When I first started learning about running training theory, I played football, but watched running and cycling races for fun whenever I could. For some reason that I can’t remember, it took going to college to realize that I may have chosen to play the wrong sport. After a few weeks of royally sucking at college football, I I hung up my cleats and ordered some running shoes. And I wanted to learn EVERYTHING.
I grew up with a dad who biked and taught me to cheer for Lance Armstrong at the Tour de France, so I always knew that I wanted endurance sports to be in my future. Quitting football meant that I could start the process four years sooner, with 25% less brain damage! Maybe the concussions from high school explained why I was so sure that Lance was 100% clean.
I read everything I could get my hands on. Books, studies, articles, Slowtwitch, LetsRun forums, blogs–I read like I was running out of time, already feeling past my prime at 18 years old. And my favorite type of writing was always about workouts. I was still struggling to run more than a few miles at a time, and these stories of badass sessions got me so damn hyped for the future. “One day,” I thought. “One day.”
After a few years of building up my base and adapting past every injury under the sun, that day came for me. A few years after that, I started coaching. First it was whoever accepted the offer for free coaching on a Facebook post. In retrospect, advertising free coaching on Facebook was a bit like advertising free soup in a public restroom. Thank god for my naivety. Eventually, I was coaching pros, learning from them and my co-coach Megan. We developed a massive almanac of workouts together, and an even bigger dataset showing how sessions correlate with subsequent trajectories.
This article is an attempt to distill what Megan and I have learned into a pre-Christmas gift to all of the aspiring athletes and coaches out there. Hopefully it plants some seeds for a kid or two out there who reads way too much so that they can take our lessons and exceed anything we have ever done. If that describes you, I have one request: anywhere from one to twenty years from now, you promise to write a similar article so that we can learn from you.
How to Do Trail Running Workouts: Background
As context, I think this statement is important (though don’t tell anyone I said it): I’m not sure that exact workout structure is the most important thing for athletic growth. It matters some, particularly for athletes wringing the last 0.1% out of their physiology, and especially in track and road racing. But the more data we gather from pro athlete training, the more we see that even for people pushing that last sliver of a percent, it’s less about the perfect workout design and more about balancing two general principles.
Principle One: The amount of time within each aerobic intensity zone and how that relates to intensity distribution and stress generally.
Is the workout in Zone 3, or a moderate tempo? Zone 4, or a classic threshold or critical velocity effort? Zone 5, or a VO2 max+ push? Or is it some combination of those? Zones 3/4 will support a Pyramidal training structure, which may be better for long-term growth, but Zone 5 is important in small pulses to develop aerobic capacity and mechanical output. Most importantly, how does the aerobic intensity fit into the broader narrative of a training cycle? Highly stressful sessions may lead to optimal adaptations, or to an athlete snapping in two like a Twix bar. And 50 workouts that fall into the optimal category might not justify risking 1 workout that falls into the Twix category.
Principle Two: Mechanical demand of the session.
Is it on flats, with a stronger neuromuscular and biomechanical emphasis, but also higher injury risk? Is it on hills, calling on muscular power, but with less neuromuscular speed adaptations? Or is it a combination of those? Hill workouts are much safer for most athletes, and that power will usually translate to flat speed. But there are tradeoffs, with many athletes overdoing intensity prescriptions on hills in a way that may reduce aerobic efficiency over time.
Balancing the Tradeoffs
Science and art come into conflict in coaching in that competition between aerobic development, mechanical output, and how those principles impact overall stress. The best workouts for aerobic development usually involve as much time as possible in Zones 3 and Zones 4. You can look to cycling for examples–sessions like 6-9 x 10 minutes or 2-3 x 20 minutes are common on the bike. When Nils Van Der Poel was training to set his speed skating world records (article here), he was looking for workouts that maximally stressed his aerobic system (which he couldn’t do on skates, where everything he did was race-pace or faster). So he’d do workouts like 4 x 30 minutes at bike threshold EVERY DAY FOR 5 DAYS! Shit gets wild at the margins of human performance.
I think that applying similar cycling-aerobic principles to running risks losing sight of the significantly greater mechanical demand, neuromuscular stress, and injury risk. Unless an athlete is very speed-talented, emphasizing bulky aerobic workouts over speed development usually results in them peaking young and slowing down progressively with time. And as coaches, we evaluate ourselves on 5+ year timescales. I want to coach like a Vanguard index fund, not a pump-and-dump Bitcoin scheme.
