Friday, March 9, 2018

Track Work

There is an endless assortment of workouts you can do before a marathon, with different schools of thought touting one type over another. I think most will agree that the closer to race pace and distance you are, the more the workout matters. To me that means marathon pace workouts are the ones to nail and the ones I put the most emphasis on, followed by tempo runs and finally track workouts. Although least important, track workouts are still a staple of my prep: pushing yourself at shorter, faster efforts can teach you that you have more to give, even when you already feel like you’re sprinting. And sometimes it’s just fun to fly down the track.

But there’s no consensus on just how to do them. Some training plans (for example, Advanced Marathoning) include shorter efforts (like 5 x 600) in the second half of the season, as you start to peak, to work on VO2max (how much oxygen you can take in and turn to energy). On the other hand, Renato Canova (a renowned coach of many top Kenyan marathoners) sticks with what I said above—that efforts closer to race pace matter above all—and does the opposite, emphasizing intervals that get longer and slower (closer to marathon effort) as the season progresses. I’ve been curious about Canova’s methods (read more here) for a while, but have yet to make the (rather drastic) jump. My track workouts are somewhat in the middle of these two extremes.

Below are some of my favorites to do during a marathon buildup. I need to credit Coach Jerry of GRC for inspiring most of these. Under his tutelage and weekly track workouts, I dropped ten minutes off my marathon time and was able to hit paces in workouts that intimidated me when I first read them. Just writing these down makes me miss all the laps (and commiserating over a shared hatred for 2Ks) with the speedy GRC ladies!

These intervals are generally done on the slower end of 5K pace. (Or right on/slightly faster than 5K pace for me, because my 5K times have never quite measured up.) For simplicity’s sake, I almost always jog a lap between reps, but I give myself a little extra (maybe a minute more) for intervals in the 1.5-2 mile range. (One rule of thumb is to take rest for 50-90% of the time it takes to run the interval. If an interval takes 6:00, the rest—mostly easy jogging—would be 3:00-5:24.)

THE TUNE UP: 6 x 800

I always run at least one half marathon or ten miler in the lead up to the marathon (see my upcoming races here) as a tune-up to see where I’m at fitness-wise, to get a hard workout in, and to practice racing and all the logistics that go with it. Three or four days before a tune-up race, I do 6 x 800 meter repeats, starting at a very comfortable pace and progressing with each one. I don’t do any too hard; the goal is to feel fast yet relaxed and to remind your head and legs of the speed you’ve got but not do anything that will leave you tired for the race.


There are endless variations of ladders: some building up and coming down (400, 800, 1200, 1600, 1200, 800, 400) or just coming down (3200, 2400, 1600, 800). You could also go by minutes, more fartlek style, if you want to do it off the track. (For example, 2 min, 3 min, 4 min, 5 min, 4 min, 3 min, 2 min). These are fun because each interval is different, so it’s a different challenge, which can make it less mentally tough. The next interval may be longer than the last, but it’s slower (or faster but shorter) so you can talk yourself into focusing on whatever aspect is getting easier. I think these are good earlier in the season when the longer stuff seems too intimidating, but it can be fun to switch up the paces whenever.


These are the longer intervals that really teach you to keep grinding at a pretty tough pace. I’ll do either 3 x 3200 (2 mile) or 4 x 2400 (1.5 mile) with a slightly longer rest than the other workouts. These can also be done off the track to better simulate road racing conditions, although I’d still opt for a flat route. Of course all these workouts could be managed on a road if a track is unavailable, but I tend to think the longer, slower stuff is easier to translate. It’s tough to hit super fast splits for the shorter stuff off the track.

THE DREADED: 2K repeats

I hate 2K repeats. I don’t know why I hate them more than the longer stuff (see above), maybe it’s because the paces are always slightly faster. Something about 5 laps just intimidates me; I can wrap my head around 4 laps, even 8 laps (telling myself I’ll be going slower) but 5 laps are dreaded. That said, the workouts you dread are often the ones you need to do most; dreading them is probably a sign they are taxing some system that needs work. I usually do about 4 repeats of these.


This is my favorite track workout of the season. About 10 days out from the marathon, I do my last track workout, 3 x 1600. The first rep is relaxed, the second is faster but controlled, and the last one is basically all out. I usually set a PR on the last (yea, it’s a little strange to set PRs in workouts but I haven’t raced a mile since high school), which gives me the confidence I need for race day. (See the video below, when I set a (then) PR of 5:22 ten days before CIM.) 

That’s really the biggest thing track workouts do for me; ostensibly, they’re helping my lungs and legs, but really it’s about building confidence and feeling fast.

Dream big, 

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