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Stamina Work

Of the five essential components to an effective training plan, Stamina work is where most of us put the bulk of our time and energy.  But if we are not using our time effectively we won’t make as many gains as we potentially could.   So I am starting this series with Stamina work, because even stamina, which we feel we’ve got a pretty good handle on, can be improved.

Most aerobic activities (running, cycling, swimming, hiking, Nordic skiing, etc.) can help in maintaining or increasing stamina, but it is how we place stamina work within our training plan and couple it with other areas that will ultimately determine our progress.

While there are plenty of forms of stamina work, I will break stamina work into three general categories: long runs, threshold runs, and maintenance runs.


Any long distance training program should be founded on the long run.  It should be a regular staple for any distance runner.  Consequently, when developing a training plan for myself of an athlete I coach, I structure most weeks’ training around the long run.  In the base and pre-competition phases of the training plan I make it the top priority, assuring that my athletes go into the long run rested from previous workouts during the week.  After the long run, I plan for adequate recovery before tackling another high intensity or high volume workout.

Long runs can take on a variety of forms.  One coach from whom I have learned a great deal is Greg McMillan.  Greg is not only an accomplished runner himself, but  he has led countless athletes to new heights.  In 2011 he outlined some of the tried and true methods of top marathon coaches in an article entitled, “The Marathon Long Run: Variations on a theme.” I highly recommend this article and the other articles Greg writes in his monthly McMillan’s Performance Page.

In addition to the 16 week sequence of long runs Greg suggests in the article above, two long runs that I have found to be particularly beneficial for ultrarunners are fat-burning/glycogen depletion runs and higher intensity progressive or threshold runs.  Both serve different, but equally important functions.

The longer (2-5 hours) fat-burning run/glycogen depletion run is intended to simulate how the body feels toward the end of a long race while also increasing the body’s capacity to metabolize fat. While not as enjoyable as adventure runs with a picnic in your pack, the objective of these runs is to simulate what is commonly referred to as “the wall” or “bonking” by limiting the consumption of sugars and limiting liquid intake to water. Most people decrease their pace and mentally shut down when they hit the wall in a race, however by training the mind and the body to run through the wall it is possible to more efficiently transition through this phase in the race.  Then, when you are fueling regularly in the race this painful process is delayed considerably and sometimes eliminated.

The shorter (1-3 hours), higher intensity carb-burning run is still a long run, but is generally run at a m
uch faster pace.  Whereas the over-distance run intentionally depletes the glycogen stores, on some of these shorter, higher intensity long runs it is possible to actually practice fueling for an upcoming race.  Whether carrying your fuel along with you or setting bottles out along the course, these runs are perfect opportunities to test out drink mixes, electrolyte caps, and gels.  They are also important ways of gauging one’s fitness and preparing the mind and the body for an upcoming effort - often longer - in a race.

Both of these runs can be done solo, but they are often much easier when you have some company.  Join a group or find a friend to join you on these runs as often as schedules permit.  If you are like me and live miles away from other long distance runners, be willing to drive every once in a while to meet up with a friend or sign up for a race and use that race (1/2 marathon – 100K) as a long run in preparation for your goal race.  Heck, that’s how I got into this crazy sport – jumping into a 50K as part of a buildup for a road marathon – and I’ve been at it ever since.


Threshold runs, also known as tempo runs, can take on a variety of forms, but the overriding goal of threshold work is to run at or near your aerobic threshold – the red line – for as long as possible.  Overtime this will not only increase your threshold, but also your capacity to sustain a threshold effort, also known as stamina.

For those making the transition to running longer distances this may simply mean a series of short (400m) bursts at 5k-10K effort/pace followed by a very brief (30-45 sec) recovery interval between each rep.  This workout, known as Georgetown 400s, were a common workout for former Georgetown mid-distance Coach Frank Gagliano’s athletes moving up in distance.  Most of my high school athletes enjoy Georgetown 400s because sustaining 20 minutes + of quality running is not always possible (mentally or physically) for beginning runners.  I have seen the benefit of this simple workout for even more advanced runners training for a half marathon or marathon.

For more experienced runners, threshold work should mean a run between 20 minutes and 2 hours at half marathon to marathon pace.   As Dr. Joe Vigil likes to say, “There are many roads to Rome.”  His elite athletes run multiple threshold runs of varying distances and intensities, but the underlying principle remains - the goal is to increase your body’s capacity to sustain hard efforts.  The key is to work your aerobic threshold regularly - at least weekly.


Some people call these runs easy or recovery runs.  Maintenance runs are what I call all running that does not specifically target speed or strength.  Some people believe that all running should be hard or fast, but maintenance runs are as important as the harder, faster sessions.  They keep us regular - on a routine - and they serve as a means of increasing blood flow to parts of the body that have been taxed through long or hard running.  Maintenance runs are just as important to the development of stamina as are higher intensity and longer runs.

