I'm going to start by busting an urban myth.
NO PAIN - NO GAIN!
We've all heard this, right? Basically, it means that unless your pushing yourself hard then you're not doing yourself any good, you won't get stronger, you won't get faster. Rubbish!
That said, speed work and higher intensity work is vital in any progressive training plan but it needs to be placed at the appropriate place and at the appropriate intensity. What is an absolute certainty is that unless speed work and high intensity work is carried out on the platform and foundation of a strong aerobic base, it will be largely ineffective and potentially leaving you exposed to exhaustion or injury.
So, if it's not the lung busting hard work, what is it that will get you running and improve in the early stages?
In short, concentrate on the aerobic base.
There are several ways that you can judge your effort level to ensure you remain in the aerobic system. We can talk about measuring your resting heart rate, calculating your theoretical maximum heart rate and therefore calculating your aerobic threshold but the far simpler way is to talk out loud.
If you have a training partner this is easy, just have a gossip as you run. If you are running alone then count from 100 to 105 out loud. Breathing should be challenged but you must always be able to get a sentence out rather than forcing out 1 or 2 words before gasping for more breath. If you can't - SLOW DOWN! Even stop and walk if you have to but get that breathing rate down. If you are currently on a 'Couch to 5K' type program then you can see that this is the actual intention, run a bit to lift the breathing rate up followed by walking a bit to drop it back down. It is a hugely successful way in making those early improvements to your cardio vascular fitness and therefore your aerobic engine.
Now that we understand what the aerobic system is and how to maintain and improve it, how do we plan for it as part of Base Building.
If you are on a Couch to 5K then it is all about removing the walk periods. This will happen when you are able to carry out the talk test continuously for the duration of your run. If you can run, non stop, then it's about adding mileage, little bit at a time, always being mindful of all you've learnt so far regarding monitoring intensity and staying within the aerobic system. A general rule of thumb is that you should never add more than 10% to your weekly mileage in one go and only add it if you feel that at the end of a run you still feel quite fresh and you could have carried on.
One final point I'd like to mention is this.
You are a human. Nothing is linear or predictable in this. You will have good runs and bad runs. Accept this fact now. There will be times that the run you are doing is a struggle and you feel like you're going backwards in your progress but there will also be times when everything is clicking nicely and you feel on top of the world! This is our game and that is how it works for all of us.
So get your shoes on and get out for that run!