Why and How to Train on a Track
Four types of track interval workouts, their benefits, and how to optimally incorporate them into your training
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Some runners love to run on the track. They enjoy running fast, and a good 400-meter track is a great place to run fast. Others can’t stand running on the track. They shrink from the suffering imposed by the high-intensity workouts that one is supposed to do on the track, and possibly also from the monotony of running in endless circles.
Whether you love or hate the track, training on it can improve your running by leaps and bounds, if you know what you’re doing. While it is possible to train effectively without ever visiting your local high school or college oval, there is no environment that is better suited to the high-intensity interval workouts that are an indispensable part of every runner’s training. A little interval training goes a long way. Just one visit to the track per week during periods of focused training for one or more races will do the trick. So if you don’t like track workouts now, perhaps you can learn to like them, and if you can’t learn to like them, surely you can still suck it up and suffer through them once a week.
There is a difference between enjoying track workouts and doing them effectively. Even some runners who love running on the track don’t do it right. The purpose of this article is to show you how to get the greatest possible benefit from running in circles. First I will explain the structure and benefits of the four basic types of interval sessions: short, middle-distance, long, and mixed. Then I will share some guidelines for incorporating track workouts into your training for each of four race distances: 5K, 10K, half-marathon and marathon.
Short intervals are fast-running segments of 100 meters (one-quarter lap, or one full straightaway) to 400 meters. Because they are so short, these intervals can be run at very close to maximum speed. Naturally, you can run 200m intervals at a slightly faster pace than 400m intervals and you can run 100m intervals faster still. The purpose of short interval workouts is to increase raw speed, stride power and running economy. They are beneficial even for marathon runners, whose race pace is substantially slower than the speeds that can be sustained over such short distances. The power and efficiency gains you derive from running short intervals will enable you to sustain your current marathon pace more easily, and thus run faster at the effort level associated with your current marathon pace.
Recovery periods between short intervals should be relatively long—roughly three times the duration of the intervals themselves. This is necessary to allow you to maintain a consistent level of performance throughout the workout. If you don’t recover long enough, you will slow down from one interval to the next and the workout will become a test of fatigue resistance instead of a speed and power builder. Recoveries may be either passive (standing or walking) or active (slow jogging).
Exactly how fast should you run short intervals? Generally, you should run as fast as you can without slowing down before the end of the workout. So your last interval should be as fast as your first, and you should be good and tired by the time you complete it. You will likely need to get one or two short interval workouts in your legs before you master the pacing aspect.
The total amount of fast running you should do in this type of workout depends primarily on your fitness level. Here are some suggested formats:
Beginner Short Interval Workouts
– 6 x 100 meters
– 6 x 200 meters
– 6 x 300 meters
– 6 x 400 meters
Intermediate Short Interval Workouts
– 8 x 100 meters
– 8 x 200 meters
– 8 x 300 meters
– 8 x 400 meters
Advanced Short Interval Workouts
– 10 x 100 meters
– 10 x 200 meters
– 10 x 300 meters
– 10 x 400 meters
Intervals of 600 to 1,200 meters in length are typically classified as middle-distance intervals. They are run at paces corresponding to 3000m to 5000m race pace. Middle-distance intervals stress your capacity to consume oxygen, recycle lactate and resist the major physiological causes of muscle fatigue at high running speeds. The resulting increase in aerobic capacity, lactate recycling capacity and fatigue resistance will enable you to sustain faster speeds for longer periods of time.
After completing each interval in a middle-distance interval session, recover by jogging slowly for roughly 3 minutes. That’s about how long it takes for your body to restore itself sufficiently to run the next interval at the same speed.
For help in determining appropriate target times for middle-distance intervals, use Greg McMillan’s Running Calculator. Simply enter a recent race time for any distance or an estimated finishing time for a given race distance if you were to run it today. The calculator will then produce suggested pace targets for workouts of all kinds, including intervals of various lengths.
Find the suggested pace for intervals of the length you plan to run in your next workout. Note that there are only targets. Ultimately you will have to pace yourself somewhat by feel. The idea is to run each interval as fast as you can without bonking before the workout is completed.
Here are suggested middle-distance interval workout formats for three levels:
Beginner Middle-Distance Interval Workouts
– 5 x 600 meters
– 4 x 800 meters
– 3 x 1000 meters
– 2 x 1200 meters
Intermediate Middle-Distance Interval Workouts
– 6 x 600 meters
– 5 x 800 meters
– 4 x 1000 meters
– 3 x 1200 meters
Advanced Middle-Distance Interval Workouts
– 7 x 600 meters
– 6 x 800 meters
– 5 x 1000 meters
– 4 x 1200 meters
Long intervals range from 1600m (one mile) to 3000m. Because they are longer than middle-distance intervals, long intervals are necessarily run more slowly, but they are not intended to be slow. Typically, they are run at the individual runner’s approximate 10K race pace. This pace is close to lactate threshold pace for many runners, or the speed above which blood lactate levels increase rapidly. It was formerly believed that this spike in blood lactate hastened muscle fatigue. It is now known that fatigue at this intensity is caused by other factors.
What has not changed is that lactate threshold pace is a very good predictor of race performance, and training at or near lactate threshold intensity is a very effective way to increase lactate threshold pace. This is largely because training at this intensity increases the body’s capacity to recycle lactate for muscle fuel.
