous"

A couple side notes:

Did you notice that lot of the distances ("typical durations") were measured in time rather than strict distances?

(Now, I'm a little biased, because I love running for time rather than distance.)

But the benefits of occasionally looking at training in this way is it allows for pace fluctuations, as appropriate.

Let me explain.

When you're trying to run easy and keep your heart rate low, that pace might vary week to week or even day to day depending on your recovery, sleep, stress, etc. Training by time still allows you to meet that overall goal of an easy run, but without getting caught up in your pace.

Because let's face it, your GPS watch or Strava or any other running social media can be a source of pace-guilt. So tell it to take a hike.

If the pros occasionally run by time, so can you.

Moving on to…

Interval Training

Threshold Intervals (also called tempo intervals)

  • "Intervals of 3–15 min. duration at an intensity around half-marathon pace or slightly faster.

  • Typical sessions: (examples)

  • 10–12×1000 m with 1 min. recovery or easy jog between intervals

  • 6–8×1500–2000 m with 1–2 min. recovery or easy jog between intervals

  • 4×5000 m with 1000 m easy jog in between.

  • Recommended total time for elite runners: 30–75 min.

  • What these runs do: "they allow the athlete to accumulate more total time (effectively at race pace) than during a continuous threshold run"

  • (aka: we know constantly training at race pace is not an effective tool. But running intervals at race pace or near race pace IS helpful in creating the physiological adaptations we're striving for.)

VO2max Intervals

  • "Intervals of 2–4 min duration at 3–10 K pace, with 2–3 min. recovery periods between intervals.

  • Typical sessions: (examples)

  • 4–7×800–1000 m

  • 2×(6×400 m) with 30–60 s and 2–3 min. recovery between intervals and sets, respectively.

  • Recommended total time for elite runners is ~15–20 min."

  • What these runs do: "This training method is more specific for track runners than marathoners".

  • Very long story short: Think of your body as an engine. You can only train your engine to do 1 of 2 things at 1 time: go very fast or very long. As marathoners, you're training your engine to go long, not fast. Performing VO2max runs typically trains the wrong engine type you're looking for : it trains you to go full-out-fast over certain distances. So unless you're sprinting your marathon…you typically won't need these.

Lactate Tolerance Training

  • "5000-m runners perform 1–2 weekly training sessions with high levels of lactate in the pre-competition and competition period.

  • Such intervals typically range from 150 to 600 m at 800–1500 m race pace and 1–3 min. recoveries.

  • Typical sessions: (examples)

  • 10–16×200 m with 1 min. recovery between intervals

  • 1–2×(10×400 m) with 60–90 s and 3–5 min. recoveries between intervals and sets, respectively.

  • Total accumulated distance ranges from 1500 to 8000 m in elite athletes"

  • What these runs do:

  • these types of training runs help you become a more efficient runner by teaching your body how to manage lactic acid, that burning waste product your muscles create when you start to run at a higher intensity (whether that's pace or running up a hill). Being able to manage that waste product removes the barrier to running faster, more efficiently, etc.

Hill Repeats

  • Typical incline: 5–10%

  • repetition duration: varies from ~30 s to ~4 min. depending on intensity, goal (aerobic intervals, lactate production or tolerance training) and time of season.

  • Typical sessions: (examples)

  • 8–10×200 m with easy jog back recoveries

  • 6–8×800–1000 m with easy jog back recoveries

  • What these runs do:

  • "The main intention is overloading horizontal propulsive muscle groups while reducing ballistic loading."

  • (Translating from super science-speak into English: strengthening the leg muscles that help you run a way that builds power)

A couple more side notes:

This time, did you notice how these types of interval runs were much, much more specific about set distance and time intervals?

Interval training is much more precise, specific, and applied in shorter/smaller increments because you're essentially managing physical fatigue and waste products.

It's about pushing your limits, not in a dead-exhausted-my-body-is-wrecked way. It's about training your body step by step to handle more and more intensity.

And because our bodies are NOT amazon prime, you don't become faster overnight.

You have to earn the right to run faster, interval by interval.

Ok, last category…

Speed Work


  • "5–15 s runs with near-maximal to maximal effort and full recoveries.

  • These can also be performed as:

  • strides

  • progressive runs

  • hill sprints

  • or flying sprints, the latter where the rate of acceleration is reduced to allow more total distance at higher velocities.

  • The main aim of the session is to develop or maintain maximal sprinting speed without producing high levels of lactate"

Side note: this one is interesting…

Did you notice how the paper defined the speed work pretty much as very short sprints but then also includes progressive runs (which if we look at the definition above, can last from 45-80 mins?)

THIS is just one reason why it is essential to understand exactly what your training plan means and why, if you have a coach, it is ALWAYS ok to ask them questions to get clear on exactly how to run a particular workout.

Because running is a nuanced language. And workouts, no matter how strict they appear written down, can be fluid, changed, and be adapted. So if you need to modify, it can be done.

Let's wrap this post up…

Final Notes

Isn't the science behind running just WILD?

It goes to show how amazing our bodies are, what they can adapt to over time, and WHY you're capable of amazing things!

That being said, isn't it a relief that you DON'T need all of these different types of runs?

Did you think about that?

In case you found that definition list a tad overwhelming, don't worry.

You got this.

Just read it for the knowledge and understanding.

You'll find that reading this list side by side with any training plan will make the training plan less daunting.

And…as you run more and get to know your body + running more, you might even find trends. Such as, you do really well with training plans that incorporate a lot of threshold runs instead of progressive runs.

That's an amazing observation! Use that knowledge and power to help you select your next training plan for your future success!

Because if we've learned anything from this deep dive into running definitions it's this: our bodies are living systems that adapt.
And some of us are made for one type of running over another.

Some of us respond to one type of training better than another type.

And that's NORMAL! That's ok!

Last point (I promise!)
Did you notice that most of these runs actually indicate recovery time and effort?

Running workouts are hard work, but typically they're NOT designed to leave you gasping or totally wrecked.

And the runs that are harder, more intense, faster paced, have fewer reps/intervals.

The takeaway here: learn from the elites.

Elite runners focus on quality over quantity, but that doesn’t mean quality = constantly fast.

Quality = purpose behind every run.

So runner, until next time, dare to train differently by questioning, asking, and adapting.

Dr. Marie Whitt //

P.S. Ok, so maybe you already have a solid marathon training plan that you know and love. But do you have hip mobility exercises, a runner-specific strength workout, and speed and sequencing drills so your body knows how to MOVE like a runner? No??! Then what are you waiting for?? Grab those HERE now!



Haugen, T., Sandbakk, Ø., Seiler, S., & Tønnessen, E. (2022). The Training Characteristics of World-Class Distance Runners: An Integration of Scientific Literature and Results-Proven Practice. Sports Medicine - Open, 8(1). doi: 10.1186/s40798-022-00438-7

127 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page