Training Tip for Time Crunched Runners

By: Karla Bruning

Many of us know the “Golden Rules" of running: Always warmup and cool down for at least 10 minutes each, cross-train, strength train, and eat 2 hours beforehand. The list goes on and on. But honestly, who has the time? When every minute counts, which rules are sacrosanct and which can you leave in the dust (as you're running away)?

“With a few exceptions, you can break pretty much every rule in running," says Jason Fitzgerald, 34, founder and head coach at Strength Running. He's coached thousands of runners online, in group sessions, and one-on-one. And as the father of three children ages 5 and under, he knows all about the time hustle. He double-tasked by chatting with Zappos while walking to pick his kindergartner up from school.


His advice: Just don't break all the rules all the time.


“It's more important what you do most of the time, than what you do some of the time," Fitzgerald says. “If you have that odd day where you need to condense an hour's workout into 30 or 40 minutes, there are certain things you can skip that aren't ideal. But on a one-off basis, it's not problematic whatsoever."

John Honerkamp, 42, abides by what he calls the 20-minute rule. "Better to get something in than nothing in," says Honerkamp, founder and CEO of Run Kamp. He's coached for more than 20 years, working with companies like New Balance, Lululemon, and Strava. But as a new dad to a 10-month-old, Honerkamp knows what it means to be busy. "I tell my runners that they can always find 20 mins," he says. "Be efficient with your time and creative with your runs."

So here's what you can skip and what you can't when the clock is ticking.


Always Warm Up (Really. We Mean It.)


Warming up is non-negotiable. Don't do anything challenging, fast, or hard without a warmup, Fitzgerald cautions.

“The warmup is not a 'nice to do.' It's a 'must do,'" he says. “It's going to help you run faster, prevent injuries, improve your performance, and make you feel better. Not doing a warmup is just shooting yourself in the foot."

But how much do you really need? At least 10 minutes, but preferably 15 or 20 minutes of easy running before you do anything difficult. “That's the non-negotiable bare minimum," Fitzgerald says. “That's just fundamental."

With just 20 minutes to squeeze in a workout, Honerkamp will cut the warm-up to 5 minutes, followed by just 10 minutes of harder running, and then a 5-minute cool down. But more often he'll build the warmup into his mileage. "I will use the first few miles of a run to warm up on most days," Honerkamp says.

You can also turn your faster paced running into a progression run, where you gradually ease into full speed. Warm up for 10 minutes with easy running, then take the next five minutes to gradually dial up the tempo. “That way you're building the warmup into your workout," Fitzgerald says. “Which is a nice way to make it feel a little more comfortable for you, reduce your injury risk, and get in a good effort."

What if you're just heading out for a light jog? Don't sweat the start. “You could simply run for 30 minutes and keep the effort easy," Fitzgerald says. “If you're someone who's running a couple times a week for general health or general fitness, that's a great way to do it."


Cool Down, Too (Yep. Really.)


The cool down is important, as well. But there are times when you can cheat it a little. The easier your run, the less you need to cool down. If you're running for 30 minutes total, you could get away with a 5-minute cool down if you keep your effort conversational to comfortably hard, Fitzgerald says. Have an hour? Stick with 10 minutes.

But if you're running at your 5K race pace or faster? Still give yourself a full 10 minutes to cycle down from that hard effort. If you need to cut anything short, reduce the amount of time at speed, Fitzgerald says.


“The harder the workout, the shorter the race, the more intense" the effort is, he says. “And the longer the warmup and cool down you need."


Skip the Stretch (But Get Dynamic)


Pre-run static stretching is not de rigueur. A Centers For Disease Control and Prevention meta-analysis of studies from 1966 to 2002 found that stretching doesn't prevent injury.

“You don't need to stretch," Fitzgerald says. “But if you have a problem area that responds to stretching or doesn't feel right unless you stretch, then stretch that particular muscle or problem area. Use it if you need to, but it's not necessary."

If you do static stretches, throw them in at the very end of your entire workout, Fitzgerald says.

Pre-run, opt for a dynamic warmup instead. Exercises like walking lunges, leg swings, knee lifts, and the like stretch your body as you move, activating your muscles and improving range of motion in a more effective way. A recent small-scale study published in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research found dynamic warmups can improve performance.

Even then, it's not always necessary depending on your goals. "I typically only stretch and do drills when I am doing a quality workout like intervals or tempo," Honerkamp says.

If you're a recreational runner, aren't running a lot of mileage, or training to run a personal best, you don't have to focus heavily on dynamic stretching before you run. “As long as you start slowly and ease into your normal running pace, that's not too problematic from an injury perspective," Fitzgerald says.

If you're running to make a goal time, get dynamic when you can. When you can't, it's one of the things you can skip some of the time.



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Skip Breakfast (Unless You're Going Long)


“One of the things runners overthink is: 'How much do I have to eat?'" Fitzgerald says. “You don't need to have a full meal 2 to 3 hours before your run. If you're waking up early to do your run that's going to be extremely prohibitive."

