Every session needs to have a purpose, but does this purpose have to be VO2 Max or lactate threshold training? Can it be to just have fun?

You may have heard it said before that every run you go on needs to have a specific purpose or otherwise it’s just ‘junk miles’.

Junk miles is a horrible term and does a disservice to the beauty of running a mile, whatever pace or reason you’re running.

The purpose

Many feel that every run should have a specific purpose though. Each outing should target an energy system. This is a run for your VO2 Max, this one is for lactate threshold and this slower one is to improve aerobic capacity. 

It’s as if runners can just turn off other ‘systems’ and pinpoint what they are doing on one particular day. If running were such an exact science we wouldn’t need coaches, just scientists with data sheets and a live feed of our insides. If anyone wanted that they would have become a cyclist.

There may well be a main focus for each individual session but the human body isn’t as simple as we sometimes might like. It is also the complexity that makes us great. 

The holistic approach

Holistic is a term that gets chucked around all the time. “The belief that the parts of something are intimately interconnected and explicable only by reference to the whole” if you use Google. You cannot train one element without affecting the whole. 

Yet why stop at only the biological factors of training. What about the biomechanical? The psychological? 

A sprinter needs to work on their biomechanics, we all know this. Distance runners do too. If you have a great engine but terrible efficiency then you’re not going anywhere.

It’s one reason why a world class cyclist can’t just trash the marathon world record. Did you see Chris Froome try to run uphill when his bike broke?

Psychology can matter even more. If the mind isn’t prepared for race day then the body will never reach it’s potential. It can all be trained. 

Double, even triple, purpose

There is no limit to the purposes a run can have. Take for example the lowly ‘easy run’.

One might say it was simply in place to improve endurance. Another might suggest it is there for recovery, running efficiency, base building, enjoyment of running, building volume or any host of other reasons.

Why would we limit the purpose of a run to one? Surely there should be at least two or three reasons you’re lacing up those shoes and heading out the door.

As an ultra runner, it’s even easier to add more purpose to your easy running. Practising pacing, nutrition, kit, mental strategies or even just enjoying the environment around you will all benefit you on race day. 

The fast stuff

It can be useful to think of the purposes of your session when planning. If you’re a 5000m runner or a marathoner, having multiple purposes in mind will make your training more effective.

Look at Elsey Davis’ recent favourite session article. In there the South West based athlete is training specifically for 10,000m running. There is 10,000m of volume for the efforts but not every effort is done at 10,000m pace.

Different energy systems are stressed with mile efforts and shorter race finish sprints. But the purposes don’t stop at the physiological. The biomechanical element of shifting to different speeds on tired legs is in there too. Then the tactical and mental benefits come in.

The practice of tactics

Training at a range of speeds within one session, as Davis spoke about, can be a great place for mental training too. One can visualise the tactics of past or future races and how you react. Imagine the leader kicking from 1600m out or the final dash to the line. 

Preparing your mind can often be underrated, but it can provide the edge an athlete needs on race day.

It’s not just on the track either. An easy run could be a place to imagine moving well over the final section of a 100 miler or a progression run in your local country lanes can become the run along Pall Mall at London marathon.

It takes no extra effort to add psychological training to your run. Although some days you do need to just run and enjoy it.

The purpose of fun

Back we come to the idea of ‘junk miles’. What constitutes a junk mile to someone? Many would say it was something slow and meaningless. Why run slow when you could just run fast?

Yet studies have shown that low intensity running is an integral part of any runner’s training. The slow miles certainly aren’t junk.

Equally, if a mile is run for enjoyment then it is good for the runner too. If you’re just out to jump in puddles, shred some single track or enjoy the company of friends then those miles have a purpose. 

Consistency is key and we need to enjoy our running to keep the consistency coming. Social interaction is vital to motivation too so having a run with friends can be part of keeping motivation high too. 

The real junk

Personally, the only real junk miles are the ones where you don’t think about the purpose. You’re not running easy, you’re not running at any particular pace, but it’s just hard. Many athletes just go out and run as hard as they can all the time, but that’s not smart. 

If you can think of a purpose, be it simply enjoyment or a super specific reason, then your run has a purpose. It’s not junk.

Look at the bigger picture and remember that goes beyond even just your running. Everything in life can be linked to training if you can think of a purpose.