All runners benefit from track workouts, but not all runners have access to a track. But even if you can’t run circles around an oval at your gym or a local school, you can still tap into the benefits of speedwork.
Because that’s what track workouts are: speed workouts that take place on a synthetic rubber surface that covers a set distance, says Meghan Kennihan, a USATF- and RRCA-certified running coach based in Western Springs, Illinois. One lap around a track converts to 400 meters, which makes measuring the standard 200-, 400-, 800-, and 1600-meter intervals that make up speed workouts pretty easy.
The good news? While a track makes tracking (sorry) those distances easier, you don’t need a track to do interval-based speed training.
Why Track Workouts are So Important
Wherever you do them, track workouts are crucial to improving your performance. “You can’t get better at running if you’re not challenging your body,” says Jordan Bartolazzi, the director of Cross Country and Track & Field at Elmhurst University in Illinois. Translation: “You have to run faster to get faster.”
Speed runs are done at a way faster pace than your steady state or even goal race pace runs, but these shorter efforts will eventually help you push the pace when logging higher mileage. “During track workouts, you work harder and consume more oxygen, making your cardiovascular system more efficient,” says Kennihan. That helps your body get better at supplying oxygen to your muscles, which pays off at all speeds; for example, you’ll be able to hold a faster pace during a long run without feeling fatigued.
Running fast also improves your form, Kennihan adds. “You have a higher cadence (the steps you take per minute), spring from the ground more, and tend to run taller—all of which are valuable elements of proper running form,” she explains. And the better your form, the less likely you are to waste energy with unnecessary movements and accommodations, making it easier to run more efficiently at any pace.
Where to Run Track Workouts Without a Track
One of the benefits of a track is its springy, rubberized surface, which is easier on your joints, says Bartolazzi. Off the track, “crushed limestone or gravel paths and dirt paths are nice options because you’re not getting as much of a pounding as you would from pavement,” he says. That can be especially helpful for runners who tend to get aches and pains or are prone to injury.
“I like my runners to do their ‘track’ work on a measured flat road, because you’ll get some energy return from the ground and it’s race-specific training,” says Kennihan. Make sure the road you’re running on isn’t cambered, she adds. “Camber will cause injuries from the uneven terrain and stress on one side over the other.”
A flatter route will allow you to run faster splits, but the route doesn’t have to be flat. In fact, running gentle hills during a track workout can help improve your form and add some extra resistance that can help you build strength, says Bartolazzi. “Don’t be afraid of hills: Running hard up and jogging down can simulate a lot of what you do on the track.” Just be sure to adjust your pace expectations accordingly if you’re adding an incline to an interval.
Since you’ll be running fast, you want to run on a smooth surface that’s free of obstacles, like jagged sidewalk edges, curbs, and traffic lights. (“You don’t want to be pushing yourself at high speeds and have to slam on the brakes for traffic and jolt your joints,” says Kennihan.) If you don’t have access to a path that’s separate from motorized traffic, choose a stretch of the road that has a wide shoulder and/or very little traffic. Don’t wear headphones, wear reflective gear if necessary, and be aware of your surroundings.
You can also take your speed workouts indoors if you have access to a treadmill. The rubberized belt of a tread has less impact on your body, just like a track, and allows you to program set intervals.“The only issue is that the treadmill helps you along because you have to keep pace with the belt,” says Kennihan. “So it’s not a real indication of how fast you can run those intervals—most people can run faster on a treadmill, so you will want to run fast outdoors, too, if you’re doing track work to get faster in races. There are no treadmill races.”
How to Measure Track Intervals Off the Track
Thanks to advances in technology, you can now buy fancy GPS running watches that allow you to program workouts so the watch will beep to alert you to the start and end of set intervals. But you can also very easily run by time using a cheap stopwatch.
“If you want to go by time, I recommend using your 5K race time splits,” says Kennihan. “Start with your fastest mile time, then break it down from there by subtracting 10 to 20 seconds each time you go down in interval distance.” Here’s what that math would look like: If you run an eight-minute mile, your 800 would take four minutes, so you should try to run a 3:40-3:50 pace; your 400 would take two minutes, so try to run it at a 1:40-1:50 pace.
To make things easier on yourself, it can be helpful to run a route ahead of time and know exactly where the quarter-mile, half-mile, and mile markers are. But here’s a little secret: “There is nothing magical about 200 or 400 meters,” says Bartolazzi. “If you run 213 meters or 427 meters, your body is not going to know the difference.” So don’t obsess about hitting the perfect intervals if you don’t have an oval to measure by.
In fact, it can be kind of liberating to stop stressing about exact distances and go with the flow of the workout. “Going off track allows you to trick yourself into focusing on perceived effort,” says Bartolazzi. (Think: three minutes of hard effort followed by three minutes of easy effort.) “That teaches you to really listen to your body and stop equating performance with pace.”
Speed Workouts to do Without a Track
Pick-ups: For this workout you’ll be running for time instead of distance. Do this workout on either a flat or hilly route. Choose the terrain that best matches that of your goal race.
- Warm-up: Dynamic stretches and jog for 10 minutes at an easy pace.
- Workout: Run for 2 minutes at 5K race pace, run for 2 minutes at marathon pace; Complete 5 rounds.
- Cool-down: Jog for 10 minutes at an easy pace and foam roll for 5 minutes.
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6 x 400 meters: Do this workout on a flat stretch of road. If you don’t have a GPS watch, download a running app such as the nike+ RunClub to track your workout.
- Warm-up: Dynamic stretches and run for 1 mile at an easy pace.
- Workout: Run 400 meters (1/4 mile) at faster than 5K pace, then jog for 400 meters at an easy pace; Complete 6 rounds.
- Cool-down: Run 1 mile at an easy pace and foam roll.