young runner heading into foothills
Photo: Andy Cross/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Four Ways to Build for the Future in an Extended Off-Season

With a return to racing nowhere in sight, a coach suggests ways to keep your running on a long-term upward trajectory.

young runner heading into foothills

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With races canceled, group gatherings banned and no end in sight, the question for runners increasingly becomes: what should I do with my training?

There are, of course, plenty of workouts you can do alone, even if you don’t have access to a track.

But as more and more epidemiologists warn that this could stretch into mid-summer, or longer, the question you might now be asking yourself is: how can I make productive use of this interlude so that when life eventually returns to normal I emerge as a stronger, better runner?

No one knows when the racing season will re-start, so you don’t want to do workouts designed to peak you for a hoped-for race that never happens. One option is to invest in strength work, stretching, and drills you’ve long under-done. It’s also a great time to take up walking as a form of cross training. You could also return to base training and just run easy miles, with a few fast pickups to keep you sharp. If you’re one of those runners who never takes a break from racing and intense training, now is the perfect opportunity to let your body regenerate.

But there are also things you can do that get you out and about in more active ways. Here are four ideas for keeping your training on a long-term upward trajectory, even in the time of coronavirus.

photo: Shutterstock

Perfect Your Pacing Skill

Running isn’t a skill sport like basketball or soccer, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t things you can practice. One that is often overlooked is pacing.

One of my favorite ways of testing pacing skills is via what I call a “precision pacing competition.” Normally, I do this in groups, but it’s perfectly possible to compete solely against yourself…or organize a virtual competition with friends.

The idea is simple: after you’ve warmed up, run one lap at your intended training effort. Take a 400-meter recovery, then run another lap at the same effort, until eventually you’ve run a series of repeats at the desired effort level. (You can also do this on 200-meter recoveries, or with some other distance than 400s.)

Time yourself for each repeat, but don’t look at the times until you’ve finished. For each repeat after the first, score one point for each second it differs from the first, whether it’s faster or slower. E.g., if the first lap is 90 seconds, a subsequent 93-second lap scores three points, as does an 87.

Lowest score wins. (If you’re really good at this, you may need to work in tenths of a second and record fractional points.)

If you don’t have access to a track, don’t worry; you can do the same on the roads, simply by picking a convenient landmark and running all your reps too and from it.

Alternatively, you can set out to do a longer run at a set target pace, but not check your average pace or splits until after you’ve finished. If you feel the need to work up to a full run, check at the end of each mile (and mark yourself down for every second you are off from your anticipated split), but don’t cheat and peek during the mile.

Being able to gauge pace by feel isn’t as important today as it was before GPS watches, but it teaches you to continually assess your effort—still a useful skill in racing, particularly as GPS real-time pace is often unreliable. And a few weeks’ practice at this might make you hard to beat in “predict” races, where you pick a time, then run without a watch.

Learn a New Type of Workout

I like to imagine having a diversity of workouts at my disposal as being like an archer with many arrows in my quiver. Diversity is fun.

If you’ve always done speed work on the track, for example, now is a great time to try fartleks. For many runners, fartleks are simply road workouts (or trails workouts, if you have access to a trail where you can still follow the coronavirus safety rules) that substitute time for distance; i.e., instead of running a set distance on the track, you might run by time, such as doing 2-minute repeats at 5K effort, separated by 1-minute recoveries.

But true fartleks are far less structured. Fartlek is a Swedish term that means “speed play.” So why not put the emphasis on “play,” and ditch all the structured stuff. Decide that you’re going to run hard for a certain amount of a run; e.g., 25 minutes of a 60 minute run, and do it as the spirit moves you. This can be a mix of anything from pushing a steady pace for several minutes to charging the next hill to running a short surge at 1500-meter effort.

It’s fun, and it works. I got all my own lifetime PRs off of workouts like that.

Alternatively, you could try your hand at short-recovery workouts such as sets of 3 x 300 run on 100-meter marathon-paced jogs (with full recoveries between sets), or play around a bit with Billat 30-30s, just to get familiar with the protocol. (But don’t do them all that intensely because once you get the hang of it, this is a peaking workout).

Man running on an uphill in suburb mountain road.
photo: Getty Images

Become a Hill Beast

I’m not talking about running hill repeats here, but about running entire hills—lots of them.

When most people think of doing this, they generally think of trail running, difficult today (even if the trails aren’t closed) because it is hard not to pass oncoming runners or walkers without crowding closer than the CDC’s recommended six feet.

But in many places there are hilly roads, especially in hillside subdivisions where the roads make no effort to find the gentlest terrain. I once coached a woman who did this once a week on a route she called K2, in honor of the Karakoram peak of the same name. But it wasn’t a single hill—instead, she sought out the steepest streets she could find and linked them into a 9.7-mile loop.

Start small, of course, and build up gradually. The goal is to become so accustomed to hills that even the most intimidating race courses won’t phase you. Not to mention building serious strength and endurance.

If you live in Florida or some other flat place, realize that “hill” is a relative term. You can get a fairly decent hill run by running over a lot of overpasses—if you can find ones where it’s possible to social-distance appropriately.

Do a Virtual Race Season

If your competitive juices need something to keep you motivated—or if you think your long-run training would benefit from an actual spring/summer racing season, don’t worry, you don’t have to do it in the company of thousands of other runners. Virtual races and racing series are springing up everywhere—and if that’s not to your taste, you can always do it yourself, as a time trial.

If you do this, however, realize that time trials and virtual races are different from traditional competitions. There are unlikely to be race-day nerves, and therefore a lot less adrenaline at the start. There also isn’t anything or one to chase, except numbers on the clock.

If you’ve never done this before, view whatever you run as a time-trial PR, and don’t worry if it’s as much as 10–15 seconds/mile slower than your racing PR. If you can beat your racing PR in a time trial, you are either extraordinarily fit, or an exceptional time-trialer.

Richard A. Lovett coaches Portland, Oregon’s, 220-member Team Red Lizard running club, an all-comers group whose members range from road-racers seeking PRs to national age-group champions and Olympic Team Marathon Trials contenders.  He is the author of two books about training and dozens of magazine articles.

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