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Steady Does It

How steady-state runs can boost your strength and endurance, and give your legs an extra running “gear”

When we were university runners, Mark Bayley (otherwise known as Canadian Running contributor Dr. Mark Bayley) and I used to dread – and also look forward to, in a warped sort of way – the typical spring training program thrown at us by our coach, Don Mills. Knowing that March and April were busy times as we prepared for exams, Mills came up with an ingenious training schedule that would provide us plenty of fitness and aerobic strength, but wouldn’t take up too much time each day.

Mills called it the “12/8 Plan.” We called it something else, but that’s another story. It involved alternating days of 12- and eight-mile runs (about 19K and 13K), three of each in a week, followed by a day off. The goal was to run at either end of our “steady state” threshold – the eight-mile runs at the upper end of that and the 12-milers at the lower end. (Hang on, we’ll get to what all that means momentarily.) If that seems like a lot of hard running, it is. Remember, though, that I’m describing a program for two national-level competitors, who were used to running even more miles than that in a week. It’s also worth noting that after a couple of weeks of this plan, Bayley and I would typically need to take an extra couple of days rest before we could start up the program again.

After about six weeks of this program, though, we’d find ourselves feeling super-fit and ready to move to the next phase of our training, which usually included a lot of speedwork to prepare for the outdoor track season. Mills’s plan allowed us to arrive at that phase of training pretty much as fit as our counterparts who had put many more miles under their belts over the same time frame.

Done at the right effort, steady-state runs can be an extremely efficient way to improve your aerobic efficiency. Adding some of these runs to your program can provide some variety to your training plan, too. If nothing else, a steady state run is a great way to get the most out of your training time.

Definition

Just about every coach defines a steady-state run differently, but virtually all of us will agree that the workout is done at a pace somewhere between “easy” and “fast.” The pace should feel like you’re running faster than an easy pace, but not so fast that you won’t be able to finish the run. I like to describe these runs to my athletes like this: you should feel tired at the end of the run, but not completely exhausted once you get home. These efforts should remain aerobic, which means you should never feel completely out of breath. What’s the easiest way to ensure that? The talk test: if you can’t maintain a conversation throughout the run, you’re going too hard.

I’ve provided that not-very-definitive definition on purpose. The reason Bayley and I were able to sustain our steady-state training regimen for as many weeks as we did was because some of those runs were completed at about 75 per cent effort, others closer to 90 per cent, which is roughly the lower and upper ranges that many coaches would describe for steady-state runs.

Duration

After a warmup, the steady-state part of the run should include at least 20 minutes of faster running followed by a cooldown. Depending on the distance your training for, your steady-state effort could build to an hour or even longer, but these workouts should be shorter than your long, easy aerobic runs. Most coaches will suggest that steady-state runs last between 45 and 60 minutes.

Finding your steady-state pace

If you know your maximum heart rate, you could simply aim for a percentage of that, but that’s not necessary. The easiest way to figure out your steady-state pace is to do your warmup, then maintain a harder pace for 20 minutes, ideally 10 minutes out and back. If you’re faster on the way back, you didn’t start out fast enough. If you’re slower, you went too hard at the start. Once you’ve figured out the appropriate steady-state pace, then you can try to increase the time you run at that effort.

Adding another gear

By adding a steady-state run to your training routine, you’re not only providing an efficient way to improve your cardiovascular fitness, you are also developing a new running “gear.” While adding speed training is an important first step for many runners as they improve their training programs, that often leaves them with two speeds: slow and fast. Adding a steady-state run to your repertoire will give you a third option.

Our 12/8 Plan of steady-state runs was very tough because we didn’t have a truly easy day of recovery, other than our day off, for a number of weeks. While Mills, who was constantly analyzing our race times, would provide specific paces that he wanted us to run at, we tended to forgo those specifics most days and run more by feel, which is probably what also helped us get through those tough weeks of training. More than 20 years later, Bayley and I still do our fair share of steady-state runs, but now they serve to provide some variety from our distance runs or track sessions rather than keep us fit during exams.