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Article: How to train properly to improve your running? The 5 dimensions of balanced hybrid training.

Comment bien s’entraîner pour progresser en course à pied ? Les 5 dimensions d’un entraînement de running équilibré.

How to train properly to improve your running? The 5 dimensions of balanced hybrid training.

I lived in Hong Kong for a few years and one day I joined a gym near where I worked. I wanted to run sometimes during the lunch break to prepare for different races. In fact, I remember running the Hong Kong Marathon with its endless suspension bridges and long tunnels, followed by an incredible view of the Hong Kong Bay before the finish in Victoria Park.

In the gym next to my office, what struck me when I went to the open day was that they tested me on four dimensions before drawing up a training plan. And I immediately understood that they were right to build a training plan on these 4 dimensions, and I realised on that occasion that in France or in Europe, two or three of these dimensions were too often neglected or even completely ignored.

What are the key dimensions of a balanced hybrid training?

The notion of overall balance is much more rooted in Asian thinking than in Western thinking. And it was probably this key concept that inspired the approach of this gym in Hong Kong, which tested new members on 4 dimensions before drawing up a training running plan.

The 4 tests they had me do during the open day were as follows:

Cardio & endurance test
Strength test
Flexibility test
Balance test


Hybrid training: combining cardio and strength training

In France and Europe, most training plans focus on the first dimension, i.e. cardio and endurance. Of course, this dimension is key. It's not possible to finish a marathon, for example, without regular training based on cardio and endurance, several times a week over several months. But it's not this dimension that we neglect or sometimes ignore in France or Europe. Rather, it's the other aspects such as strength training and flexibility that we often neglect, or balance work that we can sometimes ignore completely.

I'm not talking here about the training of professionals or experienced competitors, who will certainly incorporate these aspects into their training plans. I recently saw a video of a balance training course with jumps and landings on unstable supports (foam or balls) with professional skiers. It was obvious from watching the video that they were working a lot on their balancing skills (which is understandable, of course, for skiers).

I'm talking here about the training of people like you and me, amateur runners who have a busy schedule and have to make time for training. And often, the training plans we follow focus on the cardio and endurance dimension and don't give enough emphasis to the other three dimensions (strength training, flexibility and balance work).

Before reviewing each of the dimensions to describe their role in a balanced hybrid training plan, I suggest adding a fifth dimension which we can also sometimes neglect because we're passionate and therefore often a bit addicted. This fifth dimension is recovery, which should take place during a busy training week and also between training blocks or just after races.

1st dimension: cardio & endurance

This is the dimension most familiar to all runners. I'm not going to spend too much time on this dimension because there are a huge number of training programmes or applications for all distances (5 km, 10 km, half marathon, marathon, 100 km...) and disciplines (road, trail or for the running part of a triathlon...). The key concepts are the different paces and the corresponding heart rate zones, as well as the types of sessions (from recovery sessions to speed sessions or short, intense intervals to long sessions). There's no need to dwell too much on this aspect, as it's not normally the one that gets overlooked unless motivation runs out along the way. The only key piece of advice I think is important to give for this dimension is to focus on regularity and progressiveness in your training.

How should I train to run longer distances?

It's better to train less but train very regularly than the other way round, and you need to be patient if you want to move up to longer distances: start with short running distances like a 5 or 10K, then move up to half-marathons, then potentially to marathons, and even beyond to 50 or 100K. The same logic applies to trail running and triathlons, with stages to be reached gradually. And when we talk about patience and progressiveness, we're talking about years rather than months before moving on to longer distance races.

Of course, it's possible to enjoy intermediate distances without moving up to longer distances, or to run simply for fun. In all cases, it's the same four other dimensions that shouldn't be neglected, starting with strength training.

2nd dimension: strength training

There are two main reasons for including strength training sessions in a balanced, hybrid training programme. The first applies to runners of all ages, while the second is mainly aimed at those over 30-35.

Why include strength training sessions as part of a balanced, hybrid training programme?

The first reason is linked to the nature of running. When we run, we gain speed through the coordinated movements of our legs, arms and core. And any muscle weakness in the legs, abdominal muscles, back muscles, neck muscles or even the arms will make our movement less efficient. It's not a question of doing bodybuilding to obtain more visible muscles, but rather of strengthening muscles to achieve greater tone, better skills and greater efficiency. Great runners and great swimmers always give an impression of great fluidity and efficiency. Even though they move very quickly compared to the running or swimming speed of amateur athletes, they exude great ease, with almost zero parasitic movement. It's like a perfectly oiled machine! But even if it looks easy, it hides a great deal of muscle tone (over and above their technical mastery, especially in swimming) that enables them to efficiently transform the energy they expend into speed. And even at our level as amateur runners, strength training will help us to build a more efficient, smoother run and become more enduring.

