Yes, You Need the Track Workout

It's not just for spandex-clad speed racers. Here's how any athlete can tap into the power of the track to get fitter and faster.

Why give up a beautiful trail for a repetitive track? Read on. (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Retro Styled

If you’re fortunate enough to run regularly on forest trails or beachside promenades, the allure of swapping those scenic routes for a track workout is likely lost on you. Yes, this country does have some seriously inspiring track setups, but can doing laps around a 400-meter rubber oval actually be rewarding?

In one word: “Absolutely,” says Julia Lucas, a coach at the New York City installment of the Nike+ Run Club.

She would know. Following a successful collegiate running career at North Carolina State University, Lucas competed as a professional track and field athlete for the prestigious Oregon Track Club Elite. Her personal bests include 15:08 for the 5K and 4:05 in the 1,500 meters. In other words, Lucas became rather proficient at the whole doing laps around a 400-meter rubber oval thing.

Since she retired from elite-level competition two years ago, Lucas has dedicated her time to helping others become faster, more efficient runners. She’d be the first to tell you that track workouts are an essential part of that process.

We asked Lucas to impart some of her wisdom about her love for the track and how to use it to train.

#1. It’ll Elevate Your Running

Working out on a track instills a sense of purpose, because it’s a space specifically designed for running competitions. As Lucas puts it, the track “takes running from fitness to a sport.”

“When you’re running in a forest and getting lost in your thoughts, that’s great,” she says. “But when you’re running on a track, the confines of those lanes create a certain intensity. I love to see athletes come alive on the track.”

#2. Intervals Rule

Broadly speaking, a typical track workout will involve shorter, vigorous efforts of speed work, interspersed with brief recovery periods. Depending on your training objective, the faster “interval” segments of the workout can be as long as one or two miles (four and eight laps around a standard track, respectively) to as short as 100 meters (one-fourth of one lap). While the details of every workout—speed, recovery time, and number of reps—will change according to your day’s objective, the overarching goals remain the same. Track workouts, and really any interval workouts, condition your body to become more efficient at working hard in an oxygen-depleted state.

Quick primer on that front: Whenever you engage in the kind of vigorous exercise that causes you to be out of breath, be it anything from jumping jacks to sprints, you enter an “anaerobic” state where the energy demands you’re placing on your muscles outpace your body’s ability to deliver oxygen to those muscles. This causes your body to produce lactic acid, which helps facilitate the breakdown of glucose to generate energy.

But our bodies can adapt to sustaining higher-intensity efforts over time and become faster, stronger, and more resilient as a result of that training. That’s where the track workouts really make their mark. “Part of the goal of a track session is to teach your body to handle lactic acid better,” says Lucas. “That means cleaning it up faster, dealing better with the flood of lactic acid that leads to the knock-kneed and numb-leg feeling.” If you teach your body to manage lactic acid, you’re essentially teaching it to fight fatigue so you can go harder for longer.

In addition to pushing (and redefining) your fitness limits, running hard on a track requires you to open your stride much more than you would on an easy five-miler. A longer stride increases your range of motion and engages underdeveloped muscles, which helps build power and speed.

“To run fast, you are really asking all the supportive muscles, all the tiny muscles, to come alive. You are recruiting secondary muscles to help you become the most multidimensional, powerful, fluid, and graceful athlete that you can become,” says Lucas.

#3. Go Easy on the Warm-Up

To properly prep your body for the workload waiting for it on the track, you need to do an extensive warm-up. According to Lucas, it’s nearly impossible to spend too much time on this phase. “You’re communicating to your body that you are going to be asking something of it shortly, and you want it to be ready,” she says. If you forego this phase and jump right into intense speed work, you’re at much greater risk for muscle pulls and strains.

Begin with a slow jog for a lap or two around the track before eventually incorporating light plyometric exercises, like skips or high knees, to increase your range of motion. “The primary purpose of stretching before a workout is not to get more flexible,” says Lucas. “It’s to infuse those muscles with blood, literally warm them, and prepare them.” For that reason, choose dynamic over static stretching.

