There’s something special about being so excited to go running that you count the minutes until you can leave work, lace up, and hit the pavement. But no matter how much you’re in love with running, it takes a little effort to keep the relationship fresh. “If you want to make progress and still keep it fun, variety is going to be crucial,” says Jason Fitzgerald, an elite marathoner, running coach, and founder of StrengthRunning.com.
Before a favorite neighborhood route starts to feel ho-hum, mix in one of these 18 runs to keep things fun and challenging. Each one can be modified for runners of any fitness and experience levels. Many of the workouts require a set distance, but you don’t need access to a track. Websites and apps like MapMyRun and USA Track & Field make it easy to map distance so you can do these workouts anywhere.
1. Get Stuck on Repeat
Running a set of repeats interspersed with intervals for recovery is a simple way to mix things up. Choose a distance or time period (200 meters or 45 seconds, for example) and run hard. Rest for a set period of time and do it all again (and again). (Spoiler alert: The recovery interval is just as important as the repeat!) The Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) scale is an intuitive way to loosely measure your effort, no heart rate monitor or other gadgetry required.
For most workouts, repeats should feel like a "7" to "9" on an RPE scale, (ie. a rough approximation of "intensity") and recovery intervals can either be full rest, walking, or light jogging. Start the next repeat when you’ve caught your breath enough to talk comfortably. The longer or harder the repeat, the more recovery you’ll need.
2. Climb a Ladder
Ladders add a different challenge to the traditional interval workout with repeats that grow increasingly more challenging (in distance or intensity) as the workout progresses. For example, you might run 200m, rest, run 400m, rest, run 600m, rest, and so on. This kind of workout is good practice for managing exertion throughout a workout—going hard while leaving something in the tank to finish strong. Check out a couple of sample ladder workouts for both beginning and advanced runners.
3. Step Up
Find stairs or a stadium that’s open to the public and run them again and again. As with hills, the walk down is your recovery. Increase the challenge by taking a few at a time. Shadowboxing optional.
4. Take on Tabatas
While most speed workouts call for hard effort, Tabata training demands an all-out sprint. The idea is to go as hard as you possibly can for 20 seconds and then rest for 10 seconds. Repeat that couplet eight times as hard as you can, on stairs, flats, or however else you've planned your workout. Newer runners should start with fewer repeats and gradually build up to the complete four-minute workout.
5. Go Climbing
Tackling a long hill with a slow climb or running hard up a short, steep incline challenges your aerobic fitness, leg strength, and mental toughness all at once . Plan a running route that includes a few hills, or find a hill that requires a steep climb and run repeats. If you choose the latter, the walk to back to the base is recovery.
6. Stride Right
Running strides is the bipedal equivalent of pumping a car’s gas pedal. As you run a repeat of about 100m, speed up until you reach approximately 95 percent of your maximum speed—which should happen about a third of the way into the repeat—then decelerate to the finish. Do as many repeats as you have energy for, with recovery or rest in between. “People love strides,” says Jason Fitzgerald. “They’re a good way to stretch your legs out and feel the wind in your hair.” Fitzgerald suggests doing strides before the end of an easy run, so that you’re warmed up but not fatigued.
7. Go Off-Roading
Rejuvenate the body and mind by getting off the road and into nature. Running a path or trail provides a scenic backdrop and tests your coordination on new terrain. Just make sure you have the right kind of sneakers, and if it’s your first time off the road, pick a path that isn’t likely to (literally) trip you up.
8. Try "Fartleks"
Swedish for “speed play,” fartleks allow runners to reap the benefits of speed work in an unstructured workout. Bonus: They’re as fun to run as they are to say. To try fartleks, just run at a comfortable pace to warm up and then throw in a sprint—run hard until you reach the end of the block, or until the next stop sign, or until you see a red car. Make a game of it; that’s why they call it “play!”
9. Get Social
Run with a group or club to learn new routes and meet running buddies. Larger cities will have multiple running clubs that gather for group runs before and after the 9-to-5 workday. And most have a social component too—post-workout recovery fuel might include beer, bagels, or both. If there aren’t running clubs or teams near you, contact specialty running shops in your area; they often host group runs. Reversal runs, rabbit runs, and group fartleks make for challenging, fun group workouts.
10. Run to a Beat
Sometimes it’s tough to push ourselves to maintain a challenging pace. When this happens, let the music do the work. Apps like RockMyRun, TempoRun ,and PaceDJ provide a beat that will keep you moving fast by sorting your music library by tempo. Songza’s 90 BPM Hip Hop Running Mix will keep you moving, too.
11. Run, Walk, Repeat
Running coach Jeff Galloway developed his run-walk method to help marathoners complete the 26.2-mile distance without becoming sidelined by fatigue. He believes it also helps runners build speed while reducing the likelihood of injury. His training programs are highly structured, with recommended ratios of time spent running to time spent walking, depending on a runner’s pace-per-mile.
12. Go Long (and Slow Down)
Remember that ramping up the pace isn’t the only way to make a run more challenging. Slowing down and running longer is a great way to build endurance (though racking up too much mileage can have its own potential pitfalls). To avoid injury caused by pushing too hard too soon, increase your average weekly distance by no more than 10 percent each week.
13. Work the Treadmill
With the ability to do workouts that vary in pace, distance, and incline without having to scout routes or worry about climate, weather, or road conditions, the treadmill is one of the most versatile tools in a runner’s fitness toolbox. Almost any running workout can be done on the treadmill, including most workouts listed here.
14. Experience the "Pyramids"
Pyramids start with the shortest repeat and increase in set increments until they hit the longest distance, then decrease in the same increments. The last repeat will be your starting distance. For example: 200m, 400m, 600m, 800m, 600m, 400m, 200m, with recovery intervals between each run. Feel free to swap out timed repeats for the distances.
15. Chase a Friend
If speed work feels too much like, well, work, find a friend who’s a bit faster than you and set out together. This will challenge your legs and lungs, make your workout feel social, and provide a little extra motivation. Feel free to take the social and leave the speed work; there’s nothing wrong with running at a comfortable pace and chatting as you go.
16. Throw Weight Around
Weight training increases strength and can protect runners against injury. “A good running program will also include planned strength and core training,” says personal trainer and strength coach Jon-Erik Kawamoto. Jason Fitzgerald agrees, adding that just 10-15 minutes of bodyweight exercise each time you run is a great way to strengthen core and leg muscles.
Mix strength training into a run by doing, for example, five squats and five lunges every five minutes and then holding a 30-second plank at every mile. Or do jump squats while you wait for a walk signal or one block of walking lunges for every three blocks you run.
17. Just (Don’t) Do It
Just don’t run. As Jason Fitzgerald points out, “Recovery is just as important as the workouts themselves. If you don’t recover from them, you might as well not do them.” Days off are “when you adapt to that workload from the workout—get faster, stronger, become a better runner.” Without adequate rest, the risk of becoming overtrained increases. Overtraining can cause a backslide in fitness gains, persistent fatigue and soreness, and increases the likelihood of injury.
One of the best feelings is the zip in your step that comes from race-day adrenaline. Crossing a finish line with tons of other determined racers can provide a motivating sense of accomplishment and renew enthusiasm for the sport. Find a race with a fun theme or post-race festival, or one that benefits a cause you care about. Register in advance to solidify your commitment, and start training for the distance. Check out our 5K Training Guide or Half-Marathon Training Guide for everything you need to finish strong (and have fun in the process).
What are your favorite running routines? Let us know in the comments below and tweet the author @sallyt!