Do I need to run twice a day to be a good trail runner?

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Recently a couple of friends I know have started running twice a day. In the past, in passing conversation with other runners I have noticed how this seems to be almost highlighted as the ‘gold standard’ of training and a mark of real fitness and commitment.

So do you really need to run twice a day to be a good trail runner? Well, speaking from experience you can get really fit by running twice a day and it does have lots of benefits. However, you can also very quickly overdo it and become over-trained and/or injured. There are also other ways you can get fit without running twice a day. I thought I’d share a few of my own experiences, along with some reflections on the research I have done to help you decide whether running twice a day is right for you.

Pros

A good way to get more time on your feet.

The best way to get good at running is to do a lot of running. Running twice a day can be a good way to add a few extra miles/hours into your training programme and can often be easier to do than finding time to do one longer run. For example, you may struggle to find 90 minutes to run in the evenings, but might manage an easy 30-40 minutes in the morning and 40 to 50 minutes in the evening. The advantage of doing two shorter runs is that it can keeps your legs fresher whilst still giving you good fitness gains. This can make your speed sessions better as you come do them with less tired legs.

Pre-breakfast running is good way to encourage some fat metabolising

Many people like to do some exercise before breakfast to stimulate the body to burn fat in the absence of any carbohydrates in the system. An easy 20 minutes before breakfast can make a great addition to your training and is a good way to do this, as well as adding a couple of miles to your training for the day. For longer events, your body will need to metabolise fat as well as carbohydrates, so a session a couple of times a week that promotes this energy system can be a great addition to your training plan if you have time.

A second run can help recovery

Doing an easy run after a hard session earlier in the day can be a good way to promote recovery. By increasing the energy demands of the cells in the muscles you are encouraging the production of more mitochondria (the part of the cell where reactions to make energy occur). Once more mitochondria are produced this encourages muscular recovery to occur more quickly in general, making you more resilient to more running longer term.

Gentle exercise can also help flush out some of lactate build up after a hard session helping you be fresher for your next session.

It can help prepare you for a hard session

One of my friends likes to have a short run every morning first thing, to ‘wake herself up.’ She’s not alone, many athletes over time have used this technique to waken up their muscles and prepare them for a good hard session later in the day. An easy morning run can provide the stimulus to help prepare your body for a later session and has been shown to improve the quality of your second session of the day.

A Good Routine

For some people getting out of bed and going for a run is a good routine to be in. It can be a great energising way to start the day and often a day that starts right continues in the same vein because you feel good about yourself for getting up and going out for your run. That first twenty minutes of the day running may also give you some much needed reflection time to help you mentally plan for the day ahead.

Use your commute to train

For those really struggling for time, running twice a day can be incorporated into the commute to work, either by getting off a train/bus early or running the whole way if it is possible. This has the advantage of saving a bit of petrol/cheaper travel and reduces the time you have to find for your run. It can require a little organisation to make sure you have clothes at work (although I have been known to rush to the local charity shop for a shirt/blouse when I have forgotten something). This can be a great start and end to the working day, de-stressing you in the evenings and setting you up for the day ahead in the mornings by giving you some thinking time. You could even do a fartlek session on the way home to incorporate some speed training into your schedule.

Cautionary Points

Two runs with very different purposes

Every run has a goal and a purpose and each session has a different one. Your secondary run of the day (which might be your first sequentially) is not going to be the same run as your main session. I am a big promoter in running of hard/easy days. The purpose of your additional run is simply to turn over the legs, increase resilience and running economy and add a bit more time on your feet. Don’t expect to run a PB or get a Queen of the Mountains on your secondary run of the day; if you do you are running it too fast, this run is more akin to your recovery runs in pace and duration. It does not need to be long (20 minutes will suffice) and it certainly should not be hard.

Easy should be easy

To expand on the above, the best way to get the most out of your hard training is to run your easy runs really easy; this is especially true when you are adding more hours into your weekly schedule. Running lots of miles at a mediocre pace will not train you as well as running some very easy miles and some really good quality ones. If you do decide you want to run twice a day, make at least one of those runs really easy (zone 1 or 2) so that you can do your key sessions fresh and get the most out of them. If you’re finding even these easy runs hard, it might be that running twice a day is too much for you at the moment and you need more rest between your sessions.

I recall not long after I first began running twice a day I also began working with a coach for the first time. The first thing he did was make me slow down on my morning runs; in actual fact, he was making me run in a lower heartrate zone. This was counterintuitive for me at the time, but I became convinced when after 6 weeks I began running some good personal best times and racing well. The reasons for this were that I had increased my fitness level in a lower heartrate zone (ie I could run faster without putting any extra strain on my heart); this pushed up my fitness in all the other running zones. In addition this increased the quality of my hard sessions because I was not too tired coming into them.

Recovery

To get the most benefit out of running twice a day you need to make sure you have adequate recovery time between your runs (ideally, a minimum of 6 hours but many people manage effectively with less). If you don’t allow enough recovery time you will simply feel tired, run tired and get very little out of your sessions. If you can’t fit in the recovery time, it might be better to stick to once a day.

The more frequently you train, the more key it is to make sure that you eat well in order to promote recovery needed to benefit from the sessions you do. If you run a hard session and are going to be training within twelve hours, that magic half hour after your session becomes even more vital for getting in some carbohydrate and protein. In particular, when you are training more, the balance between fitness and illness can become very fine, you are after all stressing your body more than once a day; a few mouthfuls of (soya) milk if you’re pushed for time may save you from illness.

