Andrew Hamilton looks at a landmark study on interval duration; which is better for training adaptation – fewer longer intervals or lots of shorter ones? MORE
Fast track yourself to performance
Peak Performance explains why runners of all abilities should seriously consider some regular track sessions as part of a training program
Although spoken words and language are useful, if you really want to describe and understand a natural phenomenon, you need numbers – and the only way to get numbers is to make measurements. When it comes to running, one of the best measurement tools of the lot is the track. However, there are a lot of runners pounding the roads that wouldn’t dream of going anyway near a track. For some, the mere mention of the word ‘track’ immediately conjures up nightmarish memories of pain and punishment from schooldays long since past. Others frequently associate ‘track’ with elite athletes preparing or competing at international level, not for a club or recreational runner who wants to improve his or her PB for a 10km.
But put aside any preconceptions for a minute and think about it. A track is simply a very precisely measured and perfectly flat distance of (usually) 400 metres, designed specifically for running by providing a suitable running surface in an appropriate environment. It’s simply an accurate tool for measuring running performance – nothing more and nothing less. If you want to run faster, using the track as a tool for increasing speed makes perfect sense, because it affords precise measurement of distance in a controlled environment. All you need to bring with you is an accurate watch and a pair of running shoes.
All tracks consist of a 400m oval, with two straights and two bends, but the actual running surface varies quite considerably – normally a function of the budget available. Grass tracks can be created with minimal cost; all that’s needed is a flat area of grass and some white lines! Grass tracks provide great underfoot cushioning, but surface-wise can be very uneven, and in wet or damp conditions, slippery underfoot. Cinder tracks provide a level and fairly even surface; however, underfoot cushioning is not the best and grip in road running shoes is compromised on the gravely surface compared to spikes. Asphalt tracks are very durable and provide an even, grippy surface, but provide poor levels of underfoot cushioning. The best track surfaces are artificial; they provide a smooth, even surface with good grip and cushioning in all weathers. The drawback is that they require considerable investment, which is why they’re not universally used.
Benefits and drawbacks of track sessions
Runners who may be reluctant to add some track sessions to a running program should at least consider the potential benefits they can offer:
- *Feedback – a precisely measured distance of 400m provides a perfect yardstick (no pun intended) with which to assess running performance, and therefore very useful feedback. You can also easily see how your lap times or multiple lap times (and therefore running fitness) change over a period of weeks or months.
- *Speed – track work is the most fundamental tool for developing speed with interval training. Whether it’s 400m, 800m, 1km, or 1500m intervals, performing these on the track is superior to attempting them between markers during a long run (inaccurate), or on the treadmill (accurate but uninspiring and mentally tough with very little ‘real time’ feedback on progress).
- *Variety – they say that a change is as good as a rest and while running round a 400m track might not sound like a barrel of laughs, small amounts of properly focused track work can add variety and help break up the monotony of endless one-paced runs round the same old routes.
- *Sociability – running laps or multiples of laps has a distinct advantage that you always end up in the same place. This means you can train with running partners of differing abilities, yet still share the experience because you’re still all in one place during the workout, thereby adding motivation.
- *Knowledge – many tracks are frequented by experienced and knowledgeable runners. Runners who are relatively less experienced and who decide to incorporate regulate track work into their routines are very likely to meet people who are willing to share their knowledge and experience. Many running and athletic clubs also run track-based coaching sessions, which are worth considering if you’re really serious about running faster.
The science of track sessions
In recent years, a great deal of research has accumulated showing the benefits of interval training for endurance athletes such as runners, cyclists, swimmers, rowers etc, and across a wide range of abilities (for more in-depth information about the kinds of interval training programs that can boost endurance performance, and how to integrate them into an existing training program, readers are advised to see these articles)(1-4). But is there any specific evidence to support the notion of using the track to introduce interval training sessions?
The answer to the above question is ‘yes’. In a 2018 study by US scientists, 42 recreational runners were split into two groups(5):
- Control group – the runners trained three times per week for 10 weeks at 75% VO2max (moderate intensity effort). Runs started at 30 minutes’ duration weeks 1-4, with duration increasing to 35 minutes weeks 5-7 and then up to 40 minutes weeks 8-10.
- Track interval group – the runners in this group followed the same overall pattern of increasing training volume but ran on a 400m track for the full training session. Rather than running at a constant pace however, the runners sprinted until the 200m mark and the recovered with fast walking or light jogging for the next 200m (ie to the finish line). This pattern was repeated throughout the sessions.
Before and after the 10-week program, the runners were assessed for maximum oxygen uptake (VO2max), anaerobic treadmill run-to-exhaustion performance (12.5kmh at 20% incline), isokinetic leg extension and leg curl strength (at 60 and 300°·per second) and 50 m sprint times. The results showed that while both groups increased their aerobic capacity, the track-interval group experienced greater gains. The track-interval group also experienced significant gains in their anaerobic run-to-exhaustion performance, as well as faster 50m sprint times and increased leg strength. The steady-state running group experienced no such gains. Moreover, the track-trained runners lost body mass (fat) after the ten weeks while the control group did not!