The best workouts for mechanical demands are usually harder/faster, or on hills, often pushing athletes into Zone 5 where output is highest. Here, take a look at swimming. Their workouts are often shorter and faster intervals since the biomechanical demand of swimming is so high. Personally, my swimming form looks like someone electrocuted a turtle.
Swim workouts often resemble the hardest running track workouts! While that is extreme, and the correct training answer for most athletes lies combines the prototypical cycling and swimming approaches, we really want athletes to think about developing their mechanical efficiency, since that is often the first limiter for speed development (see article here). However, that relationship starts to break down for very high VO2-max athletes, who barely need to reinforce the adaptations at all. In some cases where high talent meets high durability, they can excel through being treated like indestructible aerobic machines.
The workouts below try to balance those competing demands. As long as ~80% of your training is easy or steady (ideally half of the time being very easy in Zone 1 and half easy to easy/moderate in Zone 2), you can have fun with these workouts, doing one per week after the base is developed, or 2 per week for advanced athletes. Workouts 1 through 6 are good for a mid-week session; Workouts 7 through 9 are great in long runs. You can chop any of these workouts in half for less stressful sessions, or add 25% for a rare supercompensation stimulus. When in doubt, always err on the side of the least amount of stress possible to spur adaptation, even for pro athletes.
Workout 1: Smooth speed development via 1/1s
- Advanced: 3 miles easy, 16-20 x 1 minute fast/1 minute easy (think 10k effort to start, progressing to 5k effort or faster as you go and finishing smooth and fast), 4 minutes easy, 4 x 30-second hills fast (can push), 3 miles easy
- Intermediate: 2-3 miles easy, 8-12 x 1 minute fast/90 seconds easy (same effort), 3 minutes easy, 4 x 30-second hills fast, 2-3 miles easy
- Track application: 3 miles easy, 4 x (4 x 400 fast with 200 easy recoveries) with 400 easy between sets (same effort), 4 x 150 fast with 250 easy recoveries (push a bit), 2-3 miles easy
Every athlete we have ever coached is acquainted with 1-minute intervals. It’s like M. Night Shyamalan having a twist at the end of his movies, or Tarantino having an unnecessary close-up of feet. These types of short intervals are wonderful tools because unless an athlete really overdoes it and fully sprints, they won’t spend too much time in Zone 5, but they’ll be spending a lot of time at Critical Velocity and faster. The hills at the end get full muscular recruitment, something that the intervals may miss–they may almost feel like a plyometric session.
To level up the aerobic strain, keep the easy recoveries as a bit of a “float,” something just above easy effort. That prevents you from going too hard in the intervals and adds threshold work to the session, which is great during base builds. A float-focused 1/1 workout will often have athletes averaging marathon pace or faster for the entire session, including the recoveries!
We almost always start speed work within training blocks with a workout like this (usually after introducing hill workouts). I think that an athlete who repeated this session weekly could continue to improve as long as their aerobic stress is high enough from easy running and a more moderate long run.
Workout 2: Critical Velocity
- Advanced: 3 miles easy, 8-12 x 2-3 minutes fast/90 seconds easy (think 10k effort, with light progression in the 2nd half of the workout on good days), 3 minutes easy, 4 x 30-second hills fast, 2-3 miles easy
- Intermediate: 2-3 miles easy, 5/4/3/2/1 minutes fast with 2 minutes easy recovery (think 10k effort with light progression toward 5k effort), 4 x 30 second hills fast, 2-3 miles easy
- Track application: 3 miles easy, 5 x 800/400/200 with 400 easy after the 8, 200 easy after the 4, and 400 easy after the 2s (think 10k/5k/3k), 2-3 miles easy
We generally try to avoid having athletes do too many intervals that are longer than 3 minutes without strict intensity control. The problem was demonstrated in a 2020 study that looked at the training practices of 85 of the best runners in the world over 7 years. The researchers found that long intervals had the lowest correlation with long-term growth of any training element by a substantial margin (defined as intervals beyond 1 kilometer).
