The Benefits of Training Alone

I started running when I joined my school’s cross-country team in the eighth grade. I remember the feeling of my burning lungs and legs on those first runs through hilly neighborhoods after school. The team would pull me along and I would run further and faster than I ever thought possible. As I continued to run through high school and college, the team was a constant source of strength. I could rely on my teammates to push me through hard interval workouts and tedious long runs. Once I graduated from college, I was faced with a sea change. Suddenly I was running without a team. The support that I had grown to rely on for my entire running career was gone.

In my attempt to continue improving after college, I would try to duplicate the workouts I had completed just a few months before. Each time I would abandon the workout midway through. I couldn’t understand why the workouts felt so impossible and why I couldn’t complete them on my own. Eventually, I gave up on replicating those highly structured college workouts, and moved to time-based workouts. It was my way of tricking myself into completing a workout, because I couldn’t compare my time-based workouts to the distance-based ones I had done before. Along the way, I began to understand that my effort was far more important than time goals. Once I made the switch to effort based workouts, I started to see noticeable improvements in my race results.

Now that we are living in a time of quarantine and social distancing, when running in a group or with a team is impossible, I wanted to take this opportunity to examine the ways that running alone can actually be a benefit. As I learned by trial and error, the biggest benefit of running alone is the ability to run according to your personal effort. Often, when we run in groups for easy runs or workouts, we will adjust our paces to stay in the group. While staying with the group can be a great motivator, it can also inhibit the intended benefit of the run.

In my own training and coaching experience, there are two types of runs that I consider to be the pillars of training for long-distance running: easy runs and threshold-intensity runs. Running with the right effort is crucial to benefit from these types of runs. Although they aren’t flashy, easy runs are extremely beneficial. Daniels (1) describes that an easy run should fall in the range of about 65% of your maximum heart rate, or essentially a pace that still allows you to maintain a conversation while running. By running in this effort range you are strengthening your heart muscle, and on a cellular level, you are also benefiting by increasing the size and number of your mitochondria (the powerhouse of the cell because they turn fuel into energy). At this effort, your heart also reaches its stroke volume maximum. Essentially, this is the easiest speed at which you can run to maximize the stroke of your heart. You can think of your heart as a pump that is designed to deliver oxygenated blood to your muscles. The stroke volume is how much blood is pushed out with each pump. This creates a huge training benefit with the least amount of effort because it helps your heart develop into a stronger pump. It is the base on which all other training is built, and by running alone, you can focus on running at a pace that is truly easy for you. That pace may vary from day to day and from route to route, but the effort will remain constant.

Daniels (1) also explains that threshold-intensity running is one of the most productive types of training that distance runners can do. Threshold running is all about maintaining an effort that hovers right around the point at which the accumulation of blood lactate begins to rise rapidly. As running intensity increases, so does the amount of lactate circulating in the blood. At a certain point, the lactate accumulation overtakes your body’s ability to clear it. This transition point occurs at roughly 82 to 88% of your maximum heart rate. I like to tell athletes that it is an effort at which you can say a couple of words at a time, but not full sentences. If done correctly, this type of run is very effective for increasing endurance because it will allow you to run at a higher percentage of your maximum effort for a longer amount of time. However, this type of run hinges on running at a comfortably hard effort. If it is run too hard, blood lactate progressively accumulates to a point where the runner must slow down or stop. It can be very easy to become focused on maintaining a certain pace during threshold-training, but because of environmental factors like hills, wind, or even how much you slept the night before, running at the correct effort will help you benefit most from the run.

I have also learned that running on my own has helped me appreciate the simple act of running. When I run with other people, we talk and the run might go by without me even noticing. This can be nice on tough days, but when I run by myself I feel like I have the opportunity to really see my surroundings and take some time to contemplate whatever might be on my mind. The feeling of covering long distances, alone on foot, gives me an unexplainable satisfaction and sense of accomplishment that I miss when running with others.

I now run almost all of my runs alone. It has been a major change since my high school and college days, but it has really helped me to understand my efforts, and how to benefit from them most. I also find that running alone gives me an opportunity to reflect and contemplate that I wouldn’t otherwise get. Yes, I train to run well in races, but I also run just because I enjoy running. Being alone reminds me how great the simple pursuit of traveling long distances on foot can be.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Where do you think your training benefits the most when you run alone?
  • Which types of runs are you able to best accomplish when you do them solo?

References

  1. Daniels, J. (2014). Daniels running formula. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Photo courtesy of Alex Nichols.

Alex Nichols

coaches at Colorado College as well at Trails and Tarmac. He's a graduate student pursuing his master's in Sport Coaching at the University of Denver. On the trails, Alex has won the Pikes Peak Marathon, Mont Blanc 80km, and Run Rabbit Run 100 Mile; he holds the supported Nolan’s 14 record; and he's fallen on his face roughly a million times. He's supported by SCOTT Running and Honey Stinger.

There are 4 comments

  1. Andrew Brodsky

    I do miss running with friends right now — but I think that running alone helps me foster the mental side of running, especially for a long run. It forces you to deal with any situation that comes up on your own, with no “outs” — and then, when it’s race time and there’s all sorts of support, you get a new boost.

    Running alone also keeps me focused on where I am, which is an extra bonus if it’s a beautiful location and helps me connect with nature more.

  2. Elena

    I miss running very much in this Covid time. I completely agree with you when you say: “The feeling of covering long distances, alone on foot, gives me an unexplainable satisfaction and sense of accomplishment that I miss when running with Others”.
    I miss these feelings very, very, very much!

  3. Franck

    I do miss the group runs from track & field (used to run 800m). That’s like 10+ years behind me though.

    Nowadays, I mostly train for ultras (if that happens again), so the type of training has changed. Mostly this is all by myself.

    My experience is that I feel it’s much easier to run slower when by yourself (e.g. not overtrain, push to pace past the optimal returns just to feel strong, etc.). On the flip side, it’s harder to push the hard workouts.

    That being said, I feel like it doesn’t matter as much for an ultra as it would, say for half marathon. I’ve been a slow, steady rise in weekly mileage, accompagnied by a slow, steady rise in longest run. That’s been building up for ~1 year (e.g. back to running after multi years near-stop). Lately, I have also been occasionally pushing down what I call “casual PBs”, on strava. Most of my actual PBs where done long ago, without GPS watches. I haven’t run dedicated races on 1k, 1mile, 10k, 20k, half-marathon & 30k (but strave keeps track of your best estimated effort for those). They have all started to fall in the last few months. I see it as a great sign – the pace at which I’m comfortable running gets lower and lower.

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