The second reason why strength training is so important is linked to age. As the years go by, we start to lose muscle mass. It's inevitable, it's part of our biological clock. It's an inevitable process, but it's also a process that can be delayed. How can it be delayed? By including strength training sessions to continually rebuild muscle mass and slow down the impact of the passing years.

How to include strength training to improve our running?

To sum up, we need to try and work a balance between the legs (from the feet to the thighs), the core (abdominals and back) and even the upper body with the arms, shoulders and neck. Everything is linked, every part of the body is involved when we start running. So we need to vary the exercises to work on strengthening the muscles from the bottom to the top, with, for example, a third of a muscle-strengthening session spent on the lower body (legs), a third on the core (abdominals, back) and a third on the upper body (arms-shoulders-neck).

The 3rd dimension: stretching

Flexibility is the perfect complement to strength training. Being muscular but stiff or being very flexible but with little muscle tone is only half the battle, or only working on one part of the equation. Muscle tone without flexibility will limit the possible range of our movements and therefore limit the efficiency of our running. Conversely, high flexibility with low muscle density or tone will make it difficult to increase speed. The watts that cyclists are familiar with are a measure of the power we deploy to generate movement with the pedals on a bike or via the movement of our legs when running. Flexibility, combined with muscle strengthening, helps to transform this power output (which costs us energy) efficiently into a fluid movement, ideally one that is almost relaxed.

The third dimension of a balanced, hybrid training plan is therefore flexibility. And as with strength training, it's recommended to work on flexibility in a balanced way between the lower body (feet-legs), the core (abdominal muscles, back) and the upper body (arms-shoulders-neck). This flexibility work is also often beneficial beyond running. It can help us to compensate for the many hours many of us spend sitting in front of a computer, which can over time lead to tension and stiffness in the shoulders, back and neck, for example.

The 4th dimension: balance and proprioception

This dimension is probably the one that is most often neglected or even ignored. In a way, it lies at the crossroads between muscle strengthening and flexibility. This additional dimension is that of balance, or our ability to quickly correct any imbalance. The search for balance is key in our daily lives, simply to avoid falling. It is even more crucial when we are on the move, and finding or keeping our balance requires coordination between the feet, ankles, legs and arms that act as our natural balances. Good control of our balance can also prevent injury, particularly to the ankles, by effectively correcting any imbalance.

Good balance is also a way of developing good footing. And that's something we need to work on, especially if, like me, you may have one ankle more fragile than the other after one or more sprains. Balance training can easily be combined with strength training exercises such as single-leg squats. By going down on a single leg, even for a few centimetres and over several repetitions, we can easily work on and strengthen our balance. You can also use foam blocks, balls or planks placed on a cylinder to work on your balance from front to back or left to right. Working on our balance, as well as strengthening our muscles and making ourself more flexible, will make our run both easier and more effective.

The 5th dimension: recovery

Finally, it is essential to take into account the notion of recovery when defining a balanced training plan. Without sufficient recovery time, the cumulative effect of training can become negative. This can lead to overtraining and its possible corollary effects such as fatigue, deterioration in performance and, in the worst case scenario, injury.

Recovery should be spread over several 'phases':

  • a short period over a week, spacing out sessions and avoiding demanding sessions over two days in a row,
  • an intermediate period over a training plan lasting several months, with blocks of 3-4 more intense weeks interspersed with, for example, a lighter week
  • a long period over a whole year or a whole season, with one or more whole weeks of recovery and a complete break from training.

Recovery has many other dimensions too. Good recovery includes not only rest but also sleep, proper nutrition and hydration, and potentially active recovery techniques such as sports massage or cryotherapy.


Hybrid training programme

Allocating time between the 5 key dimensions of a balanced, hybrid training plan.

To conclude and link up all the dimensions of a balanced, hybrid training plan, here's a summary of the time we can devote to the different training activities over the course of a week:

  • Cardio - endurance training: 70-80% of weekly training time
    • For example, 2, 3, 4 or 5 hours spread over several sessions
    • Alternate sessions between recovery, intervals, long outings, etc.
  • Strength training - flexibility - balance training: 20-30%.
    • 30 min for 2 hours of cardio, 45 min for 3 hours of cardio etc...
    • 2 or 3 sessions of 15 min, 3 sessions of 20 min etc...
    • Sessions can be split between strength training/balancing and stretching or mixed with strength training/balancing then stretching.
  • Placement of min. 1 or 2 recovery day(s) (without cardio training) each week.

For strength training/balancing and/or flexibility sessions, we can adopt an exercise routine to ensure a good balance of work between the three dimensions and between the three major parts of the body (lower-middle-top).

I hope that this approach to a balanced training plan with 5 key dimensions can contribute to a better running experience for all of us and will bear fruit in our daily life.

And thanks again to that faraway gym for making me aware of the importance of balanced training with these multiple dimensions.

Break free & run



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