Saturday, January 23, 2016

The discipline of the track: essential training component

It's not a scoop, but it is worth the reminder, speed workouts at the track don't seem natural to the ultra and trail runner, yet they are essential to a complete training and, of course, to build up form and speed.
(Picture taken from an article with great speed workout tips from champion Alan Culpepper in

The first benefit of the track is the precise measurement of distance which allows for a precise pacing. As much as the GPS watches made progress these years, they are typically a few percent off, especially on hilly trails. And, on uneven trails, you are never at a constant pace.

The second benefit of training at the track is that it invites you to focus on intensity on much shorter distances than usual. I typically don't do anything shorter than a lap (400m or 440 yards), but speed work can include explosive hundreds or 200s.

The third element of track workouts is the complete flatness which allows you to focus on your stride.

Last but not least, the best is to do these workouts with some company, buddies running at your max pace (e.g. 5K race pace) or slightly faster so you get a challenge. Meeting others will also increase your chance of completing these work outs and including them in your busy life schedule.

We are so lucky in the US with so many public High Schools and Colleges having state of the art tracks open to the public every day, at least outside of school hours and between dawn and dusk. And even more lucky in California in particular where the weather cooperates all year round (I'm sorry for those leaving on the East Coast for instance as most tracks must be under 1 or 2 feet of snow as I write this post). That's a luxury which appreciate even more as I travel around the world.

During the full season, I race and travel so much that I've hard time doing track workouts regularly. After 2 weeks overseas this month, it was a delight to be able to get to the track with my buddies Jeremy and Bob on Thursday. We do all sort of work outs there, ranging from standard repeats from 12x400s to 3 miles, or the more complicated pyramid: 400-800-1200-1200-800-400 and breath-recovery breaks of 20 to 30" per lap completed (it is important to keep the cadence going to remain in an anaerobic state to get the full benefit of the workout). As you see, our sessions always consist in 3 miles of intense work which we do after 2 miles of warm-up (and catching up on work, family and other National or World news), and followed by a 1-mile cool down jog plus some stretching before getting back to work. When we can, we meet on Tuesdays and/or Thursdays at 5:45 am at Mountain View High School which is one rare campus leaving the access to the track open most of the time (exceptional closure for instance when they prepare the field for graduation in June).

This Thursday, Jeremy picked an unusual workout called the washing-machine: 12 x 400s, alternating the rotation direction each time and walking 100 meters to the start of the next lap (in other words, first starting at the usual starting line, then at the 300-meter mark in the opposite direction). We clocked laps between 82 and 75 seconds. I was just done with a 202-kilometer training week (the 3 50Ks I mentioned in my previous post, one every other day), I could barely keep up with Jeremy and Bob this time and would have never pushed that hard if not with/for them!

After taking Friday off (yes, rest is important and I used to be much better with taking a day or 2 off each week, years ago), I was back to the track this Saturday morning, albeit another one, at Cupertino High School. For a much different work out, a (very) long tempo run. This time, my goal was to run 20 miles at a sub 6:30 min/mile pace. Yes, that's 80 laps, and I'm glad my Garmin GPS has a function to keep track of the laps and lap times. With one time every lap, it's like a super slow motion metronome, yet much better from a pacing standpoint to one measurement every mile.

Sorry for the purists, but I'm counting 4 laps to the mile although this is missing about 10 meters, that is less than 1% error.

Anyway, I started with slightly faster laps (of course!), in the 1'32"-1'34" range but I'm glad to report that I was able to keep up that pace most of the way, averaging 6:20 min/mile pace for these 80 laps, with my fastest lap at 1:32 and slowest at 1:37. Not to bad for a metronome, especially given a few bursts of wind in the first hour and some rain in the last 12 laps. Great training to build up conditioning before the racing starts in 2 weeks.

I hope I gave you some motivation to hit the track at least once in a while. If you want to run faster, you cannot escape this track regimen, this is what will have the most impact and make the most difference in your training miles. Even for trail races, just look at how fast the young elite runners are!

Many happy laps to all then!

PS: for those in the South Bay, it has been a while I didn't visit these tracks, but I recall Los Gatos High School being also quite welcoming, as well as De Anza College (I imagine the same for the nearby Foothill College). The tracks of the Cupertino High School District, which have all been renovated recently (Cupertino High, Homestead, Fremont, Monta Vista) have high fences and strict closure hours at night unfortunately. If you know of other welcoming/all-time open tracks, thanks for leaving a comment underneath.


Anonymous said...

Hey Jean, you have a great blog! Keep up the great work!

runstephane said...

Good job Jean!
12×400 is great for "secouer la pulpe" :)
Dis-donc, tu ne voudrais pas changer tes paramètres Garmin-Connect ? Profile/Settings/Privacy: select MyConnections. Parce que je suis leader hebdo entre copains et j'aimerais bien relativiser ! Et pouvoir jeter un coup d'œil à tes superbes séances.
Keep goin' ... farther & faster