Workouts

I am not an exercise scientist or coach, nor do I play one on TV, but with more than 20 years of running under my belt, there are a few workouts that have proven to be effective for me over the years, whether for race preparation or simply general fitness. I’ve had to modify some of them (especially in terms of managing my expectations regarding speed) since I had knee surgery in 2007 and as I’ve gotten older more mature, but I still try to do these workouts on a regular basis. I typically do one of the following each week.

As with any workout, remember to listen to your body’s signals. These workouts are supposed to feel uncomfortable, but there is a difference between the discomfort associated with improving fitness and the pain of an injury. If you experience the latter at any time during one of these workouts, please stop immediately.

Workout #1: 400m Repeats

This workout is a favorite of mine dating all the way back to high school track.  It carried over into college, where we would complete 25 of these, one after the other. The immediate result: spaghetti legs. The long-term result: a faster 5K or 10K. I still use this workout to build speed, work on form, and increase anaerobic capacity. This workout is best done on a track, but also works on a trail, especially if you have a GPS watch or can pre-measure a stretch of 400m. It works like this:

  1. Run a slow, easy warm-up of one to two miles. You should be able to talk easily while warming up.
  2. Stretch.
  3. Run 400 meters at a pace that feels uncomfortably hard. You should not be able to get out more than a grunt at this pace, yet you are not running so hard that you can’t maintain the pace for the duration of the interval or are completely exhausted by the end. I think of this as 75-80% effort.
  4. Jog a slow recovery of about 200m or 0.15 miles.
  5. Ease into the next 400m interval. Try to run it at the same pace as the first one.
  6. Repeat steps 4 and 5. Aim for four intervals the first couple of times and gradually work up to more (12 or 16). Sometimes I’ll jog a full 400m recovery after each set of four intervals. The goal here is to run each one at the same pace.
  7. Run a slow, easy cool-down of one to two miles.
  8. Stretch and enjoy your spaghetti legs!
Workout #2: 800m Repeats (Yasso 800s)

This workout is very similar to the above, but the intervals are twice the distance. These are great preparation for marathon training, and are often referred to Yasso 800s, as the workout was developed by the famed American distance runner Bart Yasso, on the premise that you can project your marathon finish time based on how long it takes you to run an 800m interval.

For example, if you can run several 800m repeats in four minutes, with consistent training, you would be able to run a four-hour marathon. Likewise, if you can run the 800m repeats in three minutes and 50 seconds, you would be able to run a marathon in three hours and fifty minutes. Simply take the 800m time in minutes and seconds (for example, 3:50) and think of it as hours and minutes (3:50) to project your marathon time.

As I am working toward a goal, I try to think of the workout in the opposite way: run the 800m repeats according to my marathon goal time. This workout is best done on a track, but can also be done on a trail if you have a GPS watch or are able to pre-measure an 800m stretch. It works like this:

  1. Run a slow, easy warm-up of one to two miles. You should be able to talk easily while warming up.
  2. Stretch.
  3. Run 800 meters at your pre-determined pace, based on your marathon goal time. You should not be able to talk much, but this shouldn’t feel quite as hard and fast as the 400m repeats above.
  4. Jog a slow recovery of the same time that it took you to run the 800m interval.
  5. Ease into the next 800m interval. Try to run it at the same pace as the first one.
  6. Repeat steps 4 and 5. Aim for three intervals the first couple of times and gradually work up to more (8 to 10). Sometimes I’ll jog a full 800m recovery after each set of three or four intervals. The goal here is to run each one at the same pace.
  7. Run a slow, easy cool-down of one to two miles.
  8. Stretch and relax!

You can read more about Yasso 800s here.

Workout #3: Fartlek

Fartlek workouts are a great way to build speed, especially on a trail, and keep your workout interesting by varying the interval distance and pace. This funny-sounding word is Swedish, and means “speed-play”. This is a good workout to do with a partner, because you can take turns deciding the distance of the interval. It works like this:

  1. Run a slow, easy warm-up of one to two miles. You should be able to talk easily while warming up.
  2. Decide during your warm-up how long (time or distance) your first interval will be. Once your warm up is complete, immediately ease into your interval. Run it at a pace that makes conversation impossible, but not so fast that you can’t get out a word or two.
  3. After your interval is complete, jog your recovery in the same amount of time that you took to run your previous interval. Decide how long your next interval will be.
  4. Ease into your next interval.
  5. Jog your recovery.
  6. Repeat steps four and five until your workout is complete. If you are just beginning to incorporate speed work into your training, start with four intervals, and gradually work up to 10 to 12.
  7. Run a slow, easy cool-down of one to two miles.
  8. Stretch and relax!

Things to keep in mind:

  • Each interval should be at least 30 seconds. I like to set the maximum for mine at five minutes.
  • To get the most out of this workout, be sure to vary the length of each interval. I always try to incorporate at least one at 30 seconds and one at five minutes, and several in between.
Workout #4: Pyramid

A pyramid workout is similar to a fartlek in that you will change the length of your intervals. You can make it interesting by starting at the “top” of your pyramid with a longer interval and decreasing the distance and increasing the speed as you work through the workout, or you can start at the “bottom” and build up. Or, you can do both: up-down-up, or down-up-down. There are no hard and fast rules here (except to start with a small pyramid and gradually increase your mileage as you become fitter). This workout can be done on a track or a trail, and can be developed based on time or distance. I like to plan this one in advance so that I am less likely to cheat by altering the workout as I get tired.

