How to Train for Timed Runs

Staff sergeant prepares for half marathon.
Staff Sgt. David Nicholson, 779th Aerospace Medical Squadron NCO in charge of presidential support, runs during his lunch hour April 8, 2013, at Joint Base Andrews, Md., to prepare for the upcoming JBA Half Marathon. (Staff Sgt. Brittany E. Jones/U.S. Air Force photo)

If you’re looking for ways to improve your timed run events on military fitness tests, you’ll get many different answers when asking for suggestions.

Some people prefer the longer and slower distance running methods, others like the shorter and faster sprint style of training, and plenty opt for the middle-of-the-road option of goal-pace running.

None is the wrong way to train, and you may find a method that you enjoy if you mix up your running training during the time between PT tests. The good news is that any one of them will work for you if you practice enough.

Here are the pros and cons of each training option:

Longer and Slower Distance Running

Some believe you should first “build your aerobic base” with longer, slower runs with a lower heart rate. This suggestion is most likely to come from serious distance runners. The problem with this method is that it demands that you really like running, since you will spend a significant amount of your training time doing it.

This method will help you burn calories in the fat burning zone at a lower heart rate, increase running distance and eventually help increase your speed as you improve your aerobic capacity.

If you are planning to run shorter distances at a faster pace, the training has to be adjusted up a notch or two in order to be competitive on 1.5-, two- and three-mile runs common in the various branches of the military. See running plans that focus on this longer-distance, base-building option.

For people who do not have the time or ability to run longer distances but still need to build a better aerobic base, try non-impact cardio options. If you run every other day but bike, elliptical, row or swim on the days in between, you can cut the impact of longer-distance running in half and still receive the same benefit as a daily runner.

This is a sensible consideration for newer runners and people who need to lose some weight to avoid running too many miles per week. Remember, a logical progression of running miles is to add 10%-15% per week. If you do too much, too soon, this training method can produce overuse running injuries like shin splints, stress fractures or knee, hip and feet tendinitis.

Shorter, Faster and Higher Intensity Run Training

Running harder and faster for shorter distances also will build your conditioning for timed runs. Eventually, you will have to learn how to slow it down a notch so you can finish a timed run event longer than 1.5 miles, because this method uses a near sprint-level pace for a few seconds each set, versus a run that lasts several minutes with easier-paced running.

People without much running experience or who are used to longer and slower distances will require a thorough warmup and a steady progression of several sets in a workout before they go full sprint.

Many people injure themselves each year with HIIT (high intensity interval training). Sprinting without proper warmups can cause pulled hamstrings, hip flexors and Achilles’ tendon pain. As I have aged, I try to avoid these injuries with my new philosophy that 80% effort is the new 100%.

You still can improve your speed of running and avoid injuries by pushing harder than you would at a long, slow distance pace without quite reaching full sprint speed.

A fun beginners workout is called the 30/60. Do a 30-second sprint, followed by 60 seconds of an easy jog or walk (depending on your conditioning). The goal is to recover quickly so you can repeat the sprint within that minute of allotted recovery time. If you can recover fully in less than a minute, that is a sign of improving aerobic and anaerobic capacity and conditioning.

If you can’t recover in 60 seconds, increase the recovery time to two minutes. If a one-minute recovery is easy, see whether you can do a 1:1 work-to-rest ratio for 20 minutes. The beauty of sprint training is, you can be done in less than half the time of the longer and slower distance option.

Not Too Long or Too Fast. This One Is Just Right.

Goal-paced running is the Goldilocks Zone for running. This approach is my personal favorite and one of the quickest methods to develop the skills needed to ace a fitness test. This combines faster-paced running, but it is not a sprint. Consider this method of running a way to practice the pace that you want to reach in the full event, but as you work out, you are breaking the distance down to 400-meter, 800-meter and mile-long intervals over time.

You can do the following 400-meter runs at your goal pace with a rest period of 50%-100% of your run time each set.

Repeat 6-10 times

Run 400 meters at goal pace (1:45). This is the pace you should master if you want a seven-minute mile or 10:30 1.5-mile timed run.

Rest by walking 100 meters in 1-2 minutes, depending on your ability.

The more you do this workout, the easier the rest periods will become. Eventually, you will not need a rest period and will be able to run the full distance of the timed event at the goal pace of 1:45 per 400 meters, 3:30 per 800 meters or a seven-minute mile.

As you progress, you can turn this workout into 800-meter sets and one-mile repeats and build up to 3-4 total miles, depending on your timed run event. For best results, build up to two times the distance of your timed run event for each workout.

The good news is that this is not a sprint, nor do you have to spend an entire hour running slowly, so the likelihood of injury is decreased compared to full sprints and high-volume running miles.

Once you have built a decent base of running, a healthy way to mix in all of the above training options is to spread them out throughout the week. Maybe place your longer and slower runs on a cardio-only day and add in some non-impact options to simulate a biathlon or triathlon level of cardio endurance.

Then you can add in shorter and faster runs on your leg days when doing calisthenics or lifting weights to work that energy system even more.

Finally, focus on your goal-pace running a few days a week, so you can build a logical strategy for taking fitness tests and timed runs together.

VIDEO embed option: Tactical Fitness Report – Navy SEALs Stew Smith and Jeff Nichols discuss running options for the tactical athletes.

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you’re looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to

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