Workout of the Week: Fast Start Tempos
This challenging workout prepares your mind and body to hang on strongly after having to go out fast from the gun.
Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth fitness, nutrition, and adventure courses and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+.
In many instances of racing, you are best served by consistent pacing, but sometimes you get into a field that goes out so fast that even pacing isn’t possible if you want to stay in contention. As a high school coach, I can identify specific races in our season that the starts will be faster than normal, and we utilize this workout to help our athletes prepare. What race can you identify on your schedule that you may need to adjust for a faster than normal start?
One of the hardest things for a coach is to watch is your team going out way too fast and fading at the end of the race. As we begin to transition into our racing schedule, I try to incorporate a workout that teaches them that they can get out fast and then settle in and survive a crazy start.
Prepping for a Fast Start
After a long base building period for a race, the body may be ready to get on the starting line, but often the mind is in for a shock when the starting pistol fires and everyone takes off at what feels like full speed. As a coach, my job is to have my athletes as mentally and physically ready to compete as possible. One of the best ways to prepare athletes for fast starts is to have them simulate some during their workouts.
Short starts do a great job to replicate the feeling, but don’t prepare you for going out hard and having to settle in for the remainder of the race. The ultimate goal of this workout is to shock the brain in practice, so that when the gun goes off in a race the feeling is familiar and less scary. For many, the first 800m of the race is the scariest part, but most runners avoid practicing how to handle that initial stress.
The concept is pretty straight forward: Find a flat, relatively easy terrain for the first part of the workout. The workout is a fast 800m immediately followed by a two mile tempo, both repeated in for two sets (5 miles total). Your goal is to simulate going out too fast, and then focus on mentally dialing in a controlled fast pace even though you are already physically fatigued and your heart rate is up. This workout should be done a couple times a season the week before races that go out extremely fast, helping to prep the mind for what is to come and to build confidence going into those races.
Set 1: 800m – 1 min rest – 2 mile tempo
~5 min of active recovery or rest
Set 2: 800m – 1 min rest – 2 mile tempo
Our program does a full dynamic warm-up, including at least 1200m of running, form drills, 60m sprints, and often speed ladders and running HIITs so we are ready to jump into an intense session.
Set 1: You will run 800m at ~90-94% of your 800m race pace. Take 1 minute rest to transition to the second segment, the 2 mile tempo run. Try to run the tempo towards the top end of your tempo zone, focusing on consistency of pace, settling into rhythm even though you are much more fatigued than you would usually be at the start of a tempo run.
Take approximately 5 minutes of recovery, get some water, walk around or jog a bit in between sets. As the second set approaches, take a positive mental approach to what you know is going to be harder than the first set.
Set 2: Try to run your 800 as consistently close to your first 800 as possible (making adjustments based on if the first one was too fast or too slow). As you finish this segment, you will be pretty tired at this point and will need to rely on positive self-talk going into the final segment. After your 1 minute break, try to stay consistent in your second 2 mile tempo, keeping your pace within range of your first. Simulate the finish by pushing the last 200-400m of the tempo.
This workout has a lot of flexibility to it. You can modify the length of both the first segment and the second to give you the perfect fit for your desired race distance. Try 2 x (400m fast + 1 mile tempo) for shorter, faster races, or even 2 x (1200m + 3 mile tempo) for experienced runners tackling longer races like the half or full marathon. The key is cranking the first segment with a short rest so that you go into the tempo uncomfortable and tired, having to set your mindset to complete the work while fatigued.
This can be a difficult workout, but one that helps train your brain to settle in and control your race after a fast start. Athletes that can dial this in and control their tempo effort after a very fast start, are ready for a competitive 5k!
Doug Soles is the head coach of Great Oak High School in Temecula, California. Over the past 21 years he has led his teams to 36 League Titles (XC and Track combined), 20 CIF Titles (XC and Track combined) and 14 XC State Titles — including a 7 consecutive year streak at state for girls XC through 2018 and 6 year streak at state for boys XC that is still going. His teams have had multiple podium finishes at Nike Cross Nationals, including his boys team winning the 2015 national title. He was named the National High School Coach of the Year by the USTFCCCA in 2015 for cross country and by USA Today in 2016 for track & field.