Army Col. Liam Collins says there's something "a little magical" about 10 miles.
After all, he adds, "You never hear of an 11-mile race — because what the heck would that be?"
He should know. As a career Special Forces solider, he has clocked more than his share of road miles, including competitive races in everything from 5Ks to full marathons.
Now a professor at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, he's also head coach of the All-Army Cross Country Team, which he has coached since 2009.
On Oct. 11, his runners won the Army Ten-Miler. In addition to breaking the race's team record, all seven members of the All-Army squad placed in the top 15 individually, sweeping the medals podium with the top three finishes.
Collins did pretty well himself. With more than 35,000 runners this year, the 44-year-old came in 76th overall, finishing his 21st Army Ten-Miler in just under 56 minutes.
Army Col. Liam Collins, coach of the All-Army Cross Country Team
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Liam Collins
Ten-milers just hit that sweet spot in running, he says. They're the Goldilocks of race goals — not too short, not too long, just right for all but the most beginner runners.
"Anyone can run a 10-miler with the right training," Collins says. "Even if someone has never even done more than two miles in their life, they may not be getting to a marathon anytime soon, but a 10-miler is a kind of good magic distance that you can actually shoot for in a reasonable amount of time."
And if you're among the masses inspired for even longer pursuits? If you're serious, register now for a 10-miler to set your first waypoint, he says.
"A marathon can almost be too hard for people to imagine. So, setting intermediate race goals like a 10-miler can really help get you there."
His 10 tips to help get you up to speed:
1. Give it time
Stake out at least three months to train, "to minimize your chances of injury while maximizing you performance for as good a race as possible," Collins says.
And don't think those three months need to be packed full of constant running.
"You don't need to run six or seven days a week to get ready," he says. "A competitive runner, of course, will need more, but the average person can do it with three to four runs a week and be confident in their ability to run a good 10-mile race."
Each week should have one longer-but-slower run on the weekend and one shorter-but-more-intense run midweek. Put the one or two additional runs per week in between, with an easy pace and at low distances.
2. Go long
Your once-a-week long run is the anchor of your entire run plan. Without it, your dream of hitting 10 miles will just drift away.
"A gradually increasing long run is key," Collins says. Start with whatever is your max right now. If you're at, say, three miles, build from there.
Over the next three months, extend your long-day distances so you're peaking at around nine miles just before the race. If you've never run 10 miles before, you'll do it on race day — and be glad you did.
"It's so much more rewarding to get that accomplishment with 10,000 other people versus just doing it in your own backyard and then doing it again in the race," Collins says. "It's just a fundamentally different experience to have all those people cheering you on."
3. Two steps forward, one back
You don't want to build your long run just by tacking on distance each week. Instead, increase every two weeks, but drop back a little on that in-between week.
"It's a 'two steps forward, one step back' kind of thing," Collins says.
So, if you're hitting four miles, next weekend drop your long day back to three miles. Then, the following week, make your jump to five miles.
4. Hit your tempo
For your midweek intensity run, look to build what experts call aerobic threshold, increasing your body's ability to process lactic acid.
Translation: The kind of training that helps you run faster and longer.
To do that, every other week your high-intensity day should be what Collins calls a "tempo run."
Technically, he says, tempo running is at the pace you can maintain for an hour. But most beginning runners will have a hard time gauging that.
"Tempo pace is not your very fastest pace. If you're running like you would on a PT test, that's way too fast. Instead it should be labored, but not so slow that it's easy to talk."
For beginners, a good tempo run will start with a five-minute warmup by running at an easy pace, "then at first maybe five to 10 minutes at the faster tempo pace and then cooling down for about three to five minutes."
Gradually increase your tempo running time so that toward the end of your three months of training, you're doing 25 to 30 minutes at that faster pace.
5. Hit your intervals
For your high-intensity days, on the weeks opposite your tempo run, do interval running. It's simple: Run fast, at a near sprint, for one to four minutes, then recover at a light jog for an equal amount of time.
