How to Run For Long-Term Improvement

Jason Fitzgerald
by Jason Fitzgerald
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How to Run For Long-Term Improvement

Improvement takes time. It’s all too easy to get lured into the kind of training that appears to be the magical secret of running faster when the real answer to stronger running is much more fundamental than any one workout.

To talk about how to train for long-term improvement, it’s important to get comfortable with two terms you may not be familiar with: capacity and utilization. While these terms may be unfamiliar, the ideas behind them are not. Capacity has to do with your aerobic fitness or endurance. Greater capacity means you can run longer and faster with less fatigue. Think of it as your “bank account” for running — it accrues slowly but can last a long time if you spend wisely.

If capacity is your bank account that determines your spending power, utilization is what you spend that money on. Utilization training is best as a tool for sharpening and race preparation that is very specific. It utilizes the endurance and fitness you have built for yourself through capacity training.


Capacity training encompasses many elements. The building blocks of endurance include aerobic, strength and technical elements, along with a small amount of anaerobic work. Capacity training may feel a little tedious while you’re in the midst of it — running steady aerobic runs week after week and month after month may not seem especially exciting, but they continually improve your performance potential.

Remember endurance is never achieved in the short term — it’s built over years of consistent training. That’s why staying healthy is one of the most important goals for any runner. If you’re unable to string together months of consistent training, you’ll never be able to reach your potential.

Although it may seem counter-intuitive, you don’t get faster simply by working on speed. Too much emphasis on speed makes you more prone to injury. While faster workouts have a time and place, they need to be used selectively and tempered by a focus on endurance training. As your endurance builds over time, you’ll better withstand fatigue. This means you’ll get more comfortable at higher mileage levels, have improved recovery time, and discover an extra gear when racing harder.


While capacity training should always be your primary focus, utilization training has a time and place. Utilization workouts are typically very race-specific. They can be used judiciously to help you sharpen for a race when you are pushing for a certain training outcome.

Because they “maximally utilize” the capacity of an athlete, utilization training workouts are most effective when you have already built a strong base of endurance. There’s much less benefit from spending big if you’re starting with a small bank account! Build your endurance first, and you’ll get more from your sharpening workouts.

Utilization workouts are short and intense, and you’ll see benefits more quickly than you do with capacity training. They may be done 5–10% faster than competition speeds. But the benefits don’t last nearly as long. While your endurance lingers even if you sit on the couch for two weeks, the benefits of utilization training fade fast. So, reserve them for times when you’re already fit and race day is rapidly approaching.


The long-lasting benefits of consistent capacity training will have the greatest impact on your improvement as a runner. Although the gains may accumulate more slowly, they continue to benefit you during your training as long as you can avoid extended time off.

To be consistent, you have to be healthy. Therefore always make this a priority in your training and work on your weakest links. Include runner-specific mobility and strength work in your training, and use cross-training to increase your endurance if you cannot handle a heavy mileage volume.

To build your endurance, you’ll want to follow these general principles in your training plan:

  1. Gradually increase your weekly mileage — a higher workload means higher endurance. But, always keep your extra miles easy as you increase them!
  2. Utilize a variety of aerobic workouts, including tempo runs, steady-state runs and progression runs
  3. The value of weekly long runs can’t be overstated — these are an obvious winner when you want to build endurance.
  4. Cross-train if you’re injury-prone to help replace higher mileage. The most running-specific cross-training includes pool running, cycling and the elliptical.

As you get closer to race day, workouts that are more utilization focused can help you prime your body to run fast. But use these workouts carefully, ideally with the guidance of a coach or personalized training plan. Capacity training may not be flashy, but it will always be the most effective way to get the most out of your training.

Check out “Workout Routines” in the MyFitnessPal app to discover and log workouts or build your own with exercises that fit your goals.

About the Author

Jason Fitzgerald
Jason Fitzgerald

Jason is the founder of Strength Running, a USA Track & Field certified running coach and 2017’s Men’s Running’s Influencer of the Year. Learn more about how he can help you run faster.


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