How much did my running fitness improve after following a program for 3 months?
Towards the end of last year I was struggling with knee injuries as a result of consistently overtraining. A friend recommended Hal Higdon’s Novice Base Training program since it had helped her overcome a similar problem.
The idea was reasonably unappealing. I didn’t think of myself as a novice runner (in retrospect, I absolutely am and was). Nonetheless, I ignored the protests from my ego and started the program on 27 Dec 2022. I finished the program last Sunday.
The only goal I had was to go back to square one and “rebuild” my knees. I was less interested in getting faster or being able to cover more distance. That could come later once I’d built a foundation.
In that regard, I’d say it was a success. My knees and shins still feel sore occasionally, but I haven’t experienced any pain that would prevent me from running since I started the program.
- Max effort 5k pace improved from 5:46min/km to 5:07min/km (28:34 to 25:38)
- Easy 5k pace improved from ~7min/km to ~6min/km
- Lost 7% of my bodyweight
- No knee pain!
I ran almost all of my runs at a relatively low heart rate, usually at the upper limit of what my Apple Watch considers “Zone 2” (see next section for more on this). For a 5km run, my pace in this zone has improved from ~7min/km to just under 6min/km.
My 5km PB improved too. My best time before this program was 28:34 at a local parkrun. Towards the end of the program, I ran 5km in 25:38, which is a much larger improvement than I was expecting to see. That’s a pace improvement from 5:46min/km to 5:07min/km.
Part of this can be attributed to better fitness, but I think weight loss helped too. While I wasn’t aiming to lose weight, I was (and still am) heavier than I should be. I have lost about 7% of my body weight since starting.https://www.halhigdon.com/training-programs/base-training/novice-base-training/)
This is a huge ROI for what was a very small investment every week: ~2hr per week over only 12 weeks.
I’m quite happy with my adherence. I was meant to run 213.9km over 12 weeks and ended up running 257.07km. The graph compares my planned weekly distance against the actual KMs logged:
In the early weeks I overdid it. At the time some friends were going for long trail runs on the weekend. I don’t regret joining them, but I think it would have been sensible to take a little bit of mileage out during the week, or at least replace it with a different sport like swimming or cycling. I was lucky not to get injured.
I followed the plan a bit better in later weeks. My friends lost interest in trail running and I replaced the long Saturday morning trail runs with shorter ones on the road.
Heart rate zones
While heart rate zones, training intensity, lactate thresholds are fascinating, they’re massive rabbit holes. They are not really relevant for someone as untrained as me. The only thing I needed to know was that most training should be at a lower intensity than you think. This video from Dylan Johnson gives a good overview, even though it’s aimed at cyclists. I ended up doing most of my running at something approximating Zone 2 and it worked out just fine.
If you’re unsure about your heart rate zones, you can estimate the upper limit of Z2 using the “heart rate reserve” (HRR) method.. For me, this is
- Resting Heart Rate (RHR): 53bpm
- Max Heart Rate (MHR): 193bpm
- Heart Rate Reserve (HRR): 193 - 53 = 140bpm
- Zone 2 Upper Limit: RHR + (HRR * 0.7) = 53 + (140 * 0.7) = 151bpm
To find your resting heart rate, count your pulse for 15 seconds and multiply by 4. To estimate your max heart rate, subtract your age from 220. For me this is 220 - 28 = 192, which is pretty close to the max heart rate I’ve observed.
- My pace at a given heart rate still varies by a massive amount. I have noticed that things like sleep, temperature, and coffee intake have a big effect on heart rate. Temperature in particular– I was almost always faster in the morning than at lunchtime.
- Shoes seem to matter. I upgraded my shoes from some old Hoka Clifton 8’s to a pair of Saucony somethings and my pace immediately jumped up.
- Mixing it up with trail running is a great idea. Trail running is a lot more fun than road running, and I wouldn’t be surprised if diversifying the load on your knees makes them less injury prone
- It’s very hard to judge your heart rate based on feeling alone. I have run at 160bpm thinking it was well within Z2
- If you live in a hot place, run in the morning or the evening.