You’ve had a great week of festive fitness building, now to help keep your motivation up through to the New Year, find out how legend Simon Lessing approaches his run training.

Triathlon Plus: Is it easy for you to sum up your overall approach to run training?

Simon Lessing: My training philosophy has always been about more intensity and less volume and that was certainly something that worked for me.Triathlon - Simon Lessing Interview

I think that triathletes on the whole are too obsessed with volume. A lot of athletes who do our sport, both age-groupers and elites, have the notion that doing more and more is better for you. I’m not sure if it’s because triathletes tend to have Type A personalities but the truth is that you can actually improve your performance by sustainability, meaning injury prevention, by avoiding a lot of junk miles. I’ve spoken to a lot of pros in the past and we’ve all come to the conclusion that we might have done high volume initially, but over the years we’ve done less and less. I think that huge volumes of training are a huge problem, especially with regard to Ironman training.

Take Chrissie Wellington, for example. She’s certainly not a believer in huge volume and I know a lot of people would be a little surprised by that.

And what about for age-group athletes doing shorter events like sprint- and Olympic-distance races?

Being specific is difficult because it comes down to your background, your personal history with regard to injuries, the type of distance you want to race… And I work with athletes who have eight hours a week to train and others who are retired and have all week.

You need to figure out what works for you but a lot of triathletes would be surprised at how much they can reduce the volume of their training and still improve. Doing a lower volume means you have extra time and energy to put into more structured, higher intensity workouts like interval training [see Simon’s sample sessions on interval training below]. You’re going to get more out of an interval workout than from going out jogging for an hour and a half every day.

Can you explain what the benefits of interval training are?

As a triathlete you are trying to develop sustained strength – the ability to maintain a pace at your lactate threshold throughout the whole run. The fitter you become, the faster the pace that you can hold at your threshold level.

If you only ever run slowly in training, never approaching your threshold, you won’t develop your efficiency and this will mean that you aren’t increasing your capacity for speed.

Intervals, though, do create efficiency at the speed you aim to race at. That simply means that you become fitter and are able to maintain a fast pace at a lower heart rate. That’s why I’m a strong believer in them.

Okay, so what type of intervals are you talking about?

I think intervals should be incorporated into your training all year round, although in the winter they should be done at a controlled intensity.

In other words, you don’t have to do the intervals flat out at that time of year but at the pace you’d run in a half marathon or a 70.3 triathlon.

For example, after about a month of going out three or four times a week and just running without any structure, I’d start adding a weekly workout of lighter intervals. You could work your way up to doing four one-mile intervals at half-marathon pace with two minutes rest between each one.

And how should this change now that we’re into spring and are thinking about the race season?

I’d always include at least one interval workout a week over the spring and summer. Many triathletes are obsessed with doing these intervals on the track because that’s a measured distance and they like to be able to improve their times from one week to the next.

But your intervals could also be in the form of a fartlek session – which I personally like – where you vary your speed significantly rather than running at a continuous pace.

Alternatively, it could be a session where your intervals are based on time [see Simon’s sample sessions panel on the opposite page].

At what pace should you do intervals of this kind?

If you’re working towards an Olympic-distance triathlon [including a 10k run leg], run your intervals at the race pace that you would want to sustain during a 10k run race.

If you’re training for a 70.3 race [with a half marathon run leg], you should aim to run your intervals at your half marathon run race pace. This will be faster than your triathlon race pace. 

Would you advise us to do much hill training as the triathlon race season approaches?

I don’t think you need to spend tons of time doing hill intervals because there is a crossover from cycling.

Hill intervals make massive demands on your lower back, your glutes and your hamstrings, and those are elements we use on a bike on a regular basis.

I’ve always found that I’ve been very strong when running on the hills, and I put that down to the fact that I spend so much time riding a bike.

And what about a weekly long run? Is that an important component of training at this time in the spring and summer?

To put it in perspective, through my Olympic-distance triathlon career the longest runs I ever did were an hour long, but I did them at a tempo effort – about 10 to 12 heart beats per minute under my lactate threshold.

I did that purely because of the limited amount of running that we triathletes can do since we have the two other disciplines. My philosophy is to make those workouts count by ensuring they are quality sessions.

If you’re racing Ironman you certainly need to get in your longer runs – you might want to consider working your way up to two hours – but for shorter distances I would much rather see someone carry
out  more consistent shorter workouts at a higher intensity than go trotting out 12-minute miles. If that’s all you do and then you jump into an Olympic-distance event, that’s the speed you’ll find yourself racing at during the run leg.

In order to get that tempo intensity right, do you think that we should use a heart-rate monitor?

I initially trained with a heart-rate monitor but after a while I could predict what my heart rate was to within one or two beats per minute without checking it. That’s very common among elite athletes because they are so in tune with their bodies. That comes with experience.

I certainly work with heart-rate monitors with a lot of age-group athletes because it’s part of that learning process. Initially they’re checking their heart rate all the time, but as they progress from one month to the next they don’t need to be glancing at it so much. They start to be able to predict where they are. That’s exactly what you want because I certainly don’t believe in racing with a heart-rate monitor – not in Ironman-distance racing or in shorter distance events. I think you need to develop the ability to listen to what your body is telling you. Then if you feel good you can go for it, and if you feel bad you can slow down. It’s about being sensible and intelligent.

It would be terrible if you felt great in a race yet you restricted yourself to a given heart rate and watched all your age-group peers run by you.

Should we be working on technique leading into the race season?

Our technique is something that we need to work on throughout the year – although I never really did technique drills. For me, it was more like I’d be out running with a couple of friends and we’d say things like, “Right, let’s relax the arms. Relax the shoulders. Push the hips forward…”

Or I would just be thinking about what I was doing while I was running rather than switching off, which a lot of people do. With all three disciplines we need to concentrate on what we’re doing every time we go out. You need to be conscious of what you’re doing in order to improve.

For example, when it comes to foot strike if you’re landing on your heel you’re going to hurt your quads more. So you need to get used to the notion of planting your foot and rolling from the outside in.

Or you can see if you’re striking at a good 90 steps a minute, or whether it’s closer to 80 or 75, in which case you need to increase your foot turnover. These are all elements that can be brought in on a daily basis in your training.

You touched on training with friends. Were you a big one for running with training partners?

Running with other people is important when it comes to your key workouts. It’s easier to do a long run if you have someone to chat to. It’s fun and there’s a social aspect to it. I certainly feel that the support and the social aspect of going out to run with a bunch of buddies is far more beneficial than going out and slogging it out all on your own. The same goes for interval workouts. You want to be challenged and to have a bit of competition there. I think that’s healthy, as long as it’s friendly. You can get more out of a workout if you are being pushed and you’re trying your hardest to hang on or to get one up on a guy of similar ability.

There’s a time for going out on your own, like when you’re doing an easy recovery run and you don’t want it to turn into a race, but in general I feel that training in a group has huge benefits.

 This article originally appeared in Triathlon Plus magazine