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Trail Tips

Post-Race Workouts And How You Can Apply The Principles To Your Training

Post-race workouts are frequently part of the training plans of elite track athletes. But should trail athletes be incorporating them?

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Post-race workouts are not ubiquitous, but they have been used by very successful athletes. So what’s the deal? How can the principles be used for non-pro athletes? How can you get directions to that farm upstate? Let’s do a question-and-answer session.

How common are post-race workouts?

Not that common. I think. These murky details of training philosophy are sometimes shrouded in cloak-and-dagger secrecy, with it being equally likely that what you’re hearing is an unsubstantiated rumor, telephone-style hearsay, or video-proven truth.

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Post-race workouts seem crazy. Why do them at all?

The theory behind post-race workouts gets to the importance of concentrating stress. The general rule is that hard days should be hard, and easy days should be easy. For advanced athletes, sometimes what constitutes “hard” can seem a bit mind blowing and make even the most mature among us whisper “that’s what she said.”

For track athletes, who likely taper for races and recover after, it would make sense to load up race day with stress to use the surrounding downtime. If a race isn’t that strenuous on the musculoskeletal system, then some bonus aerobic stress may lead to what is known as the “supercompensation effect”— large, sometimes non-linear adaptation responses to stress.

That sounds like the world’s most boring superpower. So how does the supercompensation effect work?

Adaptation involves too many variables and too much debate to summarize without a textbook, but the basic principle is that large systemic stress can produce high-yield responses. Some articles ascribe the supercompensation effect to hormone production and neuromuscular changes related to states of high fatigue, compounded with more typical breakdown/fatigue cycles.

What are the explanations offered by the coaches using them?

Back in 2011 in Runner’s World, amazing coach Steve Magness attributed it to a hormonal profile that you cannot get in typical training, along with nervous system benefits and even endorphins. That sounds like what we’d expect from the supercompensation principles.

Should trail runners do post-race workouts?

No. And if you do, please sign a stack of waivers as tall as Dikembe Mutumbo absolving me of all liability.

The general rule is that even for proponents of post-race workouts, they probably shouldn’t be done for races over 5K (at most 10K for Olympic-level athletes). If you do a 5K trail race, maybe you can consider it. But even then, given the musculoskeletal demands from the variable terrain of trail races, it’s probably not worth it.

Did you just waste five minutes of my time?

Probably not, because the principles can be used in more typical weekly workouts.

I meant that as a general comment on reading your writing.

Good burn. Like the burn you’ll get from some of the workouts that are based on these principles!

I’ve talked in the past about the value of concentrating stress. That is what we’re getting at here. What post-race workouts add to the mix is a combination element, with multiple stresses on top of each other at different outputs.

Tinman Elite Coach Tom “Tinman” Schwartz uses combo workouts all the time, and they are a staple of almost all training approaches in some instances, even ones that wouldn’t touch post-race workouts. For Schwartz’ team, a typical workout might be kilometer intervals followed by shorter hill repeats or fast strides. For others, it might be 400s or 200s after mile intervals or tempo runs. It can even be as straightforward as fast strides after longer workouts (or even long runs). The idea is that by layering stress, you can compound the potential adaptations.

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I am starting to get it now. So it’s not the post-race workout that matters necessarily, but the introduction of a new stress on top of existing stress?

Exactly! The general approach I like to use for athletes is to do shorter, faster intervals or strides after a workout of longer intervals or tempo running. It’s not an exact analogy to the post-race workouts, but could harness some similar benefits. Here are some examples:

Hard: 3-5 x 5 minutes fast with 2 minutes easy recovery, 5 minutes easy, 4-6 x 30 second hills hard

Harder: 5-8 x 3 minute hills moderate/hard with easy/mod run down recovery, 5-10 x 30 seconds fast with 1 minute easy recovery

Hardest: 20-40 minute hard tempo, 5-10 minutes easy, 6-10 x 1 minute fast or hill intervals/1 minute very easy

But it can go the other way too, with tempo-style running on tired legs from a faster workout. These workouts are venturing farther from the principles of post-race workouts, and I generally prescribe them more sparingly since the tempo portions can be inefficient for some athletes. Examples:

Hard: 6-10 x 1 minute fast/1 minute easy, 5 minutes easy, 10-20 minute moderate tempo

Harder: 4-6 x 2 minute hills moderate/hard with run down recovery, 5 minutes easy, 20-30 minute moderate tempo

Hardest: 6-10 x 2 minutes fast with 2 minutes easy/mod float recovery, 5 minutes easy, 20-40 minute moderate tempo

That was a bit more interesting. I’m sorry about earlier.

It’s OK. I don’t like me all the time either.

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Oh … well, I like you. 

You are loved, too. And “love” is a good idea to keep in mind when doing these types of combo workouts inspired by post-race sessions. The hardest efforts should be done sparingly, no more than once every one or two weeks, with at least two days easy before and after.

There is no magic to specific workout design (you can mix and match elements like those above), just make sure you introduce appropriate stresses for your background and goals, then allow the body recover with plenty of chill time. It’s all about loving your body, rather than destroying it.

I can get behind love. 

I think we all can.

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 wrote a book called The Happy Runner.

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