I get a lot of questions about how to improve running performance and one concept I keep coming back to is building your aerobic engine. Before you can run longer or faster you have to improve your …
158. Building Your Aerobic Engine
My name is Patrick McGilvray, and I’m an experienced marathoner, ultra runner, sports nutritionist, Master life coach, and weight loss coach for runners. I’ve dedicated my life to helping runners just like you properly fuel your body and your mind. So you can get leaner, get stronger, run faster and run longer than you ever thought possible. This is Running Lean.
Hey there, and welcome to Episode 158, of Running Lean. My name is Patrick McGilvray, the weight loss coach for runners and today, building your aerobic engine. So I get a lot of questions from people in general and clients about how to improve running performance.
And one concept I keep coming back to is building your aerobic engine. Before you can run longer, or run faster, you have to improve your aerobic fitness. So building and maintaining a solid aerobic base should be the goal of every runner, regardless of your running experience. But many runners skip this step, because they just want to get to the faster running the higher intensity running.
So in this episode, I’m going to explain how building your aerobic engine is essential to helping you improve both your running speed and your endurance. And Happy New Year everyone. This is the first episode of 2023. And is this going to be a new year and a new you or a new year and the same old, same old you?
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Okay, so lots of people who are new to running, especially the newer runners, want to kind of skip the part where they have to focus on building their aerobic base, or what I like to call the aerobic engine. And this is a good time of the year to be talking about this, because I think a lot of us are just about to start marathon training, or maybe half marathon training, a lot of spring races happen in the United States.
And so the beginning of January is when a lot of training begins. The problem is that most runners don’t do a really good job of building their aerobic engine properly. At the beginning of a training cycle, lots of runners, even very experienced runners who are maybe following some sort of training plan.
So they may have some sort of marathon training plan that they’re doing. They just begin by, you know, doing all their miles at a kind of medium hard intensity, and they end up kind of maybe getting burned out or getting injured. A lot of overuse injuries happen, especially with new runners, but even with experienced runners.
And a lot of these overuse injuries happen kind of at the first half of the training cycle, which leads me to believe that when we start our marathon training or start our half marathon training program, you need to be you need to have developed a good solid aerobic base, you need a good solid base on which you can build, right?
So you want to start with a good base, start with a good aerobic engine, and then you can get faster and build your intensity levels on top of that. So what does it mean when I’m talking about your aerobic engine? So really what I’m talking about here, as I’m talking about increasing the efficiency of your cardiovascular system, right?
The cardiovascular system is the different functions of your body that can combine to enable you to run for longer distances, right? Your cardiovascular system is, you know, your heart, your blood, carrying oxygen to working muscles and organs to every working part of your body. So it’s mostly, you know, how, how efficient is your heart? How much blood can your heart pump out at a time, like how much blood volume can you pump out?
Because the more blood volume in your heart can pump out, the more oxygen you will be delivering to working muscles, the better you are at delivering oxygen rich blood to working muscles, especially those muscles used for running, that easier running becomes. So we want to improve this system. And it’s something that you can absolutely improve.
Now, if you’re a new runner, and you’re just starting out, and you get out there, and maybe you’re training for your first 5k, and you get out there and to run a mile is takes everything you’ve got and you feel completely winded at the end of that mile, that is fine, that is normal. If you’re just getting started with this, then that is something where if you continue running, and you continue doing the right kind of running, you will find that running a mile becomes very easy.
And then running two and three miles becomes a no big deal. And then all of a sudden, you’re like, I’m just gonna go ahead and, and run a half marathon or trust our training for a marathon, right? But don’t get ahead of yourself. Work your way up to that slowly. And I’m going to be talking about that in a minute here.
So really, what we’re talking about when we’re talking about your aerobic engine, is your cardiovascular system, you know, your body’s ability to deliver oxygen rich blood to all the working muscles and organs and all the functions in your body that help you to improve your running efficiency and your running performance.
Okay, so why do we want to build an aerobic engine? Like why is it important to build this? Well, you know, you just can’t expect to go out there and run a fast half marathon or a fast marathon. Without doing the work to build your cardiovascular system, you can’t improve your running performance, if you don’t start with a good base, right?
So you need to first build a solid aerobic base, then you can work on getting faster, and increasing the intensity of your running over those longer distances. But I want to make sure this is very clear, do not skip this step, do not skip the part where you build that aerobic base. And something that is actually kind of counterintuitive. But I’ll explain why this works in just a minute here, you will actually get faster, just by improving your aerobic engine.
