Run Better

This is part 2 of 4 in a series about how I prepare to run long distances. Since this series began, I ran 94 miles from Chicago to Milwaukee and 58 miles from Salt Lake City to Park City) This is expanded version of the running workshops we did while in Park City for a week during the annual Automattic company meetup last month.

Phase one – Physical ability

Running 50 miles is intense, training to run 50 miles should not be.

Many assume physical ability is all it takes to run long distances, or at least focus all their preparation here. I’ve made that mistake before. Physical ability is actually the least important aspect of running, in my experience. Anyone mildly fit can run 50 miles, improving your physical ability will just make the experience easier, recovery time shorter and just a whole lot more enjoyable.

My theory is this: focus on improving your heart and lungs, ignore your legs. As you work on building a strong aerobic base, your legs will strengthen in proportion to your heart and lungs ability to provide them with enough oxygenated blood. To keep this is perspective, we’re talking about endurance here, not speed. The focus is on getting from point A to point B without the need of an ambulance or hearse. Let’s get to it:

Doing the same thing over and over does not make you better, it allows you to become more efficient. That’s why running the same 5k over and over does not lead to a big improvements in speed, you just get better at running the same slow pace. In order to run stronger, longer and faster we need to slow down and establish a strong aerobic base of fitness. Repetition breeds efficiency, so lets think about our lungs, heart and high impact motions:

I run with a heart rate monitor, my goal is spend as much time as I can with my body doing the same repetitive movement while keeping my heart rate in a range that is comfortable and sustainable for 10+ hours. This repetition does not make me fast, but it makes my heart and lungs function in a way that I can run a long way without fatigue. I’m doing the same thing (light running) while encouraging my heart and lungs to become as efficient as possible at this precise activity

In practice:
I run 3 days per week, for 45-90 minutes. While running I don’t let my heart rate go above 155 or below 145. This creates a safe zone for my heart and lungs to work. During this repetitive motion, my lungs and heart will optimize for this level of activity.

As long as I continually push myself to stay over 145 (and not over 155) I will incrementally get faster and stronger while maintaining the same easy heart rate.

Running in your aerobic heart rate zone is going to feel slow. Really slow. Everyone will pass you on the trail. Children may laugh and you will immediately feel the urge to abandon this plan. Ignore this urge, run alone or at night if you have to but do not give up. It’s going to get worse before it gets better.

Optimize – this repetitive movement is all about efficiency, not power remember? Plenty of sports medicine studies support the idea that 180 is the magic number, the most efficient stride rate for the human form. My own studies and experimentation have lead me to believe 180 is also the idea stride rate for cardio conditioning.

In practice:
I run to music that is either 180 beats per minute or 90 (half time). When running to the beat of this music, my stride rate is an even 180. This quick stride rate requires much shorter steps. Shorter steps mean less movement, less impact and fewer injuries.

Shin splints, plantar fasciitis, IT band stiffness, hip flexor pain… I’ve had it all. But, not since adopting the 180 stride rate. I believe that over striding leads to poor form, and exaggerates injuries caused by underdeveloped muscles and posture.

What is the right target heart rate? That depends on your current fitness level. Generally, you want to stay aerobic. If you are sucking wind, or can’t talk you are running too hard. Phil Maffetone has a great formula, which I think is perfect, if you’re just getting start with Heart Rate training:


  1. Find your max aerobic heart rate and subtract 10, this is your training range.
  2. Wear a heart rate monitor with vibration alerts set to your custom upper and lower heart rate ranges.
  3. Run in this range for a minimum of 45 minutes per day, three times per week.
  4. Increase your pace to 180 strides per minute. ( By running to music.

Results will be a more solid aerobic base, better form, and less overuse injury from a smaller range of motion.

Credit: I’m know nothing of sports medicine except what I’ve learned and experimented with personally. I am not qualified to give any kind of medial advise.

Most of this information I have digested from Christopher McDougall, Scott Jurek and Phil Maffetone.

If you like running, you should read Born to Run and Eat and Run. If you want to get better at running, try The Big Book of Endurance Training

6 thoughts on “Run Better

  1. Pingback: Matt: Run Better

am I crazy?

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