Not all roses
Track running is not all roses though. Interval training to build speed (the main point of track work) is hard work, and if not performed correctly or without adequate recovery, will lead to injury as sure as night follows day. Newcomers to track work should therefore limit themselves to no more than one session a week and monitor any post-exercise aches and pains carefully. The first few sessions should always be performed with a heart rate monitor, to enable you to calculate your pace accurately (see suggested sessions) and HRM use during track sessions is good idea more generally. To avoid the boredom of running endless laps, track sessions need to be planned, focused and not too long. A 35-minute workout consisting of a warm up followed by a set of intervals specifically designed to help you reach move towards your training goal followed by a warm-down is far better than 90 minutes of running laps aimlessly!
Spikes: yes or no?
Almost all competitive track athletes use spikes on the track; they improve traction for accelerating away from the start line and grip for running fast bends. They’re also very lightweight, which confers an additional advantage to competitive athletes. But do regular road runners need spikes when using the track to help build speed? The answer is almost certainly no. The reasons are several-fold; firstly, the benefits of spikes only really become realized at higher running speeds. At the kind of speeds that most amateur/club runners will be propelling themselves along at, grip and traction aren’t really an issue. Secondly, spikes offer very little cushioning compared to road shoes. This is not a problem for young, light and nimble athletes with plenty of track experience behind them. But for heavier runners, the injury risk can be significantly increased with reduced cushioning(6). Thirdly, compared to running shoes, most spikes produce quite a different set of demands on running biomechanics, which can cause problems(7). For example, spikes have very low heels, significantly increasing the demands on the calf and Achilles tendon. While this isn’t necessarily a problem in young, flexible runners accustomed to running at speed, it can be a recipe for disaster in older, less flexible legs. Finally of course, there’s cost; spikes aren’t cheap. Could that money be better spent on better road shoes next time around, or replacing your existing running shoes earlier?
Basics of track work
There are numerous kinds of track workouts for building speed, but most are built around interval training consisting of a work period (typically from 200m 1500m) followed by a rest/recovery period of resting or jogging very slowly. The important thing is to get the right balance of the interval length, intensity and recovery period. The easiest way to do this is with heart rates:
- *During long intervals (over 800m), where the aim is to increase your maximum aerobic capacity, you should aim to get your heart rate at or around 85-90% of maximum (your maximum heart rate [MHR] is roughly = to 220- your age in years).
- *During shorter intervals (up to 800m), where the goal is to increase speed and become more anaerobically efficient (ie better at metabolizing the fatiguing lactate that accumulates at high intensity), you should aim to generate about 90% of MHR or perhaps even a little more.
- *For very short (ie sprint or very high-intensity) intervals, the best metric is percentage effort or run speed; the short nature of these intervals makes it difficult to use heart rate measurements, which take too long to respond.
- *The recovery period should be set so that your heart rate falls below 60%MHR before you begin the next interval.
For example, consider a 45-year old runner, training for an improved 10km time and performing a mixture of 400m, 800m and 1500m intervals. The MHR would be approximately 220-45 = 175bpm, and the target HR for 400m intervals would be just over 160bpm (92% MHR); for 800m and above, it would be about 152bpm (87% MHR). Do bear in mind however that the theoretical MHR calculated by 220-age is only an approximation of true MHR, which may actually be higher, especially in runners who have been training regularly for many years. To truly establish MHR, an incremental run to exhaustion is required; however, this is NOT recommended for anyone who is a relative novice, or who has an existing cardiovascular condition without prior approval from a physician.
During interval sessions, athletes should recover until heart rate drops to about 105-110bpm. As you get acclimatized to track interval sessions, you’ll find that your heart rate will respond more rapidly at the beginning of an interval and drop more rapidly afterwards. This will have the effect of shortening your recovery periods.
The exact structure of your workout will depend on the distance you’re training for. 5km runners should emphasize 400 and 800m intervals and aim to run a total workout distance of around 2.5km. 10km runners should emphasize 800m and 1500m intervals and aim to cover about 4-5K per workout. Half-marathon runners should emphasize 1000-2000m intervals and aim to cover about 8km per workout. For example:
- *5K workout – 2 x 400m followed by 2 x 800m
- *10K workout – 2 x 400m, 3 x 800m, 1 x 1500m
- *Half-marathon workout – 2 x 800m; 4 x 1500m
There are also variations that can be performed for example ladder workouts:
- *200m, 400m, 800m, 800m, 400m, 200m (for a 5K race)
- *400m, 800m, 1m, 1m, 800m, 400m (for a 10K race)
- *400m, 800m, 1mile, 2miles, 2miles, 1miles, 800m, 400m (for a half marathon)
Safety and track sessions
There’s nothing inherently dangerous about track training, but track novices in particular should ensure the following before venturing out onto the track:
- You have at least six months running experience behind you.
- You’re able to complete 8kms (5 miles) comfortably in a single run.
- You can comfortably average 18-20 miles per week (spread over 5 runs per week) for at least 4 consecutive weeks without too much discomfort.
- You’ve had no injury problems during the past 6 months.
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- J Sports Sci . 2017 Jun;35(11):1052-1058
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- Eur J Appl Physiol. 2020 May;120(5):1083-1096
- J Strength Cond Res. 2018 Mar;32(3):624-631
- J Sport Health Sci . 2020 Jun 12;S2095-2546(20)30072-7
- Work. 2012;41 Suppl 1:1763-70. doi: 10.3233/WOR-2012-0382-1763