Thursday, December 7, 2017

Reader Question: Good Track Workouts for Speed and Strength

Someone asked me a few days ago for help in designing some good-quality track workouts to build speed and strength. This person is an ultrarunner and wants to stave off the effects of Father Time. It just so happens that right now I am working hard to get back to the track on a regular basis--and already I am seeing the benefits--so we had a lot to talk about!

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When I was running in top form, it was because I was committed to executing intense track and tempo workouts every single week. These workouts made me much stronger and faster. They also boosted my economy, which is huge when you're racing distances up to 100 miles.

I remember an old friend of mine once saying to me, "after a while, you find that you need the track workouts." He was right. If you stick with them, you will get faster, stronger and mentally tougher. If you get lazy and quit going to the track every week because of excuses, you will get slower and sluggish and your running economy (and race performance and results) will suffer. 

Slow and sluggish is where I've been for a few years now, but I am determined (committed, really) to get fast again. On Thanksgiving day, I managed a decent 5K time (18:48, 6th overall out of 2,200 runners and walkers) in our local Turkey Trot race but it was anything but smooth for me. I had to go into the hurt locker big time to get it. I believe that with regular sessions at the track, I will see big payoffs in 2018 races of all distances, including the 100-mile distance. So I'm all in. And the same can be said of you, too, if you make the track a part of your training on a weekly basis. Be sure to work into it gradually, or else you elevate your risk of injury, especially if you are a masters or grandmasters athlete.

And let me just emphasize that intervals on the road, while better than no intervals at all, are not the same as intervals at the track. The track allows for comparable results over time, and it's also just really mentally hard for some people to run around an oval. The track makes you mentally tougher and physically faster.

With that, my bread and butter workouts from years ago (I am gradually easing back into these workouts week by week), which I highly recommend for distance runners, are:
  • 3x1600 meters (1600 meters is 4 full laps around the track) all-out. For me, this was about 5:30-5:35/mile when I was in peak form. Very difficult workout that will push you mentally and physically, but it builds strength that pays off late in races, when others are faltering. Do very easy 400-meter recoveries in between (feel free to walk some in the recoveries). Make no mistake about it; 3x1600 meters hard will be quite uncomfortable but the payoff is huge. Sometimes you have to go through hell to get to heaven.
  • 5x1600 meters at 90-95% of all-out effort. For me, this was about 5:48-5:55/mile. This workout builds strength more than speed. It was my favorite workout by far. Again, do very easy 400-meter recoveries in between.
  • 2x3200 meters at 90% of all-out effort. I always shot for under 12 minutes for each, usually coming in at 11:45-11:50 or so. Again, this workout builds strength and mental toughness. Do extremely easy 400-800-meter recoveries in between. This workout is more a "graduate-level" endeavor. Get comfortable with mile repeats before you "graduate" to 3200s.
What I did was rotate these. One week, I did 3x1600s. The next week I did 5x1600s. The third week I did 2x3200s. Then I started over with the cycle.

For each of those three workouts, you want to pace yourself so your last interval set is your fastest. And call me old-school but I feel that you should be pretty gassed when your workout is done. If you're not gassed, you didn't go hard enough.

Then there are shorter workouts that are also great, like Yasso 800s and good old-fashioned 400s run very fast. But, for me, the greatest ROI always came from the three workouts listed above.

One final note: I always run a 2-mile warm-up, along with a handful of 100-meter striders to activate the fast-twitch muscle fiber, before getting after it on the track. Not doing an adequate warm-up will significantly elevate your risk of injury, so be sure to jog a few miles beforehand and bust out some striders before starting the workout. Then cool-down with at least a mile or two and recover with a healthy meal and plenty of fluids.

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