The Secret Guide to Minimum Viable Effort (MVE)

Here at Unique Running, we try to look at what we can do differently to set us apart from other runners, and achieve gains through application of scientific ideas rather than doing what everyone else does. One of the topics that is regularly mentioned is training load applied in order to become a faster runner.

This is based on the idea that repetition of actions causes the runner to become more efficient. Neurological connections are made, muscles learn to remove lactate more quickly, slow twitch muscle fibres and recruited and aerobic capacity is increased. All good things, and you can see how improving these characteristics in an athlete can allow them to improve.

OK, so we all know that improvement of running times often drives the competitive runner on. In chasing these improved times, we tend to train longer, harder, or more frequently. I remember a conversation with a fellow runner a few months ago, who was aiming to secure a championship entry for the London Marathon (sub-2:45). He was only a couple of minutes off at 2:47, from a previous attempt. He was already running 5 days per week, with a Saturday morning cycle lasting a few hours and often covering upwards of 100k in the saddle, and a sad, lonely, single day of rest. He decided there was only one thing for it – train more! Therefore he would loses his only day of rest, and get his recovery by cross-training.

This idea is asking for trouble. He had been out with an ankle injury recently, and although he had managed to return to similar training levels as before, the fact that he suffered an injury suggests that there were muscle imbalances developed during this torturous training plan, and he was thinking of going at it harder in pursuit of gains. His body will likely revolt, and he will be out of action again.

It’s as this point it’s a good idea to take a step back and think about your training. What is it you are trying to achieve? In this country there is a high value placed on blood, sweat and tears to get the end result. It is admirable, but tearing around like a chicken without a head will only end in a dark dank pit of injured misery.

Instead what we must do is: TRAIN SMARTER.

Let me introduce a concept. For the business-minded amongst you, it is a concept stolen from start-up culture – having a minimum viable product, or MVP. The idea of an MVP is that you need to create a functional prototype to display unique features that gives your product an advantage over competitors. For Unique Runners, let’s put a twist on this and adhere to the concept of Minimum Viable Effort (MVE).

Minimum Viable Effort (MVE) is a dream for all runners. It is the effort, or training load, needed to still make improvements in your running. I admit, when it comes to the pointy end of races (like the above runners 2:47 marathon time) it can be hard to squeeze much more out. But it can be done.

Let’s look at a scenario for someone that runs the local parkrun in 30mins. She runs twice a week: once at parkrun, plus one evening run during the week of a similar distance, with a friend. She does a circuits class another evening.  This person is building the foundations for all round fitness – she is doing resistance training (body weight exercises in the circuit’s class) and getting the aerobic benefits of this, as well as honing her running skills through training runs twice a week. However, this athlete with her current exercise load will unlikely improve her running times. During parkrun she will probably get tired towards the end as she is not building ENDURANCE.

Here’s another example. An athlete is running 4 times a week as part of a marathon training programme. The running consists of 5miles on Tuesday, 5miles on Thursday, a Saturday parkrun and a 2 hour run every Sunday. This person is different to the person above as they are deliberately targeting endurance based training as to deal with the demands of a marathon. This training is event specific, so this runner is more clued in than our 5k runner. Congratulations marathon runner, we at Unique Running salute you! This athlete is likely more serious about their running and likely more competitive as a result (as in they want to beat previous times they have set). The congratulations come with a caveat however, as they are missing a key ingredient. The element missing from this athlete is SPEEDWORK. They do have a little nod to speed by the fact they do a parkrun each week, which keeps things ticking over in the speed department, but they will not develop their speed by doing this, merely keep things at a similar level. What they need is an interval session mid-week to get their bodies used to running at a quick pace, with a high leg turnover, so that they can build up the lactate within their muscles, and allow their bodies to remove it. This ability to cope with this comes with practice. Your body will adapt by saying ‘I remember this!’ and dealing with it more efficiently over time.

For SPEEDWORK, an advised session is 2minutes running at quicker than 5k pace, then 2minutes recovery jog, 5 times. This will allow the lactate to build up within the muscles, then be partially removed during the jog (but not fully), and subsequent efforts will generate more of it. The result is that a high degree of lactate builds up within the muscles by the end of the session, leading to that burning feeling in the muscles when you can’t work any harder. With weekly sessions of this workout, the body becomes familiar with lactate removal and therefore more efficient. The key is to run faster than parkrun pace, so when it comes to parkrun, your body says ‘only this much lactate, jeez, this is pretty easy compared to the stuff we do mid-week!’, and you do not have to slow down to allow your body to remove it. This is known as elevating your Lactate Threshold (LT). The beauty of this workout is that it can be adapted to an individual’s ability, and only takes 20mins (plus obligatory warm up and cool-down of course!).

This is the idea of MVE. We have taken the 5mile run and replaced it with a short, sharp speed session. This will raise the ability of the runner to cover longer distances at a higher pace, therefore bringing down running times.

What else can we do?

We can throw in a hill session to develop more power in the legs, using less effort with each stride when it comes to long runs, therefore becoming less tired. Remember, Minimum Viable Effort (MVE).

MVE preaches applying the minimum training load while still improving times. So what would an MVE training plan look like? We need to undertake activities to stimulate the gains that would be made by the previous training regime.

MVE Training Plan

Day Exercise Goal
Monday Stretching Increase Flexibility
Tuesday Speed Session Increase Aerobic Capacity, lactate removal
Wednesday Rest Goal is to recover!
Thursday Strength Train Increase muscle power, muscle blood flow
Friday Rest Goal is to recover!
Saturday Parkrun Test the speed workouts value
Sunday Long Run Build endurance


The MVE while still making improvements is 3 running sessions a week. This will depend on the runner’s current ability and whether gains can be made from those sessions. The Long Run cannot really be simulated in any other way – to allow your body to know how it feels to run for 2 hours plus…you kinda need to run for more than 2 hours! The speed session remains in the plan for the reasons I described above. The parkrun stays in because…well, its parkrun. It’s a free event where you get to hone racing skills, something you don’t get from other training days, and a chance to spend time with kindred spirits and learn things from fellow runners.

For many runners this plan will be sufficient, as improvements in speed often comes from increasing flexibility and strength. For example, if you have tight hip flexors from sitting all day, your running stride will be inhibited, your pelvis will be anteriorly tilted, meaning you will sit back a little as you get more tired. This would cause a reduction in the reach of your stride, and a reduced stride length, mile after mile, results in less distance covered.

When you are planning your next training, remember the MVE concept. Maybe you don’t need to run 6-7 days a week!

Pura Vida,