Ed Note: I first met Christopher Russell on Twitter. He's a marathon and ultra runner, author, and radio show host of the RunRunLive! Podcast and all-around good runner guy. Recently I noticed this great series on speedwork for beginning runners on his blog and gave Chris a shout. He's graciously allowed me to reprint his posts here on Traxee. I think this information is really good and I hope you do too. Enjoy!
Why you should see the track as a great way to grow?
The track can be a scary place, especially for beginners. There are people down there doing strange things. There are real athletes there. There are walkers. There might even be the local expatriate footballers practicing.
What’s a beginner to do? Why should you go down there? Why should you go to this stark and scary place? More importantly – how can you learn to use this scary place as the key to unlock your running form and speed?
How is this 400M asphalt oval any different from any other 400M flat stretch of road?
I have found the basic high school 400M track is an excellent tool to get better and faster. The track becomes a ‘place’ for your work out. It becomes a physical destination that you associate with a certain kind of practice. It becomes a positive mental anchor.
The track is measured, predictable, and flat. Running speedwork on the track removes most of the variables from your workout. You can time each 100M to see exactly how fast you are going. This allows you to associate specific mechanics and effort levels with specific paces and in the process get comfortable with them.
Could you run an 8:00 minute-per-mile pace with your eyes closed? I can. Why? Because I’ve spent hours at the track burning in what pace is associated with what effort level and which mechanics. These paces are like the button settings on my blender. I know in a race I can just hit one of the pace settings and cruise. It makes me confident. It gives me the tactical confidence to apply the correct tools where and when I need them.
Doing speedwork on the track cleans up your form. Your form is forced to get better when you run fast on the track. I am not talking about running to exhaustion in a full windmill sprint. I’m talking about pushing your threshold in controlled sessions at different paces and effort levels until the correct mechanics are found and fall into place.
If you consider your body, your system, as an experiment in running, the track allows you to minimize the variables so that you can see the impact of specific input changes.
The other great thing that the track allows you to do is to work backwards from a goal race time to see what the effort level and mechanics are that are required to reach that goal.
For me this was a qualifying marathon. For my first qualifying marathon I trained for a 3:05 – 3:10 finishing range. In order to do this I decided I would have to run speedwork at a 6:00 minute-per-mile pace and tempo at a 6:30 pace. I worked at the track twice a week for months to burn in these paces by working up to 5 X 1600 at speed and 8 X 1600 at tempo. This work, plus my base and long mileage got me my qualifying time. Base miles and long alone would not have done the job.
This is the secret of speedwork. If you want to run faster you need to run faster.
I know you, the beginning runner, are saying to yourself; “He’s nuts, I could never run that fast.” I bet you can. Here’s the experiment. Go to the track. Wear your favorite running shoes. Line up on the line with the numbers on it on the corner, any lane. Hit the start button on your stopwatch and run to the next corner as fast as you can. That’s 100M. Look at the time.
When I have done this experiment, most people will easily beat 20 seconds. (the current world record held by Usain Bolt is 9.85 seconds) Do the math. That’s 400M in 80 seconds. That’s 1600M in 320 seconds. Guess what? You are running a 5 minute and 20 second mile. Now all you have to do is spread it out.
Do it again and see if you can hit 30 seconds exactly. What was the effort level? What were your mechanics like? Play with it. Focus on the form. Can you get to the point where you can ‘hit your splits’? (Predictably hit that time over 100M) Guess what? You are now burning it in. You are associating effort and form with pace.
I know what you’re thinking, 100M is a long way from a marathon. But just like any progressive training plan, you can quantify where you are, and start small. Start with 100M. Work up to 200M. One day you’ll be snapping off fast confident 1600M repeats and wondering why you ever felt it was hard. Then when you toe the line at your next 5K or marathon you’ll have the confidence of a master and the execution of a Samurai whether your target pace is 5 or 10 minute miles.
This ability to know how fast you are running at any point in time, to mindfully control your pace and form is a powerful advantage in your running. Sure, you could do this on any measured flat piece of ground – but the track is ready-made for it. The track is like a sophisticated measuring device that will allow you to quantify your running.
What is a track? It is a 400 meter oval that lives near the athletic fields of almost every high school, college and park. Before the advent of the metric system, in the 60’s, these were known as ¼ mile tracks. You may still find some older tracks out there that are non-standard distances, but the majority of them will now be 400M. A 400M track is a little bit shorter than ¼ mile. One mile is equal to about 1609 meters. I have found that for most workouts of 1600M or shorter you can assume equivalency with no loss of impact.
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Christopher's Interview of Beth Moore for RunRunLive!