After you’re sweaty from the warm-up, you can tackle your workout. But even then, don’t expect your first few intervals to be as fast or as strong as the bulk of your workout. You’re still cueing your body on how it will have to perform.

#4. Know Proper Etiquette

Manners mean a lot on the track. During those workouts, you’ll almost certainly be sharing limited space with a number of other athletes, many of whom might be moving at high speeds. Unlike those long trail runs, where your mind may wander to lunch plans or ex-lovers, track running requires total focus—on both the workout and your surroundings.

Most runners prefer to do their workout in lane one (the inside lap), because a lap in that lane is exactly 400 meters, or a quarter-mile. The distance slightly increases as you move to the outside lanes, assuming the same starting point. (Technically, one lap is about 2.5 yards shy of a quarter-mile, so a mile equals four laps plus ten yards. Some tracks will denote an official mile start, which will be set back ten yards from the common finish line.)

For that reason, when a lot of people are sharing the track, lane one should be used only by those who actually need it. When doing an interval workout, use the inside lane for your high-intensity efforts but recover in one of the outside lanes, or step off the track altogether.

If you’re running hard in lane one and someone is tailing you, it’s considered good form to briefly cede the inside lane so that person can pass you on the inside. That runner might scream, “TRACK!” which is universal shorthand for: “Excuse me for bothering you. I know you’re running hard, but I’m coming up behind you and would be eternally grateful if you could momentarily move into lane two so as to allow me to pass. Thank you.”


3 Kickass Track Workouts

All track workouts are malleable in that you can adjust factors like distance, rest periods, and degree of effort to align with your training goals and fitness level. That’s certainly true of the following three basic track workouts that Lucas recommends as a foundation for those who are looking to get into interval training.

#1. Four to eight repeats of 400 meters with one to three minutes rest between each.

“This one is great for lactic ‘buffering’ or ‘clearing.’ You cause a huge amount of lactic acid to pour into your legs, and when you stop, your body has to learn to clean it up really quickly. Great for shorter races like a 5K or teaching your body how to run fast sprints followed by periods of rest, like in a soccer game.” —J.L.

The goal of this workout, especially for beginners, is not to be overly concerned with a specific pace, but rather to learn to evenly disperse your effort between the intervals. Record your time for each 400, and look to maintain the same pace, or get slightly faster with each rep. You should be tired when you’re finished, but not to the extent that you can’t walk back to your car or jog home.

#2. Hollow Laps: Between two and eight laps of running hard on the straightaways and easy on the turns.

“Hollow laps are more about lactic toleration—teaching your body not to go into total shutdown mode when you get that lactic flood that often comes in the form of a knock-kneed feeling after running fast. This workout is a helpful speed element to accompany training for longer races, because in longer races, you’ll be running through a lot of lactic acid, and you need to learn to keep going.” —J.L.

With this one, you change up the pace every 100 meters. The difference can be dramatic—taking the curves very slowly, and then almost sprinting the straightaways. Or it can be more “wavelike”—not going as hard on the straights but maintaining a healthy pace on the turns. These two versions of the workout will achieve different things. The abrupt stop-and-start approach will cause a flood of lactic acid and a flood of adaptation during the rest period (like with the 400-meter workout, above), whereas a more subtle change in pace will do more to teach your body to run through lactic acid and recover on the go.

#3. The Ladder: A gradual decrease in distance and increase in effort—800, 400, 200, 100, with one to two minutes of rest between each rep.

“Every athlete on the track does ladders, from the high school to the professional level. They teach you to how to finish runs fast. You always want to have a little gas left so you can finish hard with a kick. A ladder is about understanding how you have more left than you think you do.” —J.L.

This one is a great workout to become familiar with the feeling of “shifting gears” and adjusting your speed, depending on the interval length. Once you become comfortable running a downward ladder, you can play with options like climbing back up again: for example, run 800, 400, 200, 100, followed by 100, 200, 400, 800. Climbing down and back up will force you to be even more economical with your effort to keep some reserves in the tank for that final half-mile.

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