In fact, you can skip breakfast entirely if your morning run is an hour or shorter. "Make sure to hydrate and eat well the day and night before," Honerkamp says.

Come morning, you'll be ready. "Have a glass of water and you'll be fine," Fitzgerald says. “Especially if it's just an easy run. Your body has more than enough fuel to get through an easy run just fine."

If you've got a challenging workout or longer run on your schedule, put something on your plate first, especially once your run gets to be 90 minutes.

“But you don't need to wake up hours before your run," Fitzgerald says. Eat something light, like a banana, when you first wake up. Then get dressed and head out the door after 10 to 20 minutes.

No matter what, always eat and hydrate after a run, especially a hard workout, Honerkamp adds.


Strength Train Later (But Still Get It In)


Ideally, follow your run with 10 to 20 minutes of body weight strength training. But you can even skip that sometimes, Fitzgerald says. “You shouldn't skip it all the time. It doesn't matter if you're a beginner or an elite runner, this stuff is really valuable."

If you don't have time after your workout, push it until evening, both Fitzgerald and Honerkamp suggest. “I have all my runners do this if they don't have time immediately after the workout," Honerkamp says.

“If you're unwinding at the end of the day watching Netflix, you can do a 10-minute core routine in your living room," Fitzgerald says. “It doesn't have to be right after your run. It will help you loosen up, as well, at the end of the day."

When can you pass completely? If you're doing more traditional weight lifting with barbells and dumbbells once or twice a week. “It's a trade off," Fitzgerald says. “You could save some time by doing less frequent strength training, but have it be a little more physically demanding."

Just don't do it the day after a challenging run. “I don't want my runner doing a hard strength workout the next day anyway because then they are not recovering," Honerkamp says.


Prioritize Your Workouts (We're Looking At You, Cross-Training)


When you've got a particularly busy week, budget your running time wisely. “Know what workouts or runs are the highest priority and prioritize those," Fitzgerald says. “If you're training for a longer race, it might be the long run. If you're training for a 5K or 10K, it might be the faster workout during the week."

If you have to skip a run or cut some mileage, cut your easy 3- to 4-milers and not your faster workouts or long run.“If you need to save some time throughout the week that's a nice way to get the most out of your training with your limited schedule," Fitzgerald says.

Or find another way to sneak those easy runs into your week. “Suggest a work meeting run, so you can kill two birds with one stone," Honerkamp suggests. “Most of training should be easy runs, so run while catching up with a friend or connecting with your boss."

Cross-training like cycling, elliptical training, and pool running can go by the wayside, too. “It's a 'nice to do,' not necessarily a 'must do,'" Fitzgerald says.


Choose Intensity Over Volume (Carefully)


If you're running for recreation, you can run fewer minutes, but at a faster pace. Throw in bursts of speed in short 30-second or 1-minute intervals. “That's when I like to cut the volume, but add a little bit faster running to make it more challenging. Just to get the wheels turning, get the heart rate up, and get in a good workout that doesn't take as much time," Fitzgerald says. “It's not exactly the same but it's better than nothing at all."

Honerkamp has three go-to workouts when he needs a time-saving hack. Each start and finish with a half-mile or 5-minute jog. Then he runs 4x800 meters with 1 minute rest between. “That's 3 miles—2 quality miles—and it only takes about 20 to 25 minutes depending on your pace," he says. Other options include six to eight hill repeats or running 5x1 minute on and 1 minute off .

But if you're training for a race and don't have time for the full workout on your schedule, focus on the purpose of that session. “How do you get in a similar effort or stimulus in a shorter time period?" Fitzgerald asks.

Ideally, cut the number of intervals or miles in your workout. “Figure out how many reps you can do in the time you have," Fitzgerald says. “Do four or five reps instead of six. The basic structure, the purpose of the workout should remain in tact so you're getting the same benefit."

What you shouldn't do is run faster to save time. “That's a horrible idea," Fitzgerald says.. “And don't cut your recovery time from say, 2 minutes to 1 minute. That's another horrible idea. That's defeating the purpose of the workout."


Respect The Distance


Ultimately, which rules your break and which you follow depend on your goals. If you're training for a 5K, three 1-hour blocks of time per week is more than enough, Fitzgerald says. “You can do the normal, full training load. You can do the dynamic warmups and the longer runs," Fitzgerald says. “You can do the whole training session from start to finish."

Once you start thinking about racing a half-marathon or longer distance, you'll need to dedicate more time to training. “If you never have more than 1 hour to run, then keep the race distances to 10 miles or less," Fitzgerald says. “Or you are going to risk a big injury. You're simply not running enough to prepare your body for that kind of stress."

And if you've got a marathon in your sights? “Respect the distance and put in the work, or else it's going to be a horrible experience," Fitzgerald says. “You're going to get hurt, and never want to run again."

Whatever you do, be sure to warm up to get your body from couch to workout ready, and cool down, too. What you do in-between depends on your goals and, of course, just how much time you have.