Maintenance runs can also serve as SKILL development runs.  While the emphasis may not necessarily be on skill, if there is a skill to develop, particularly adjusting to terrain (grass, rocks, roots, cinder, mud, pavement, track, singletrack, downhill, etc.), maintenance runs are a great way to allow the body to acclimate to the demands of different terrain without overdoing it in a workout, race, or long run.  Over time, these regular runs allow the body to adapt to the new demands of the foreign terrain and will better prepare the athlete for harder or longer sessions on a similar surface.

STAMINA work should be foundational to any training plan designed for distance running.  If you are missing any one of these elements in your training, LONG RUNS, THRESHOLD RUNS, or MAINTENANCE RUNS, you can make noticeable differences by gradually introducing them into what you already do.

A few years ago, after listening to some interviews of Greg McMillan and his athletes who were having great success, I began placing a greater emphasis on long runs and threshold runs in my own training and in the training of those that I coached.  Over a short time, my marathon PR went from 2:35 to 2:25 simply by adjusting my training schedule to emphasize the long run.  Similarly, I dropped over twenty minutes on the same trail 50K course.  My athletes made even greater gains.  Every school record from 800m to 5,ooom for men and women at my Alma Mater where I coach cross country and track  has been broken and the top ten lists have been rewritten (I'm not even in the top ten on any of the lists anymore:).,,My wife, Jen, went from a 21:30 5K to a 16:40 and a 1:35 half marathon to a 1:18.    All of this can be attributed to a greater emphasis on the long run.

It is certainly possible to make considerable improvements with a greater emphasis on STAMINA training, but over time without some emphasis on STRENGTH, SPEED, SUPPLENESS, and SKILL you will inevitably reach a performance plateau or be sidelined by an injury.

Next time, I’ll discuss the importance of STRENGTH work in a comprehensive long distance training plan.

Jacob Puzey is a competitive endurance athlete and USATF certified endurance coach.  He runs for Altra, First Endurance, Swiftwick, and Trail Butter.  He also blogs for When he's not on the road with his athletes, he’s usually exploring wild places with his family and friends.  For more information about Jacob and the coaching services he provides, please visit his site:


  1. Informative post here!
    I used to do all my runs in the morning before eating, and didn't worry about it.. then my pattern changed due to schedule shifts. Now I find myself feeling like I need to eat a meal within a few hours of any run, and had what felt like a "crash" during a recent run- no fuel on hand. Hopefully my body will re-learn- I am looking to try my first 50k in May.
    That is an amazing drop in time in the 5k for your wife!

    1. Thank you, Raina, for your kind words. I've had a similar change in schedule with the birth of our second child. I used to run in the mornings before work and in the evenings after work. That is not as easy anymore with both my wife and I training. She feels better if she runs in the morning, so she goes while I get up with the kids and try to get them ready before I head off to work. It takes a while for the body to adjust to the change, but it eventually does. There is definitely a need to eat before a run later in the day. I generally eat a light lunch (preferably soup), but I get hungry before I run in the afternoon so I bring apples and nut butter to munch on between lunch and my run. It seems to hold me over and it is actually rather tasty and healthy. I crave it if I forget it and have a hard time getting through the run without it. Best of luck with your first 50K. Which one are you doing? Yes, my wife made big gains once she started doing more consistent threshold and long runs. Her half marathon jump was equally impressive: 1:35 to 1:18.

    2. Thanks for answering with those tips. I can identify with the scenario there!
      I am looking at Trailfactor in Portland, but a little daunted by it. Running the trail is much different than the road. I have no idea what a realistic goal for myself for a first 50k is. Of course, just to finish (preferably uninjured)- but I would like an idea of how to pace myself, and how far I should attempt to run on trails in training leading up to the race. There seem to be a billion different approaches to it. I am trying to be realistic about slowing down and taking breaks...I am not a walker, but my trail pace is all over the place!
      Your wife is a star!! :)

    3. The Trail Factor 50K is a great race. The trails are beautiful and it is just incredible to think that you are in the heart of an urban center and yet once you get to the park you escape into an enchanted forest. It is quite remarkable actually. In terms of training, I would just say start doing some of your running on trails. The best way to get used to them is to run them. Get on single track once a week if/when you can. Forest Park isn't very technical most of the year and in most sections. The trails are well groomed and perfect for your first trail 50K. I wouldn't worry about pace. If you are used to wearing a GPS just don't use it, unless you are willing to just use it for HR and overall distance. Pace is irrelevant in trail running. Run by feel. Enjoy the scenery. Charge the uphills. Bomb the downhills. Have fun. Run free and you'll have an amazing experience. There are plenty of aid stations, but you'll probably want to carry some liquid with you. That would be another thing to practice. Find out what is most comfortable for you - handheld, belt, or vest - and then practice fueling carrying liquid with you on the run. Everyone is different so it helps to have an idea of what works for you when you get there. And then if so inclined during the race don't hesitate to fill your mouth with chips, gummie bears, cookies, and m&m's. It's really just a party in the woods that you don't have to feel guilty about because you burn it all off as you go.