Whether we are diligent about it or not, most runners know that there is a benefit to including multiple training modalities in a session. For example, not just heading for a run and then sitting down, but including some drills, strength training, flexibility training, etc. However, what remains a mystery to many is how to order those activities for the best training benefit. Should strength work come before endurance work? Should technique and drills work be at the beginning or the end of the session? What does a well-arranged training session look like?
The USATF provides guidelines for coaches that are pretty general, but provide a very good framework for structuring sessions in a logical order that appropriately prepares the body within a session, and has a logical progression of effort and intensity level. According to USATF, units within a training session should be in the following general order:
- Warm-up Activities
- Technical Work
- Speed and Power Activities
- Strength and Endurance Activities
- Cool-down Activities
It’s important to note, before we discuss each of these in more detail, that all 5 of these don’t need to be included in every session, but the relative order of the modalities should be intact. Warm-up prepares the body for subsequent work, technique prepares the body for proper form, and so on. As you plan your sessions, keep that in mind.
Warm-up Activities bring your body to a state of readiness for work by elevating heart rate, increasing muscle mobility, loosening joints, etc. Warm-ups are not just for races, and every session should begin with a warm-up that is appropriate for the day. This may be as simple as some leg swings, light lunges, and dynamic stretching, or it may include some light jogging and speed progressions. In all cases, the body must be warm before any hard work commences.
Technical Work trains appropriate form and functionality that will (hopefully) translate into the remainder of the session. If you include any specific jump, skip, or similar routine to practice footfall, leg drive, or turnover, these should come after the general warm-up and before you start the focused running for that session.
Speed and Power activities for runners are all of the traditional interval workouts that you may be familiar with. You want these placed before any additional planned endurance work in that session so that you can receive maximum training effect (i.e. you can run your best and hit your target paces). The only case where I personally differ from this order is for a marathon-specific workout that places intervals after a longer run to simulate later race miles. Except in cases of that nature, speed activities should be early in a session so that they are most effective at building speed and power.
Strength and Endurance Activities are often the main focus of runners’ training sessions. On an easy or long run day, this is where you run your planned miles/minutes. On an interval day, the endurance portion may come from an adequately-long cool-down that allows some aerobic work following the intervals or speed work. If there is a strength routine component to the workout (weights, core, squats, etc.), these should come after any speed work and after any endurance work, again to preserve energy for the main focus of the day. Additionally, any hill sprints or strides (which focus on general leg strength and aerobic endurance improvement) should be placed at the end of the run, not at the beginning.
Cool-down Activities should also be included in every session. Just like a warm-up prepares your body to do work, a cool-down prepares your body to rest and recover. In addition to dynamic and/or static stretching, cool-down activities may include some core work, yoga, or other general flexibility exercises in addition to light jogging or walking.
All-in-all, think of the training session as a bell curve of effort. Somewhere close to the middle should be the peak of intensity, while the beginning and end are light in effort. The progression to max effort and back down again should be smooth, not abrupt. This will give your body the best chance to complete that session effectively, and will also give the best long-term return in terms of overall improvement.