All told, you'll want to start with a combined total of 12 minutes of high-intensity running — four three-minute bursts, for example — for a total 22 minutes of running; plus a few minutes of warmup and cool-down. From there, as you progress, work your way up to about twice that, Collins says.
Don't be afraid to mix it up to keep things interesting. For example, fartleks — Swedish for "speed play" — use everything from mailboxes and telephone poles to music playlists and even dog walkers to trigger speed-ups and slow-downs.
6. Take it easy
Between your distance runs and your midweek high-intensity runs, plug in one or two easy-paced, two- to three-mile runs per week.
"Everyone has different schedules, so fit things in where you can, but the goal should be: Don't take more than two consecutive days off between any given run," Collins says. "And don't run four days straight and then take the rest of the week off."
An ideal week might look like:
- Sunday: Long run.
- Monday: Day off.
- Tuesday: Easy run.
- Wednesday: High-intensity run — tempo or interval.
- Thursday: Day off.
- Friday: Easy run.
- Saturday: Day off.
If you decide to take, say, Thursday and Friday off, that's fine. Just pick back up with the long run on Saturday, or even do another easy run then, and start back up with your long run on Sunday.
7. Warm up
For your easy-run days, a good warmup is as simple as starting off at an easy jog, Collins says.
On your two harder days, you'll want to do about five minutes of dynamic stretching before launching into your run.
Walking lunges, jumping jacks moving from side to side, walking while you try to kick your outstretched hands — basically anything that gets your whole body moving and your heart pumping harder works.
"Otherwise it's a shock to your system and you're more likely to suffer an injury," he says.
What will work against you, however, is static stretching. Sitting on the ground, for example, while you slowly stretch out your hamstrings — that's bad and can actually lead to injures rather than prevent them.
It's sad how many people are still doing this, Collins says. "You definitely don't want to do any static stretch before running."
8. Cool down
This is basically the same as warming up, just in reverse. And almost as important.
"You're trying to ease your heart rate back down to resting state. And it's just as much of a shock to the system if you don't slow things back down."
Five minutes of running at a really slow pace works well. Some static stretching is beneficial during cool-down as well.
9. Fuel up
Your body is like an engine: You don't want to run it on empty. But you don't want to overfill your tank, either.
"You don't want a ton of bricks bouncing around in your gut while you run," Collins says.
If you're running in the morning, don't eat a full breakfast before you hit the road. Instead, try half a bagel or a bowl of cereal, he suggests.
And try to eat about two hours before you run so your body has time to convert that food into useful energy.
If your long runs are taking you out on the road for more than an hour, you'll probably want to fuel on the go with a quick-absorbing power bar or a sports gel as well.
"If you're running more than an hour, you don't want to wait until that hour mark to take it," Collins says. "Typically, if it's a gel, you'll take it every 30 to 45 minutes. So, if you're running for 90 minutes, you might just take it at the 45-minute mark and that will be enough. If you're going longer than that, one at 45 minutes and another at 90 minutes ... will get you to the finish."
Within an hour after your run, chug chocolate milk or turn to another nutrient-rich, high-protein source to help boost recovery, he says. You'll be amazed at how much it helps ease not only muscle fatigue but also mental drain.
"This is especially critical after your harder runs. And doing it within the first hour is important because that's when your body is going to absorb it the best."
10. Finish big
When race day comes, brace for the worst.
"You'll almost never have perfect conditions. You'll get to the race at the last minute and out of breath because you had to park a mile away, or you'll have a cold, or you'll get stuck behind a pack of slower movers for the first mile," he says. "Count on something going wrong."
The trick is, if you're anticipating adversity, you won't freak out when it occurs, he says.
"You just have to be mentally flexible enough that it — whatever 'it' is — doesn't destroy you."
Translation: Things not going according to plan should be part of the plan.