Here is one example of a pyramid:

  1. Run a slow, easy warm-up of one to two miles. You should be able to talk easily while warming up.
  2. Run 400m at a hard effort. Jog your recovery in the same amount of time that you took for the interval.
  3. Run 800m at slightly (but not much) easier than your effort level for the 400m interval. Jog your recovery in the same amount of time that you took for the interval.
  4. Repeat step three as follows: 1200m at slightly easier effort level, and then 1 mile. Then go back “down” the pyramid and try to hit the same times that you ran while going “up”: 1200m, 800m, 400m. If you can run your last 400m in the same amount of time as your first, then you are my hero!
  5. Run a slow, easy cool-down of one to two miles.
  6. Stretch and relax!

This workout allows for plenty of variance:

  • As you become more fit, you can squeeze in additional intervals at different distances (for example, 600m, 1000m).
  • If you don’t have access to a track, you can set your intervals for time: 2:00 minutes; 4:00 minutes, 6:00 minutes; 8:00 minutes, and back down.
  • You can start with a longer time/distance, and work your way down. Just remember to take your recovery time and jog the recoveries if at all possible.
Workout #5: Song Intervals

This workout is great if you like to listen to music as you run. It’s very simple and is best suited for a trail. They key here is to continue to push through the full interval even when you start to feel tired.

  1. Run a slow, easy warm-up of three or four songs.
  2. As the last song of your warm-up ends, gradually pick up your pace and ease into your first “song” interval.
  3. Run hard through the duration of the song. You should not be able to say much during this interval.
  4. As the song winds down, slow down your pace and jog the next full song as a recovery.
  5. Repeat steps 2 and 3 for the duration of your workout. If you are just starting, aim for three song intervals and gradually work up to 6 to 8 as you become more fit.
  6. Run a slow, easy cool-down of one to two miles.
  7. Stretch and relax!

Some tips for getting the most out of this workout:

  • Include a good variety of songs with varying lengths so that your intervals are also different lengths.
  • Include songs that are upbeat and fast-paced.
  • Set your playlist to shuffle so that you don’t know the order of the songs and will be surprised (for better or for worse) with the length of each interval (and recovery!).

Long ago and far away, I wrote a blog post about exactly this kind of workout. If you’re interested, you can read it here.

Workout #6: Mile Repeats

Mile repeats are daunting, at least for me. Even after 25 years. But they work. And that is why I continue to do them. They can be done on a track, but these days I prefer to do them on a trail because I enjoy having a variety of things to look at and keep me from thinking about how far I have to go.

  1. Run a slow, easy warm-up of one to two miles. You should be able to talk easily while warming up.
  2. Stretch.
  3. Run a mile at a little faster than 10K race pace. If you’ve never run a 10K or aren’t sure what your 10K race pace would be, think of your effort level as comfortably hard: hard enough that conversation is definitely labored and you are breathing hard, but not so hard that you can’t maintain a steady pace for the duration of the mile, and then run another. And another.
  4. Jog a half mile recovery.
  5. Repeat steps 3 and 4. If you are doing this workout for the first time, start with two mile repeats. Gradually work up to more (4-5) as you become more fit.
  6. Run a slow, easy cool-down of one to two miles.
  7. Stretch and relax!
Workout #7: Tempo Workout

The tempo workout is great for building speed and endurance over a longer distance and is easy to incorporate into any run of 4 miles or longer. Your tempo pace is one that feels comfortably hard yet you know you can maintain it for at least 20 minutes. It should be at least 90 seconds (but not too much more than that) per mile faster than your easy run pace. Tempo runs are best suited for a trail.

  1. Run a slow, easy warm-up of about a mile. You should be able to talk easily while warming up.
  2. As you approach the end of your warm-up mile, immediately ease into your tempo pace.
  3. Run at that pace for 20 minutes.
  4. Ease into a slow, easy cool-down of about a mile.
  5. Stretch and relax!

As you become more fit, increase the length of your tempo run segment, up to 35 minutes. Sometimes I run mine in two segments of 20-25 minutes each, with a mile of easy running in between each segment.

Workout #8: Hill Repeats

Ah, hills. Hills were probably at the source of my first-ever love-hate relationship. I’m sure you know why. Perhaps you agree; perhaps not. Either way, I don’t think there’s any disputing that hill training can improve fitness and strength.

For uphill workouts, choose a hill that is about 1/4 of a mile in length, ideally on a trail or otherwise low-traffic street. The hill should be steep enough that you are definitely huffing and puffing by the time you reach the top, but gradual enough that you are not petering our halfway through.

For downhill workouts, choose a hill that is shorter and more gradual than your uphill. Remember that you’ll be running downhill much faster. That’s a lot of pounding, and choosing a hill that’s too steep could lead to injury.

  1. Run a slow, easy warm-up of about one to two miles. You should be able to talk easily while warming up.
  2. Stretch.
  3. Run your hill (either up or down) at a pace that is challenging but sustainable all the way to the end. This is especially true for running uphill.
  4. Jog your recovery in the opposite direction.
  5. Repeat steps 3 and 4. Start with 4 hills, and gradually increase the number of repeats as you become more fit. The goal here is to run each hill in the same amount of time. If you find that you aren’t hitting the same pace or close to it for each repeat, trying slowing down a bit.
  6. Run a slow, easy cool-down of one to two miles.
  7. Stretch and relax!

Please, please, take care of your knees while running hills!

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