What were they seeing? While the answer is uncertain, my guess is that the long intervals can create lactate storms that curtail aerobic development, unless they are accompanied by extreme pacing discipline as seen in Norwegian training approaches. You can visualize the problem:
- 5 x 6 minutes at threshold/critical velocity (think 10k effort or so, depending on fitness level) is great aerobic stress.
- 5 x 6 minutes at VO2 max (pushing as hard as you can given the duration) will end your bloodline and archaeologists will only be able to hypothesize that you existed from your MRI reports.
This type of workout is the sweet spot, with a big quantity of work at moderately fast paces around 10k effort (with faster athletes going a bit easier, beginner athletes going a bit harder), but without pushing deep into the pain cave (where aerobic adaptations go to die). Save this session for when fitness is well-developed, with some hill workouts and 1/1s under your belt. You can get creative with workout structure, even breaking things up into sets (like 3-4 x 3/2/1 minutes fast), with the general goal of getting 15 to 30 minutes of relaxed intervals with smooth recoveries.
A cue I love for athletes on big interval workouts like this: maintain high cadence as you fatigue. While power may go down as an athlete gets tired, cadence can stay high and be a backstop against excessive fades. Just make sure the first couple of intervals err on the side of easier–progression throughout the session is better for the aerobic system, and it’s more fun. I’d rather an athlete go 30% too easy on a big interval session than 1% too hard. You can float these intervals as well for a more tempo-heavy session.
Workout 3: Hill power/tempo combo
- Advanced: 3 miles easy, 12 x 45-60 second hills fast (think 5k, progressing to 3k effort) with run down recovery, 10-20 minutes moderate (think 1-hour effort), 1-2 miles easy
- Intermediate: 2-3 miles easy, 8 x 30-45 second hills fast (think 3k), 10 min moderate (think 10k), 2-3 miles easy
- Track Application: 3 miles easy, 10 x 300 fast (think 5k, progressing toward 3k) with 300 easy to float recovery, 2 miles moderate, 2-3 miles easy
Now we’re working on multiple different systems! I’m so fancy, you already know. The short hills are power-based–while they will get into Zone 5, it’s just a short time around there and will only be a couple of percent of a weekly intensity distribution. You’ll see similar workouts common for Norwegian athletes with shorter hills, likely to reinforce absolute power in the context of a training plan that mostly focuses on aerobic development.
After the hills, the moderate tempo is a supercharged aerobic stress. The legs will be tired, so you will be running on oxygen transport and grit. With fitness growth, this type of session gets massively easier, and it’s one of those indicator workouts that shows how well-developed an athlete’s threshold is (and can serve as a field test for fatigue resistance).
This workout is perfect for the later stages of a build phase, when you want to sustain power but also focus on aerobic system development. We see that athletes who can excel in the tempo after the hills are able to race incredibly strongly at events half-marathon and above.
Workout 4: Hill capacity
- Advanced: 3 miles easy, 6 x 3-minute hills mod/hard (think 5k effort) with run down recovery after each, 3 miles easy to easy/moderate
- Intermediate: 2-3 miles easy, 4-5 x 3 minute hills mod/hard (think 5k), 2-3 miles easy
- Track Application: 3 miles easy, 8 x 800 meters at 5k effort with 400 easy recovery, 2-3 miles easy
3-minute hills are the desert-island workouts for both Megan and I. We’re talking power with the climbing, VO2 max with the aerobic system, neuromuscular development with the sheer difficulty of it. Given that it’s on hills, it’s safe for any time of year due to lower impact, just leave it off any pure base-building block since it’s very hard. Doing this type of workout too often risks creating a Polarized training plan, with excessive intensity for aerobic development, so work these types of extremely difficult sessions in for boosts within well-designed training blocks.
Most workouts should be intensity-controlled and fun. But occasionally, you need to throw all caution to the wind and crush some workout bitches.
Hill workouts can be adjusted for intervals between 1 and 4 minutes, thinking 12-20 minutes of total intervals with run down recovery. For advanced athletes, they can experiment with progressing to steady running afterward. That Zone 3 work after the maximal hill power is another chance for major aerobic development. And you may notice something very weird–some athletes report their paces coming much easier after the hills! That likely has to do with the central governor, and the brain recalibrating what “hard” feels like. How cool is that?!
