After reading an excellent write up about new research showing that shorter training sessions may provide better results if you're trying to lose weight, I thought about how that relates to running.
When it comes to fat loss, it turns out that by exercising more (60 vs 30 minutes), people tend to be less active during the rest of the day. Your best bet is to hit it hard for a short session and stay relatively active all day rather than slog out a long session only to be less active later (think drive-thru vs. cooking).
Think about exercise like prescription drugs for a second.
Drugs are prescribed with the “minimum effective dose” in mind. What is the least amount of drug that needs to be taken to have the desired effect? 2000mg of aspirin would definitely dull your pain, but maybe 200mg would give you the same relief with less chance of, uh, liver toxicity.
What is the least amount of exercise needed to give you the result you want?
Often the answer is much less than you'd imagine. Especially if you're a beginner. Could even 5 minutes of training be effective? Yup. Simply establishing the habit is HUGE. In 2 weeks, add another 5 minutes. More on this line of thinking here.
When designing a running program it is important I help the client reach their goal, but I have to remember that (a) distance running carries with it a high risk of injury and (b) they don't have all the time in the world. So I have to pick and choose the most effective sessions given those restraints.
For some people it may be more effective to do a strength and mobility session than another run; they simply need to become more athletic which will improve their durability. (Running in a straight line all the time erodes your athleticism, sorry!)
Does this mean we need to use all of the machines in the gym? Hell no. 5 big bang-for-your-buck moves will probably work.
For others, doing a small amount of sprint work instead of their usual 5 mile jog can be the key to a new 5K PR.
Personally, I want to run a fast mile. Keeping the minimum effective dose idea in mind, one of my sessions will be quarter mile intervals. How many should I run? 4? 20? I've found that for me about 8-10 gives me results while keeping me healthy. A newbie may find 4-6 effective, while an elite may do 12-16.
For still others, there will be no substitute for running a few more miles. Ya wanna run a marathon? Pay the distance the respect it deserves. You must run as much as you can without breaking down. If you're coming from a 20 mile/week background, it makes no sense to run 50 miles/week even though that might be effective. Instead, your minimum effective dose might be 25-30 miles/week, but by adding a couple of hours of non-impact cycling you'll improve your endurance while limiting impact stress. Over time, you'll be able to handle more mileage.
So take a look at your training regimen and look for ways to get the most results out of the least time. Maybe it means raising the intensity. Maybe it means resting more. Either way, you'll have more energy to cook yourself a nice meal and walk the dog, too!