So by doing more slow, easy running and improving your cardiovascular system, you will become more efficient at running and you can actually run faster at the same intensity levels. This is one of the huge benefits of building a strong aerobic base is that you can improve your running efficiency, you can improve your running speed.
In fact, there are many benefits to improving your aerobic engine here. So when your cardiovascular system gets more efficient, when you improve your aerobic fitness, running becomes easier. This is like one of the number one reasons why we want to do this, it just gets easier, right? You can run longer distances and you can run faster at the same perceived effort level.
So let’s say you go out there and you run out a perceived effort level of a three or a four and you’re like this feels great, it feels pretty easy for me. And you might notice your pace is a 10 minute pace. For example, over time, if you build your cardiovascular system the right way, if you build your aerobic engine properly, over time, you can run at that same three four effort level.
Oh, this feels pretty easy. But now your pace is a 9:30 or a 9:00 minute pace because you’ve improved how your body is fueling itself and how your body is using oxygen and and how much blood volume you’re pumping out there. Okay, so you actually get faster at the same effort level, which is amazing.
Another reason why we want to improve our cardiovascular system, or our aerobic engine is that it actually increases the number of mitochondria in your body. So this is the powerhouse of your cells. And you can actually increase the size and strength of your mitochondria as well. So this right here is going to give you an edge and this is one of the reasons why you run easier and you can run faster at the same effort level.
You also get denser capillaries and you can deliver more oxygenated blood with more capillaries working in your bloodstream. So your working muscles will actually get more oxygen, which makes running easier. Another kind of benefit of improving your aerobic engine is that it helps to build mental toughness. So as you improve your cardiovascular system, you start to feel more confident. So you can go out there and run three miles and it feels tough.
But as you, you know, increase your running volume as you increase your distance as you increase your aerobic capacity and your aerobic performance, then running becomes easier and becomes more confident you can run 8, 10, 12 miles and and feel like well, yeah, I can do this. And it makes you more mentally tough because it pushes you, enables you to push yourself a little bit harder, enables you to shoot for higher and higher goals. And next thing you know you’re running a half marathon or you’re running a marathon, you’re starting to train for an ultra marathon.
Another benefit of improving your aerobic engine is that it helps to improve muscular strength, you know, you’re delivering more oxygen to muscles, you’re able to run longer, you build more muscular strength, you improve your running economy, you improve your running efficiency, you become more energy efficient, you know, you’re using the same kind of you have the same inputs, but your output is much more efficient. And then you get faster, you know, you’ll be able to perform better at races.
So all these reasons are why we work hard to improve our aerobic engine, okay. So do not skip this, we absolutely want to make sure that before you begin your training, or the first phases of your training for any kind of endurance events should be to really build a strong aerobic base. Now some people like to do this in the offseason, they like to spend, you know, four to six weeks building that aerobic engine, even up to 12 weeks, you know, really building a strong aerobic engine before they get into their training cycle.
But you can absolutely do this at the beginning of a half or full marathon training cycle. So how do we do this? How do you start building your aerobic engine? What are the keys to improving your aerobic fitness and improving your cardiovascular efficiency?
So the first tip I’m going to give you here to improve your aerobic engine would be to increase your running volume. Right? The simple fact of running more will help you to increase your aerobic capacity, increase your running efficiency, just running more and increasing your volume helps to improve your running form and helps to increase your cardiovascular system.
You build stronger muscles. Running becomes easier, just by running more. But the caveat with this is you don’t do too much too soon. This is one of the biggest rookie mistakes that new runners make is increasing their volume too much too soon. So the standard sort of rule of thumb has always been to increase by no more than around 10% a week in your weekly volume.
So that means if you’re starting out and you’re running about 10 miles a week, you know, for the first few weeks, I would only increase that by like a mile each week. So maybe week one you’re at 10 miles and then you build up to 11, 12, 13. Maybe you can jump up to 14.5 or 15, 16, 18, 20. But you don’t really want to increase volume too quickly.
So people get excited when they start running and they’re like oh running is amazing. I feel so great doing this and your muscles might be ready to take on the miles but your connective tissues, your tendons and ligaments are not quite ready for that yet. And a lot of the running injuries that people experience are tendinitis issues or strained, you know ligaments or tendons. They tend to be more connective tissue issues than they do with muscular issues.
