A Letter to Mrs. McCarthy*-Part Three

Posted by Filed Under: Learn to Run, Training

learn-to-run.jpgThis is a three-part essay I composed for an acquaintance who had met me for lunch recently to discuss “how to run.” Over the next few days after the lunch, I sent her the attached. Read part one here and part two here.

Dear Mrs. McCarthy,

The concept of training properly seems to alternate between the intuitive and the mysterious. At first, no matter what we do, we seem to improve only later to find a sudden plateau in our progress. The “secret” of training is consistently following a sustainable plan. No secret really, but sometimes we need to reaffirm the obvious.

If you’ve read the first two parts, you will now understand that the purpose of training is to improve our aerobic capacity. The greater our capacity, the further we can run and the faster we can run. There really is no limit (beyond aging) to how much we can improve this capacity. Therefore, the only practical limitations exist in our muscle weaknesses and skeletal weaknesses. The program we follow must improve the cardiovascular system (aerobic capacity) while avoiding serious injury.

The best exercise for improving our aerobic capacity is running. This is because the activity elevates the heart rate for a sustained period of time. This sustained elevation signals the body to create the physical changes needed to adapt to the new stress. The adaptations are as I described: a stronger heart, additional blood vessels, and increased fuel efficiency. Only when running for sustained periods of time do we create these adaptations in the cardiovascular system.

At the same time, we must be aware that the muscular and skeletal systems take longer to adapt and they bruise easily. If either system is stressed beyond its ability to “recover” before being recruited for the next workout, it will prevent you from continuing with your program—thus delaying the real goal of aerobic improvement. Therefore, a method of “stress / relief” or “hard / easy” is what we follow. This method optimizes the pace of your aerobic improvement by promoting consistency through balance.

The terms “stress” and “relief” (“hard” and “easy”) are relative terms. Relative to what? Your heart rate. The harder you run, the faster your heart beats—it is trying to deliver all the oxygen demanded by the muscles. At some point, your need for oxygen will exceed what the heart can deliver and this is what we call anaerobic exercise (exercising without oxygen). As mentioned before, this is the pace that is not-sustainable (too fast a pace). This threshold between aerobic running and anaerobic running rises over time as we improve our aerobic capacity (the ability to exercise using oxygen). In order to improve, we must run below this threshold—meaning we never run a pace that cannot be sustained. In other words, we should avoid running too fast. It is better to go too slow than too fast because if you cross into “anaerobic exercise” you are no longer promoting cardiovascular development. You are doing something else…

There are optimum paces to run for the fastest improvement, but at this time it is not useful for us to introduce this topic. Rather, what is important is consistency and sustainability. Therefore, we must alternate between running “hard” and running “easy” on a day to day basis. You may insert “rest” days where needed. However, it is better for all your systems, even the muscular and skeletal, to run at least 5 times per week rather than less. This is because all systems adapt better when consistently stressed—even easily.

Given your goal, you should expect to run 20-30 minutes per day increasing a small amount with each succeeding week. The paces you run are at your discretion but must be at a pace that can be maintained longer than the required training time. For example, if your schedule calls for you to run 20 minutes “hard”, this means run at a pace you could run another 5 or greater minutes beyond (if not 10+ minutes beyond). We never take our bodies to the “edge”—we always remember that there is a workout the next day and ease back accordingly. Remember, consistency and sustainability.

Here is a sample schedule:

Monday: 30 minutes easy
Tuesday: 20 minutes hard
Wednesday: 30 minutes easy
Thursday: Rest
Friday: 20 minutes hard
Saturday: 30 minutes easy
Sunday: rest

If the 20 / 30 minute rule is too much at first, reduce them both to 15 / 20. The term “easy” by the way is just that. A smiling pace. In all circumstances, you should be able to talk even on the hard days. If you cannot talk, you are going too fast.

This pace rule (talking) might have the effect of having you feel like you are running “too slow”. That is OK. This will change over time as you learn to run daily and your pace naturally picks up. In my mind, three miles is a very low goal and you will reach it in your training before the end of the month if not sooner as long as you follow the above and run the right pace.


The schedule is simple and you should be able to follow it. It will provide you with your goal in short order. But now that you cannot help but have a basic understanding of the physiology behind it, you must realize that you can continue to attain greater goals year after year.

If you’d like further help please let me know. Good luck! You’re going to do great!


* Names have been changed to protect … somebody!

  1. Chanda on July 14th at 4:03 am

    I just read through the 3 articles. As a beginner in the running world it was great to find out what is happening to my body. Thank you for explaining it in a simple and accessible way!

  2. A Letter to Mrs. McCarthy*-Part One : Complete Running Network on January 9th at 10:08 pm

    […] This is a three-part essay I composed for an acquaintance who had met me for lunch recently to discuss “how to run.” Over the next few days after the lunch, I sent her the attached. Read part two here and part three here. […]

  3. autumn on February 7th at 6:06 pm

    I am just starting out and I must say its a slow and sometimes frustrating task! thanks for your essay it has helped me know what is in store for me as I continue on my journey of running. My long term goal is running 10 miles, hopefully I dont get to discouraged along the way, thank again

  4. Mari on September 13th at 9:59 am

    This was a great article! I learned so much and I am training for my first 1/2 marathon with my little sister and this info was easy to understand to apply it to my training. Thanks!

  5. Pranay on October 14th at 6:50 am

    i found this 3 part discussion on running very useful.thanks for the same.

  6. mishmish on December 14th at 1:43 pm

    This article was useful to me in that explained the three systems of the body and showed me that even though my cardiovascular system is craving a run, my joints and muscles need a rest. I’m so addicted after only 2 weeks of training I needed some science to guide me. My knees thank you!

  7. michelle on August 13th at 3:42 pm

    i found ur article very interesting,,i have been running a few months now and im doin well but its great to understand whats going on inside the body,it was good for me to learn about the hard run/easy run as it was some thing i was thinking about recently,
    thanks for the information!!

  8. chad on October 11th at 2:19 pm

    this was very interesting and well written. alot of things i already had known about but i hadnt known the purpose of them or the science behind it. its good because now i know its true, my coach isnt just telling me these things. the only thing i dont agree with is when u said not to run too fast and u should be able to smile even when ur running hard. this is good for the begining runner but the more expierenced one needs to dig deep within themself and push it even when it hurts. thats what makes the difference between good and great. other than that it was great 🙂 thx!

  9. Anonymous on December 27th at 9:22 pm

    Thank you for presenting these articles here. They are invaluable to the beginning runner.

  10. Lauren on February 8th at 5:00 pm

    Very helpful article! I do have a question about when you said you should at least run 5 days a week. I’m a beginner (only been at it for about a month) and many people/books/websites have advised not to run more than 3-4 days per week starting out. I think the logic behind it is to avoid injury, but maybe that’s just for those who are extremely out of shape. I think after reading your article I’m going to add a day or two. Thanks!

  11. Carri Potts on May 22nd at 3:40 am

    Again I found this very helpful. My goal is 3 miles and I am there so I am working on going a little farther every day. This was a very informative article about how the body works and how it changes as your aerobic activity increases. Thanks!