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Long ago, runners and coaches learned that intense speed work (VO2 Max workouts like 400–800-meter intervals at 3,000-meter pace) and anaerobic training (lactic acid-producing workouts like 300-meter repeats at 1500-meter pace) performed year-round often lead to a plateau in performance and, at worst, overtraining and chronic fatigue.
Instead, runners are encouraged to take a break from VO2 Max and lactic acid–producing workouts during their off-season (base, foundational, pre-competition, preparatory phases). Too much intensity in this range can actually damage the mitochondria and aerobic enzymes you’re working to build during the base phases of training.
Many of us, however, worry about losing speed, or at the very least, don’t want to skip our running group’s weekly track workouts. Not to worry. Here are three great ways to maintain speed yet rest the VO2 max and anaerobic systems.
Leg Speed/Form Training
Leg speed/form training is by far my preferred way to include faster running during the base/off-season phase. In fact, all of my Base plans include leg speed training in the last few weeks as a great way to prep the body for faster running. Runners completing the Base plan find they are very ready for their more intense workouts and enjoy the break from just doing easy runs all the time.
An example of a leg speed/form training workout is 10–15 reps of 10–15 seconds at a fast but controlled effort using excellent running form with full recovery (usually 45–90 seconds) walk or jog. Done one to three times per week, this develops great running form and leg turnover and makes the transition to faster workouts later in the training cycle much easier.
Leg speed/form training is also the safest way to keep doing some faster running while avoiding VO2 max and lactic acid-producing training. Each repeat is short enough that you never get winded during the interval nor have to “dig deep” to complete it. Leg speed (aka strides) take very little out of the runner and recovery is very quick.
Leg speed/form training works great for inexperienced, young, and/or long-distance runners and, completed one to three times per week, feeds the “need for speed” but doesn’t stress the musculoskeletal, VO2 max, or lactic acid systems.
Leg speed/form training also works great for runners who lack self-discipline and/or don’t have an onsite coach controlling the intensity of the off-season workouts. These runners often run too fast in less intense workouts and thus turn appropriate off-season training into the stressful workouts that we are trying to avoid.
Lastly, you can easily do this workout alongside your running mates who may still be doing more traditional speed workouts. Warm up with them and then do your strides on the track as you cheer them on. Win-win.
Hill sprints are another popular workout that can be used year-round. These short, intense runs up a steep hill recruit lots of muscles fibers, yet the body remains alactic (meaning lactic acid does not build up).
Hill sprints work really well for runners who are used to frequent speed work (and thus their muscles are used to very powerful strides) and are injury-free. As an effort-based workout, they also work very well for runners who tend to “race” the watch on repetition workouts or can’t control their intensity in workouts.
A steep hill (8–12% incline) is needed, and for a hill sprint, you run very, very fast (using excellent running form) up the hill for about 10 seconds. Then, you recover for 2–3 minutes before the next sprint. Like the leg speed/form training workout, 10 or so repetitions is enough.
Again, you should not get out of breath during hill sprints. The workout should also not feel “hard” like a speed workout, so if you are getting out of breath or are struggling to run fast, you are running uphill for too long. Shorten the repeats till you can run fast and strong but not get out of breath.
Hill sprints, often described as strength training for the legs, offer a big improvement in running economy, running form, and leg strength. While they are very intense, they don’t take a lot out of the runner so there is little residual fatigue in the coming days.
Injury-prone runners should stick with leg speed/form training workouts first, then in the next off-season add some hill sprint workouts.
Just can’t stand not going to the track every week to meet up with your group? Tweener repeats are for you. Tweener repeats, aka cruise interval or critical velocity interval workouts, are repetitions at an intensity that is slower than your VO2 max yet faster than your lactate threshold (thus the “tweener” moniker).
In the McMillan Calculator, tweener repeat paces are listed as “Cruise Intervals” in honor of legendary coach Jack Daniels who popularized these less intense repetition workouts. You may have also heard them called “Critical Velocity” workouts, a term popularized by successful elite coach Tom Schwartz. (Schwartz defines critical velocity as 90% of VO2 max.)
No matter what you call them, the concept is that shorter repetitions (Daniels suggests three minutes as the perfect duration) performed at this “tweener” intensity allow the runner to get in a good workout yet not create a lot of fatigue, perfect for the purpose of off-season training.
The key, of course, is control. Running too fast and turning the workout into a VO2 max workout is a big no-no, so many runners and coaches find that using heart rate to control the workout is a good technique. In the off season, I tend to start runners at their lactate threshold heart rate (approximately 85–87% of heart rate max) and then allow the heart rate to increase slightly in the later repetitions (up to 88–92% of heart rate max).
As with any repetition workout, you can modulate the stress of the workout by adjusting the volume and recovery. I recommend keeping these workouts shorter (2–4 miles of total fast running) and the recoveries longer if you begin to breathe heavily. Again, these repeats should feel fairly easy compared to your normal speed workouts and your anaerobic longer sprint workouts.
Note: If you are a runner who can’t control herself on the track or a marked course during repetition workouts, then don’t time the tweener repeats, so you focus more on effort and/or heart rate and avoid pushing too hard. Fartlek-style workouts work great in the off-season.
Another great benefit of tweener repeats is that you can essentially turn any workout from your weekly track group into this type of workout. Just make sure you run within the “cruise interval” pace range from the McMillan Calculator and you are good to go. My go-to tweener workout during the base phase is 6–8 x 800m at cruise interval pace with 200m jog, performed once every 2–4 weeks. As always, though, essentially any short repeats (from 30 seconds to around 3 minutes) at this tweener intensity work great.
Caveats: When to NOT do speed work
I don’t recommend these faster off-season workouts when you are using the off-season to advance to a new mileage level. It’s not a good idea to add both volume and intensity at the same time.
Also, if you are very tired (mentally and physically) from the previous training cycle, avoid these workouts for 4–8 weeks as you begin your next training cycle then ease into them once your body has freshened up. The same goes if you are frequently injured or your performances have plateaued. Both indicate the body/mind needs a few weeks of low-intensity running before adding these off-season workouts.
As long as you remember the main goal of off-season fast running of avoiding both a big VO2 max stimulus as well as the buildup of lactic acid, you can include these camouflaged speed work sessions to get in some fast running while resting your VO2 max and lactic acid-producing system.
Greg McMillan, M.S., has been called “one for the best and smartest distance running coaches in America” by Amby Burfoot, former editor of Runner’s World. You can try his training system (the McMillan Run Team) for free at www.mcmillanrunning.com.