It’s pretty rare to strain the muscle from running in the beginning especially. It’s more common to have these connective tissue issues so definitely be careful and don’t do too. Too much too soon try to keep it around that 10% increase in weekly volume, then, you know, if you’re a more experienced runner, you can increase that from 10 to maybe 15 or 20% per week. The idea is that you have to do what feels right for you. And don’t overdo it. That is the key here. Less is more in this case, right. So just slowly build your volume, but definitely increasing your volume is going to be one of the best ways to improve your aerobic engine.
Another way of doing this is to run slower. So when I talk about running slower, there’s different ways we can look at this. So running slower means you’re running in, maybe you’re running in a zone one or two. From a heart rate standpoint, maybe you’re someone who likes to just use RPE, rate of perceived exertion, the scale of 1 to 10. And you might like to stay in the one to four range.
That would be nice, easy running, maybe you’d like to just run at a conversational pace, you’d like to just, you know, go by if you can carry on a conversation or not. The idea here is that you need to slow down, and you need to do a lot of running slower. When you do a lot of running slower, you increase your distance, but if you keep the intensity levels very low, you are at lower risk of injury. And you put less stress on your systems, you put less stress on your bones and muscles and those connective tissues like I talked about.
So slow running is one of the best ways to build your aerobic engine, it’s one of the most effective ways to build your aerobic engine, you’re not going to be able to get more aerobically fit by just cranking out every workout, you can’t go out there and do every workout hard or medium hard, you know that you have to spend a lot of time running easy and rolling slow.
So something I noticed here, so I took about three months off of running. And since August, so August, September, October, getting into November, I’ve been running very consistently since the middle of November in my room or maybe like Thanksgiving, let’s just say. And I’m noticing that I’m paying very close attention to my effort level and my heart rate.
And I’m noticing that I’m staying very consistent from an energy standpoint, very easy running most of my runs, I would say 90% of my runs right now or at a very easy conversational pace, probably that one to two zones, and the heart rate zones, and maybe three to four on the RPE scale, or two to four somewhere in there and that our RPE scale.
But one thing that’s interesting here is I noticed that my effort level is staying the same, my heart rate is staying the same, but my pace is increasing. So I’m getting faster, at the same effort level. So this is a sign that I’m building a strong aerobic engine. And this is what I want for you too. You should notice that over time, doing a lot of running 90% 80% of your runs at this slower pace, just slowing things down, will help you to increase your aerobic engine and help you to get faster.
So now as I get to the place where I’m you know, going to get into marathon training here, and I’m training for an ultra marathon event here in May, I will continue doing a lot of this slow, easy running and see my pace continually increase, you know, to a certain degree here, okay? The other way that you can really increase your aerobic engine is by running faster.
And I know that sounds a little bit counterintuitive here. But doing higher intensity, like short, higher intensity workouts is another amazing way of building that aerobic engine, right? So why these work is that these workouts put a very high amount of stress on the cardiovascular system, very high amount of stress for very short intervals. This elicits an adaptive response where your system improves.
Think about it, like you know building muscle, like if you lift heavy weights, and you do you know six to eight reps of a very heavy weight. And you get to the point where you just cannot lift one more rep of that weight.
And then you stop and so that’s a short interval but very intense. Your muscle is going to have been put under a high amount of stress for a very short amount of time. That muscle is going to have an adaptive response. It’s going to get stronger. It’s going to grow. You’re gonna see some growth rather than that muscle, and the next time, you’ll be able to lift a heavier weight.
The exact same response happens in our cardiovascular system. So we put high stress for a very short amount of time on that cardiovascular system that improves, this isn’t there’s an adaptive response, your body’s like, hey, we need to, you know, change the way we’re doing things here, we need to increase the amount of blood we’re pumping out per heartbeat. So increase our blood volume, you know, we need to deliver more oxygen working muscles.
And this is another very effective way of improving that aerobic engine. And especially when you combine it with your longer slower runs, right, your very easy lower stress run. So very low stress, long runs, and then very high stress, short runs. So running fast and hard for short intervals, like this could be like, one to three minutes, a very hard running 4-10 minutes of moderate intensity running maybe 12-30 minutes.
