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Workout design: 1,600m @ 10km pace – 1 mile tempo – 1,200m @ 5km pace – 1 mile tempo – 800m @ 3k pace – 1 mile tempo – 400m @ “all you got” pace
Dr. Frankenstein is Ron Warhurst, the legendary Michigan track-and-field coach. And Frankenstein’s monster is The Michigan workout.
Check out this amazing Lope Magazine article by Liam Boylan-Pett for the backstory on The Michigan. It originates with a workout from Steve Prefontaine at Oregon, where he went from a fast interval on the track to a trail tempo to another fast track interval. After hearing about the workout, Warhurst thought it would be the perfect design to simulate the demands of cross-country racing. He took Pre’s workout, zapped it with electricity, and The Michigan was born.
The Michigan originates with a workout from Steve Prefontaine at Oregon, where he went from a fast interval on the track to a trail tempo to another fast track interval. … Warhurst took Pre’s workout, zapped it with electricity, and The Michigan was born.
In classic form, The Michigan is long and grueling. It starts with a mile on the track around 10K effort, followed by a short recovery jog off-track, then a ~1-mile tempo around the hilly Michigan football stadium loop. After the tempo, it’s back to the track for 3/4 mile around 5K effort, plus another tempo. Next up is a 1/2 mile, and another tempo. Finally, it finishes with the most diabolical element of all …
A.U.G. 400 meters. All you got. I taste bile just typing that.
Principles in The Michigan can apply to any runner looking to get faster, even if the full workout sounds like a monster to you.
The first principle is pace changing across the efforts. Like combo workouts, pace changes develop athletes aerobically and biomechanically across a range of stimuli. Since the body adapts in difficult-to-predict ways, rather than in neat silos, workouts that cover different efforts go beyond simply preparing you for races with different efforts, like those on trails. They can also supercharge adaptation processes. Plus, combining speed (the track intervals) with strength (the hilly tempos) may make both more tolerable by breaking up the effort and stressing slightly different fatigue pathways.
The next element is the emphasis on high volume at tempo effort when in a semi-fatigued state. A big reason to do controlled tempo runs around 1-hour effort (or similar non-maximal effort) is to adapt the body to fatigue clearance at efficiently high outputs, simultaneously building lactate threshold. The injection of extra fatigue from faster intervals around the tempo can give the aerobic system a big shot of espresso.
The final element is the faster finish, with the “all you got” final interval being the cherry on top of the bile-flavored sundae. That progression of effort encourages athletes to avoid going too hard at first.
The final element is the faster finish, with the “all you got” final interval being the cherry on top of the bile-flavored sundae. That progression of effort encourages athletes to avoid going too hard at first. In addition, high output in a fatigued state could enhance motor unit recruitment in subsequent workouts. But I think the biggest benefits of The Michigan may go beyond textbook descriptions of “ATP pathways” and “mitochondria biogenesis” and “McGraw Hill Copyright All Rights Reserved.” I think the true magic may be related to the Central Governor theory, and supercompensation stimuli attached to it.
It’s way too complicated to get into here (I used most of my words on the Frankenstein metaphor), but the basic gist of the Central Governor theory is that the brain plays a big role in regulating fatigue processes. A prototypical example is how an athlete may be able to kick for home at the end of a race when just a mile or two earlier, they could barely keep going at all. In fact, there are many examples of track races where athletes kicked a lap too soon, thinking they heard a bell and pushing themselves to their limits, only to get to the finish and realize they had 400 meters to go. Often, they’re able to muster even more strength to do one more lap. The Central Governor holds that when we think we reach our limits, we’re often just limit-adjacent.
Pushing absolute limits, whether in a workout like The Michigan or a race, may harness the supercompensation effect—extremely difficult stimuli that cause break-down and bounce-back cycles that exceed what you might predict from a linear adaptation model. That bounce-back could be related to hormonal changes, genetic expression, or even something extra interesting like adult stem-cell activity.
But all that is theoretical for the most part. The basic idea is simple enough for a caveperson. GROK GIVE ALL GROK GOT. GROK GET MORE TO GIVE.
Here are three options to apply similar principles for trail runners.
These alternatives use time-based fartleks to avoid running on the track or needing to measure out distances, and there is a minute or two jogging before and after each tempo. Make sure you do easy running for a warm-up and cool-down before each workout, with at least two easy days before and after.
Mountain Michigan: 4 min hill mod/hard, 6 min mod tempo, 3 min hill mod/hard, 6 min mod tempo, 2 min hill mod/hard, 6 min mod tempo, 1 min hill ALL YOU GOT
Doing the intervals on uphills will add a muscular endurance stress while reducing total impact forces of the workout portion.
Intro Michigan: 2 minutes around 5k effort, 5 min mod tempo, 2 minutes around 5k effort, 5 min mod tempo, 2 minutes ALL YOU GOT
A shorter combo workout can break up a harder effort without raising burnout or breakdown risk too much.
MUT Michigan: 5 minutes at 10k effort, 10 minutes steep up/down tempo, 4 minutes at 10k effort, 10 minutes steep up/down tempo, 1 minute ALL YOU GOT
Mountain/ultra/trail runners can increase the vert on the tempo portions to get a more specific musculoskeletal and biomechanical stress. Add a 3 minute interval and another tempo to take it up another notch.
In athletics and life, you can find out a lot about yourself with one simple question. The Michigan asks it, as do other really hard things. So every once in a while, when you’re ready, gather up all your self-belief tokens. Put them in the Zoltar machine. And ask that question.
What lies beyond the limit?
David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. His book, The Happy Runner, is about moving toward unconditional self-acceptance in a running life, and it’s available now on Amazon.