Whereabouts in the running journey are you?

If you are relatively new to running, you are going to have less resilience to training miles and are likely to need more recovery time. In addition, you are unlikely to be running enough miles/hours per week to need to run twice a day. Building up your mileage gradually is the key to avoid injury (no more than 10% per week with an easier week every third or fourth week).

It took me a long time to get to a point where I could run 6 days per week, let alone think of training twice in one day, but I was still pretty fit and happy with my performances in the races I entered. Training is very much about being wise and listening to your body, if you start training more and become overly tired/irritable/unable to do what you could do the month before in terms of pace, it’s probably time to rethink and back off a bit before adding in extra runs.

In addition to this it’s important to think about age. Whilst in my head I still believe I can run and train as I could in my twenties, as soon as I start running I realise this is not the case. In general, as we progress from senior to masters running, our muscles lose some of their elasticity and therefore our bodies need more recovery time. So what you may have been able to handle in your twenties becomes a different matter in your forties, fifties or sixties. As a rule of thumb, we need to run less miles, but continue to do some quality sessions as we age something worth reflecting on in terms of your decision to run twice a day.

You don’t have to run twice a day to train twice a day.

As any triathlete will tell you, you don’t need to run twice a day to train twice a day. Other complementary sessions in your day could include yoga, strength and conditioning training, cycling, swimming, pilates, or anything else. The trick is to make sure that whatever you do you do at an intensity and at a time that does not compromise your next main session.

Perhaps one of the most underrated forms of exercise for runners is walking, something you will have to do at points in your races if your are trail running, with steep technical ascents. Walking is a great gentle way of giving you more time on your feet without the energy toll and strain of running. In fact this tends to be my secondary training session of choice these days because we have a dog, so if I train with friends in the evening, my first session of the day is a walk with the dog of up to an hour. When we first got our dog, I actually noticed a jump in my fitness which I believe is a direct result of doing more walking. Grete Waitz and Tim Noakes both promote walking as key in their beginners plan for runners, so why should this stop once you can run for longer distances?

You still need to do a long endurance run.

Regardless of the time available to you, to get better at longer distances, you will still need to do a long run at least once per week. Working continuously for 1.5 - 5+ hours (depending on what you are training for) not only prepares your body for the continuous effort, but mentally prepares you for your planned event. You need to physiologically train your body to work continuously for the length of time needed in your planned race as well as mentally prepare yourself for completing it.

There’s more than one way to get fit.

If you are training up to 6 hours per week, you are unlikely to need to fit this into double training days and there are lots of other things you can do to increase your fitness in the time you have, for example adding some speed sessions into your training plan, or some strength work.

If you want to put more hours in to your training running twice a day can certainly be an option if you have enough experience and training history. However, I don’t think it is the ‘gold standard’ it can often be described as; the ideal in fact is to get the most out of the least amount possible. Running twice a day might best be seen as ‘icing on the cake’ rather than a staple that must be completed for success.

There are many ways to get fit and everyone responds differently to different doses of training. The key is to find what works for you, and that might be running 3 times per week, or it might be running 12 or more times. The most important part of training is to be able to do your quality sessions well and include at least one long run in your routine which fits the length of your event. Your friend may be running 10 times a week and you may be running 5, but you may still produce the same or better results.

Supplementary questions

Should I run or sleep? Undoubtedly you are probably going to have to get up a bit earlier to go for a morning run before work, but it is worth noting that choosing a secondary run over the right amount of sleep is unlikely to get you fitter and is going to compromise your quality training. Sleep provides your body with specific recovery which you can’t get whilst being awake even when resting, and the more you train the more sleep you are likely to need. If it’s a choice between your required hours of sleep and an extra early morning run the wise choice might be to choose sleep.

How many times per week can I double train? You don’t have to run twice every day just because you have decided to do some extra runs. A good way to start is to incorporate some short extra runs (20 mins) on one or two days per week to see how your body responds. That said, some people will chose to train twice a day most days, if you want to do this, do it gradually so that your body can adapt slowly without injury risk. I usually advocate one day of complete rest every week to that you can recover psychologically and physically from training and one week in three or four as easy, where you might be training only once a day and do some lighter training. I also tend to keep weekends to once a day, mainly because this tends to be a time when you may have other commitments (e.g. family, friends) and also a time where you need to plan in some rest from both work and running.

How easy is easy? Firstly easy should be your easy; if you are training with someone fitter than you their easy run may be your aerobic run. As a rule of thumb easy should be zone 1 (heartrate), a pace that you could easily hold a conversation. I was re-reading Tim Noakes’ book, The Lore of Running, the other day and I quite liked his analogy of easy: ‘you should feel at the end like you could turn round and run the whole thing again.’ Be warned at first this is really hard to do, I only managed it initially because I ran with a coach who consistently asked if I was still running easy and MADE me slow down.

Clare is a member of JHCoaching; she specialises in trail and mountain running.

Clare is a member of JHCoaching; she specialises in trail and mountain running.

JHCoaching has been helping athletes at all ability levels for many years. During that time we have learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t, as well as helping many athletes achieve things they never thought possible.

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