For tempo type workouts, these are just examples of different intensity levels that you can add in there. But you know, anything short is one to 30 minutes, maybe. And it just kind of depends on the event that you’re training for. But high stress for short intervals, and low stress for the long runs equals a badass aerobic engine, right there. Okay?
So those two combined are a really, really good way of improving your cardiovascular fitness. So the slower runs focus on 80-90% of your runs at that slow pace, and then higher intensity, shorter workouts, you know, 10-20%, depending on where you are in your training cycle, when we’re talking about building your aerobic base here, I would I would focus on more of a 90/10 breakdown there, okay.
And then probably the most common method people think of when they want to improve their aerobic fitness would be the long run, like improve the length of your long run. And when I say long run, it depends on what you’re training for, again, so this could be 30 minutes, if you’re training for your first 5k, that could be a long run for you, or six hours, if you’re trading for for a 50 miler, you know, so, long run is very subjective. So it just kind of depends on what you’re training for.
Most of us, if we’re training for a marathon, let’s say, most people are going to be doing a long run anywhere from an hour to three and a half hours, something like that, okay. So when we’re talking about in increasing the distance of your long run, the effort level has to be low. So we’re talking about, you know, heart rate zones wanting to wonder for on the RPE scale, this is a conversational pace, this is a easy, I could run all day at this pace.
Okay, this is gonna be one of the most powerful ways of improving your cardiovascular system. So we’re, we’re not just doing one of these things. By the way, we’re not just picking one of these things and saying, like, Oh, I’m just going to improve my long run, I’m just gonna increase the distance on my lawn, or I’m just going to do some HIIT workouts or I’m just going to run slower.
No, you got to do a mile, you got to increase your running volume, you got to run slower, you got to run faster for shorter distances, and you got to increase the distance of that long run, you got to do all these things. But when you do and you combine them all, you’re going to find that your aerobic engine is pretty badass. Okay.
And then the last thing I’ll add to this list is really just getting better at burning fat. You need fuel for running. And when you’re especially running slower and running at these lower intensities, the preferred source of fuel your body’s going to want to use as fat, the better you can get at burning fat, the easier running is going to feel for you.
Listen, we as human beings, we’re naturally good fat burning machines, we’ve just gotten very far away from that state. You know, we’ve been eating a diet that forces us to use glucose as our main fuel source. And granted, it is a very easily available and very quick burning source of fuel especially for running but you run out of that fast and your body isn’t using a whole lot of glucose. When you’re running at these lower intensities fat is going to be the main fuel source, so you got to get good at burning fat.
I suggest you get fat adapted stop using sugar and carbs as fuel. stop relying on glucose as a fuel source. Start training your body to tap into your own stored body fat as a source of fuel for running run in the fasted state. That means you don’t need to fuel up before you run. Maybe for a long long run or a high intensity run, yes. But for the most part, you know, you don’t really need to feel up before the runs, train your body to get good at burning fat.
And this isn’t about like zero carbs or anything like that, this is just about using the right kinds of carbs and using carbs properly. Keeping the carbs pretty low, though, okay, so get better at burning fat. Listen, we’re great at storing fat, right? We’re really good at storing fat, we’re just not good at tapping into our own body fat for fuel. And if you’re somebody who has, you know, 10-20 pounds to lose, you’ve got way more than enough body fat to get you out there and run for many, many, many miles for days, days.
I’m pretty low in the body fat percentage, and I’ve got hundreds of 1000s of calories of body fat on my body right now that I could use, I could literally run for, you know, weeks at a time or something like that. So get better at burning that fat. And you’ll find that your aerobic capacity, it gets better too. And just running just becomes so much easier. Okay.
So remember, we want to build our aerobic engine, we want to, you know, we only want to be delivering more oxygen to working muscles. The way we do this, as we increase our running volume, we run more just more often, we want to run slower, keep it in those zones wanting to keep it in the fat burning zone, right? You know, RPE should be, you know, one to four, run faster, do some HIIT workouts, do some high intensity, but short workouts run longer, like increase the distance of your long run, and then get better at burning fat.
And when you do these things, and you combine all these things, you’re going to be well on your way to being a fit faster, more efficient runner, running is going to become easier for you, you’re going to be able to get faster, and your spring marathon or spring race, whatever it is that you’re training for, will be a huge success for you. Cool. Awesome. That’s all I got for you today. Love you all, keep on Running Lean and I will talk to you soon.
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