Because of their length and intensity, it only takes a handful of long intervals to stimulate a strong training effect. Even advanced runners should seldom do more than a total of 10K of fast running in these workouts. Here is a selection of long interval workout formats:
Beginner Long Interval Workouts
– 4 x 1600 meters
– 3 x 2000 meters
– 3 x 2400 meters
Intermediate Long Distance Interval Workouts
– 5 x 1600 meters
– 4 x 2000 meters
– 4 x 2400 meters
– 2 x 3000 meters
Advanced Long Interval Workouts
– 6 x 1600 meters
– 5 x 2000 meters
– 4 x 2400 meters
– 3 x 3000 meters
As their name suggests, mixed interval workouts are a mixture of two or more of the three interval lengths discussed above. Because they do not focus on a single, specific intensity, mixed interval workouts are not as useful as short, middle-length, or long intervals for boosting specific components of running fitness. However, they are very useful for maintaining fitness in each of the components addressed by the three interval lengths.
Therefore, runners typically rely on mixed intervals during the final weeks of training before a race, after they have already developed their speed, VO2 max, and lactate threshold with short, middle-length, and long interval workouts, and simply want to maintain these capabilities while sharpening for a race.
Mixed intervals are also useful as a secondary track workout for advanced runners training for shorter races (5K and 10K). The primary track workout of the week would focus on developing one specific component of running fitness, while the mixed interval workout would provide a smaller stimulus for the same component of running fitness plus a small stimulus for the components of running fitness addressed by the other interval lengths.
The following are examples of mixed interval workout formats for beginner, intermediate and advanced runners:
Beginner Mixed Intervals Workout
(400m active recovery after each interval)
Intermediate Mixed Intervals Workout
(400m active recovery after each interval)
Advanced Mixed Intervals Workout
(400m active recovery after each interval)
Incorporating Track Workouts Into Your Training
Regardless of the race distance you’re training for, you should do short, middle-distance, and long interval workouts. Mixed interval workouts are optional and are best used as discussed above. Most runners, regardless of their experience and fitness levels, should perform one and only one track workout per week during the 8- to 16-week period preceding a race.
The challenge level of your track workouts must be tailored to fit your current fitness level. And the particular order in which you sequence your track workouts should vary, depending on the race distance you’re preparing for.
Many runners break their training into distinct phases and do only one type of interval workout in each phase. However, I believe that runners should create a rotation in which they do each type of interval workout regularly throughout the training process. After all, what’s the point of building up, say, a lot of speed by doing a block of short interval workouts relatively early in the training cycle if you’re then just going to eliminate short interval workouts and lose that hard-earned speed later in the training cycle? Rotating your track workouts enables you to maintain the fitness gains you earn in each component of overall running fitness.
That said, you should give greater emphasis to specific types of track workouts at different points in the training process. During the peak period of training that immediately precedes your biggest race, you should emphasize track workouts that target the intensity level that is closest to the intensity level of your upcoming race.
For 5K runners, middle-distance intervals are closest to race pace. For 10K and half-marathon runners, long intervals are closest to race pace. Track workouts of any sort are not well suited to marathon-pace runs, so if you’re training for a marathon I recommend that you do your marathon-pace runs off the track and focus on mixed-pace intervals in the peak period of marathon training to maintain speed, VO2 max, and lactate threshold gains established through short, middle-length and long interval workouts performed earlier in the training cycle.
All road racers should emphasize short intervals in the earlier part of the training cycle because it is helpful to establish a foundation of speed that you can then extend over longer distances as the training cycle progresses. Plus, the very high speeds that are involved in short interval workouts are less race-specific than the slightly slower speeds involved in the other types of interval workout, so they do not need to be emphasized in the peak period of training.
The following table presents examples of how you might sequence the various types of track workouts over 16 weeks for each of four race distances:
|Short Intervals 100’s||Short Intervals 100’s||Short Intervals 100’s||Short Intervals 100’s|
|Middle-Distance Intervals 600’s||Middle-Distance Intervals 600’s||Middle-Distance Intervals 600’s||Middle-Distance Intervals 600’s|
|Short Intervals 200’s||Short Intervals 200’s||Short Intervals 300’s||Short Intervals 300’s|
|Middle-Distance Intervals 800’s||Middle-Distance Intervals 800’s||Middle-Distance Intervals 800’s||Middle-Distance Intervals 800’s|
|Long Intervals 1600’s||Short Intervals 300’s||Short Intervals 400’s||Short Intervals 400’s|
|Short Intervals 300’s||Long Intervals 1600’s||Long Intervals 1600’s||Long Intervals 1600’s|
|Middle-Distance Intervals 800’s||Short Intervals 400’s||Middle-Distance Intervals 1000’s||Middle-Distance Intervals 1000’s|
|Long Intervals 1600’s||Middle-Distance Intervals 1000’s||Short Intervals 400’s||Short Intervals 400’s|
|Short Intervals 200’s||Long Intervals 1600’s||Long Intervals 1600’s||Middle-Distance Intervals 1000’s|
|Middle-Distance Intervals 1000’s||Short Intervals 300’s||Middle-Distance Intervals 1200’s||Long Intervals 2000’s|
|Long Intervals 1600’s||Middle-Distance Intervals 1000’s||Short Intervals 300’s||Middle-Distance Intervals 1200’s|
|Middle-Distance Intervals 1000’s||Long Intervals 1600’s||Long Intervals 2000’s||Long Intervals 2400’s|
|Long Intervals 2000’s||Short Intervals 400’s||Middle-Distance Intervals 1000’s||Short Intervals 400’s|
|Short Intervals 400’s||Long Intervals 2000’s||Long Intervals 2400’s||Long Intervals 3000’s|
|Middle-Distance Intervals 1000’s||Middle-Distance Intervals 1200’s||Middle-Distance Intervals 1200’s||Mixed Intervals|
|Middle-Distance Intervals 1200’s||Long Intervals 2400’s||Long Intervals 3000’s||Mixed Intervals|