group doing track intervals
(Photo: Getty images)

Try this Fun Inverted Pyramid Workout to Build Miler Speed 

This challenging interval workout is perfect for sharpening road warriors to run the mile, or just to keep you in touch with speed.

group doing track intervals
Getty images

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Looking for a workout that might help you convert your road-racing skills to a mile PR? My favorite is one I call the inverted speed pyramid. Doing it a couple of times, a week apart, starting 2½ weeks before the race, is a great way to goose yourself from 5K/10K/half marathon training into “mile” mode without disrupting your road racing with a lot of specialized miler training.

Inverted pyramids are workouts in which you start with long intervals, then run progressively shorter ones until the midpoint. Then you reverse the progression and climb back up to longer ones.

The Workout:

1–2 x 600–800m @ 5K pace

2 x 400m @ mile pace

2 x 200m @ 800m pace

2 x 400m @ mile pace

2 x 600–800m @ 5K pace

This workout begins by warming up your aerobic system with a couple of intervals at 5K pace — not a lot, but enough to notice. A pair of 600s or 800s is plenty. Then you shift to 400s at 1500m/mile speed, followed by a couple of even-faster 200s, perhaps at 800m race pace. After which you climb back up the ladder, finishing with a bit more aerobic work.

Mimicking the Race Challenge

It’s tough, but fun. Descending the ladder is relatively easy, but coming back up is more challenging, both mentally and physically.

But that makes it a great way to prepare yourself for how you’ll feel in the toughest parts of the mile. “I was really surprised by this workout,” Josie Johnson, one of the runners in my group, told me the first time she did it. “It definitely was a great simulator of those last 1-2 laps. “It felt like the first half of the workout was very achievable, but the second stage was where those race skills were challenged.”

It also requires you to run smart, a useful skill for races of any distance. That’s because if you can’t control your pace as you move back up the distance ladder, you’re going to blow up and not be able to finish. “[You] really have to think about what [you’re] doing,” says Eugene, Oregon, coach Bob Williams.

Mike Caldwell, coach of the ASICS Greenville Track Club-Elite notes that it also fits nicely into the multi-pace training theory advanced in the 1960s and ‘70s by Frank Horwill, founder of the British Milers’ Club. “You are taxing both the aerobic and anaerobic systems,” he says.

diverse group of runners doing speed work on track
Photo: Getty Images

Variations on the Theme

How exactly to do this workout depends on how much weekly volume you’re doing. For a 40–50 mile per week runner, it might go like this (where numbers in parentheses are recovery jogs, in meters):

1 x 800 (200) @ 5K pace

1 x 600 (200) @ 5K pace

2 x 400 (400) @ 1500m pace

2 x 200 (200…SLOW; walking ok) @ 800m pace

2 x 400 (400) @ 1500m pace

1 x 600 (200) @ 5K pace

1 x 800 @ 5K pace

That’s three miles of total speed, some of it very fast. Lower-distance runners might reduce the first 800m to 600 and drop the last 800. Or even drop both the first and last 800m and start and end with one 600m.

If in doubt, start at the low end of the total distance range the first time and increase the lead-in and lead-out aerobic work the second time. “I’ve always thought that 1500m/mile workouts produce good results when the volume is between 4K and 5K of work,” says Caldwell. The goal, he adds, is to produce enough training stimulus to speed you up, without “going to the bottom of the well.”

Johnson agrees. “It seemed like a great way to exhaust the system in a controlled way,” she says. “I didn’t feel way too fatigued afterward.”

Speed for Everyone

Nor is this merely a mile/1500m workout. I first developed it for a marathoner who, in her 30s, also wanted to take a shot at her high-school 800m PR. (She beat it, first try.) I’ve also seen it work for the 3000m.

Even if you never intend to race a distance shorter than 5K, this might even be a good workout to toss into your training cycle occasionally. longer-distance runners also need to keep sharp by exercising their paces at faster-than-race speed, Caldwell says.

And, he notes, workouts like this are fun. Pyramids, progressive ladders, etc., work well psychologically, he says, because they divide workouts into “digestible chunks,” rather than forcing you to stare down the barrel of a frightening number of identical repeats.

The latter might be good for building mental toughness, but you don’t need to do that on every workout. Sometimes, fun-fast is even more useful. Not to mention a lot more enjoyable.

Richard A. Lovett is a coach and writer in Portland, Ore. As a coach, he works with Team Red Lizard in Portland, where he has trained recreational racers, national age-group champions, and competitors in the last three Olympic Trials marathons. He is also an award-winning science fiction writer and author of 10 books (four of them on running) and 3,500 magazine and newspaper articles. Before finding his career in journalism he studied astrophysics, got a law degree and a Ph.D. in economics, and taught law at the University of Minnesota — a diverse background that has led him to write about a wide array of topics. Find him on Facebook or visit his website.

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