Workout 5: Threshold intervals with speed combo (double workout option)
- Advanced: 3 miles easy, 5 x 6 minutes moderate (think 10k effort or a bit easier) with 3 minutes easy recovery, 5 x 30 seconds fast/1 min easy, 2-3 miles easy
- Intermediate: 2-3 miles easy, 4 x 5 minutes moderate (think 10k effort) with 3 minutes easy recovery, 4 x 30 seconds fast/90 seconds easy, 2-3 miles easy
- Track Application: 3 miles easy, 6 x 1 mile moderate (think 10k effort) with 400 easy recovery, 5 x 200 fast/200 slow, 2-3 miles easy
Time to take some risks! These longer intervals are high-risk, high-reward. Go too hard, and it could be excessive for recovery and adaptation, leading to a peaking process that requires a training recalibration. But nail the effort between ~Critical Velocity and threshold, and it’s the ultimate aerobic-system stimulus. The fast strides to end are the reward for all that effort-discipline!
For a truly sexy wrinkle, advanced athletes can add a SECOND WORKOUT on a day with an AM session like this. The Norwegians often do workouts like 15-20 x 1 minute on/1 minute off on top of an AM threshold session, with the efforts controlled as well. We save that sort of thing for pros during build blocks when they are not racing, but it’s a worthwhile experiment for any extremely durable athlete that finds themselves stagnating.
If you do a double workout, with two sessions in one day, we just ask that you have a good health insurance policy first. We’re talking a gold or platinum plan, only. If you’re bronze-level with Blue Cross/Blue Shield, stick with one workout a day. It’s suboptimal when training theory goes from a fun experiment to personal bankruptcy.
Workout 6: Hill strength
- Advanced: 3 miles easy, 10/8/6/4/2 minute hills mod/hard with run down recovery after each, 3 miles easy
- Intermediate: 2-3 miles easy, 8/6/4/2 minute hills mod/hard with run down recovery after each, 2-3 miles easy
- Track Application: Run from the track to a big hill
Oh hell yeah, now we are talking HILL BEAST! This workout is the best for trail race readiness, anytime in the 6-8 weeks before key events (or for perverse fun in any build phase). The uphills are important, sure. But the emulsion with the downhills is what creates the tasty umami flavor! The up-and-down stimulus absolutely fries the quads, and will prepare them for anything on race day. If your race has a lot of climbing and descending, you can make this workout so steep that your nose caresses the trail in front of you.
To really level this session up, after the final 2 minute hill, turn around and run back up for 3 minutes ALL OUT. We call it our fatigue resistance monster session with that bonus, since your body has to reach deep into the cellular crevasses to find whatever is left to power that effort. It might not be fun, but the athlete that comes out the other end is capable of magic on race day.
It hurts, though. The Hill Beast is when running for fun becomes more like training BDSM. Make sure you’re into that sort of thing first, and always have a safe word.
Workout 7: Threshold tempo with speed combo
- Advanced: 3 miles easy, 20-30 min moderately hard (think 1-hour effort, with option to end harder), 5 minutes easy, 5 x 1 min fast/1 min easy (smooth flow), 2-3 miles easy
- Intermediate: 2-3 miles easy, 15-20 min moderately hard (think 1-hour effort), 5 min easy, 5 x 45 second hills fast (think 3k), 2-3 miles easy
- Track Application: 3 miles easy, 4 x 2k moderately hard (think 1-hour effort) with 400 float recovery, 5 x 200 fast with 200 easy recovery (smooth flow), 2-3 miles easy
A bread-and-butter workout for every athlete is the threshold tempo. Generally, tempos consist of 15-30 minutes around an effort you could sustain for about 1 hour, starting moderate and getting harder by the end. These workouts involve threshold training at its purest, an aerobic stimulus that is beneficial for athletes racing 1 mile or athletes racing 100 miles due to how it helps the body shuttle lactate during exercise. You can include float recoveries to break up the tempo as well if you find your pace fades due to fatigue–so the 30-minute tempo can be 3 x 10 minutes with a three-minute float recovery, or similar.
The addition of speed or power at the end adds a neuromuscular and mechanical stimulus that helps that aerobic stress get in the context of high output. We don’t just want aerobic beasts. We want aerobic beasts who are fast as heck.
For all athletes, threshold tempos are good to insert into long runs year-round every few weeks. We theorize that doing some tempo to start long runs may improve adaptations, but require fewer total miles (and the injury risk that comes along with it). However, if you’re doing the tempo within a long run, don’t mess around with the speed, since the main goal is aerobic development.
Workout 8: Pure tempo
- Advanced: 2 miles easy, 45-60 min moderately hard (think half marathon effort, ending hard in some cases), 2 miles easy
- Intermediate: 2 miles easy, 30-45 min moderately hard (think 1-hour effort), 2 miles easy
- Track Application: Don’t. Though tempos are great for track athletes over hilly terrain!
Oh yes, this is the good stuff. The pure tempo sessions are running at its purest–go out there and run kinda hard for a kinda long time. These longer tempos are best saved for a race prep period when the specific stress of sustaining fast paces is most useful.
The ultimate pure tempo is the POWER HOUR, 1 hour seeing what you’re made of (in a controlled way). We save those types of sessions for just once or twice a training block even in advanced athletes, since they are mentally and physically demanding, and you don’t want to do them without fitness already built up. Training races like 10ks or half marathons fit into this bucket too! Split the tempo into intervals like 5 x 8 minutes with 2 minutes easy recovery if you do these sessions often, to prevent excessive stress and fatigue accumulation.
Workout 9: Aerobic monster tempo
- Advanced: within a long run, do 90 min to 2 hours moderate starting around 50k effort, finishing harder
- Intermediate: within a long run, do 1 hour moderate around marathon effort
- Track Application: Double dog don’t. Though it’s great off the track for long runs!
If you read the training articles on Kilian Jornet or Eliud Kipchoge, you probably noticed a unifying workout–the long tempo within a long run. Look across the training plans of the world’s best, and it’s a pretty common thing to see. Long runs aren’t just slow, at least during focused training builds. Especially as an athlete develops toward their potential, they often involve focused progression over an excruciatingly long time.
This focused steady running is good to introduce into long runs after a base period every month or so (with a higher density for athletes that recover fast or those training for marathons). The Zone 3/4 aerobic work is burly and tough, and it’s shocking how much easier it gets after one or two tries. We have seen these tempos have a strong correlation with ultra performance as well.
For athletes training for road marathons where there is an outsized demand on running economy, it’s best to split up this quantity of work into shorter bouts to make it easier to maintain pace. Examples include 5/4/3/2/1 miles at marathon effort with 1 mile float recovery, 3 x 4 miles with 1 mile float recovery, and 2 x 6 miles at marathon effort with 1 mile float recovery.
A hypothetical long-run build for an advanced trail/ultra athlete we coach outside of specific training might look like this:
- Week 1: Easy/mod long run (20-30 min moderately hard after warm-up)
- Week 2: Easy/mod long run (1 hour moderate, or pushing uphills throughout depending on route)
- Week 3: Easy/mod long run with option to push to steady
- Week 4: Easy long run
The goal of this article was just to give you some ideas to incorporate into your training. You can adjust any of these sessions a ton, since there is no magic in the specifics. Just always come back to the 2 big goals of workouts: aerobic development and improving mechanical/neuromuscular output. How can you balance those priorities optimally with overall stress levels given your goals and background? Aerobic development is most important, but you always want to make sure your aerobic system is growing within a mechanical/muscular context that leads to each breath of oxygen leading to more power generation.
Layer those types of sessions together with lots of easy running and cross-training, and the sky is the limit. But the key message to remember: even though you may do some workouts, the goal is always PLAY. Whatever sounds the most fun to you will likely be the workout that leads to the most long-term growth, too.
And that’s the message to aspiring coaches out there too (including the future coaches who don’t know it yet). Learn what you can, but don’t put pressure on yourself to know everything, because no one does. Put in the work, but keep it fun. By playing in your approach to coaching, learning from everyone you can while incorporating your unique background and perspective, you may find yourself playing at the margins of human performance in ways that old coaches like me could never anticipate.
Just promise me that you’ll write about what you learn so that I can take notes.
David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. With Megan Roche, M.D., he hosts the Some Work, All Play podcast on running (and other things), and they answer training questions in a bonus podcast and newsletter on their Patreon page starting at $5 a month.