Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
When you hear “track workout,” what comes to mind? That’s a deeper question than it seems to be. Often, the variable similarity that unites all tracks can create strong emotional associations.
Maybe conjuring up track memories makes you feel nervous anticipation like you’re finishing a warm-up jog with a chipmunk skittering in your stomach. Other athletes look at an oval and describe pure, loving excitement. Those are the freaks. Or maybe your feelings have a more sinister undertone, anxiety stirred together with something pungent, as if your butterflies are coated in bile.
Perhaps you have no associations with the track at all. Awesome! Now is a chance to dive into the training theory of track workouts with joy and enthusiasm. Just don’t think too deeply about why I made that bile comment.
Strong feelings about the track make sense. If you’ve been to one track, you’ve been to every track, and the experiences can blend together over the years. It’s a place of growth, it’s a place of pain, it’s a place of narrowly avoiding an accident in the outside lane (forgive me Father, for I have sharted). And I think those strong feelings generally make people have dogmatic certainty about how the track fits into training. Either athletes must be on the track to pursue their potential and take training seriously, or should avoid the track at all costs to avoid injuries while maintaining a love of running.
Whatever you think about the track, now is the time to shake the Etch-A-Sketch and start fresh. Track workouts can support long-term growth… the track can even be fun. But first, it’s key to take a step back and understand why athletes that don’t compete on the track might step onto the oval in the first place.
And watch your step, I think someone sharted in lane 8.
Question One: Why would athletes consider doing track workouts?
This article is in a trail running magazine that exists to promote nature, love, and shoe purchases, so I think it’s key to think about why a track would EVER be necessary. Output is output, right? The answer is yes in theory–a certain effort should elicit a certain adaptation. In practice, though, there are some fascinating physiological principles that lay the foundation for the potential of track workouts.
On the track, athletes maximize output for a given energy level.
They say there are five love languages, but I am pretty sure I have a sixth, and it’s “improving running economy.” The way to my heart is through my capillaries. Running economy is generally defined as the energy demand for a given submaximal output. Here’s the wild part about the track: Some athletes will have slightly better running economy measurements on the flat track than other flat surfaces when pace is used as the output metric.
There may be a number of reasons for that offset. Some track surfaces return more energy, making the pace output faster than the internal strain would indicate, the surface version of supershoes. Maybe it has to do with the repeated movement patterns that allow athletes to avoid slight increases in effort to maintain pace over variable terrain that could cause fatigue cascades. Or perhaps it’s related to mental approach and focus. Whatever the exact reason, track interval paces can almost feel like cheating, even for athletes accustomed to doing fast workouts on roads and trails. Those faster, more predictable paces could allow athletes and coaches to change their training approach in productive ways.
By removing noise from external variables, the track may allow athletes to strategically alter stimuli.
If you were to measure an athlete’s blood lactate on the track at a given pace, there is a strong correlation between those levels and flat-ground running economy variables over time. Whereas on the trails or roads, perceived exertion can be a better predictive variable of stimulus and stress in many instances, the track adds more precision to the party. In coaching, I would never give an athlete a goal split on a trail or even a variable road, just a range based on terrain- and conditions- specific factors. Meanwhile, on the track, I’ll sometimes pace athletes and be frustrated when I come through 200 meters less than a half-second off where I hoped. That precision allows athletes to adjust training for specific goals, with much narrower error bars.
But athletes aren’t math equations, which leads directly to the drawbacks of track workouts.
Repetitive motion may be a driver of overuse injuries.
The benefits of the track can essentially be summarized as: do the same motion over and over and over at your highest and most energy-efficient outputs. Everything in that sentence other than “energy efficient” also increases injury risk. Studies find that overuse injuries like pelvic stress fractures, torn labrums, shin splints, and achilles tendonitis (those four are on my Mount Rushmore of shittiness) are driven by excessive loading without variation and sufficient recovery. Add in constant turns, and it sometimes feels like an all-you-can-MRI injury buffet.
Many athletes are tempted to race intervals in a way that can curtail aerobic development.
Because output is high and athletes are often chasing watch splits rather than internal metrics of perceived exertion, track workouts are at risk of becoming a broken-up race effort. I forget where I read it, but right as I was starting out as a runner, I saw a quote that tried to describe how one pro athlete viewed interval workouts in the 1970s. It went something like: “You should finish the last interval so exhausted that if someone put a gun to your head and said do another, you’d respond ‘shoot me.’”
That approach may work for some pro athletes that are specifically chosen due to being genetic anomalies for adaptation to extreme stress. For everyone else, even if it doesn’t lead to injury or burnout, it will likely lead to a rapid plateau as aerobic development is undercut by anaerobic stress. Going too hard too often can reduce aerobic enzyme activity, make the metabolic system less efficient, reduce mitochondrial biogenesis, and recruit too many Type II fast-twitch muscle fibers, all while crushing the endocrine and nervous systems. The track can be where the aerobic system and femurs disintegrate into dust.
Given those risks and rewards, I focus on three questions before encouraging an athlete to step on the track.
- Is the athlete consistently healthy and pushing the limits of some adaptation processes through consistent, well-rounded training?
- Can the athlete run with discipline to avoid excessive anaerobic stimuli?
- And most importantly, does the track spark joy and/or purpose for them in a way that makes the entire training process better?
If there is hesitation on any of those questions, the track sucks and I advise them to stay far away (unless they are a pro road or track athlete and the injury risk increase is worth it).
Question Two: When should athletes do track workouts?
The big physiological principle of track workouts is that they are big stresses that can lead to big adaptations or big injuries. The track is basically the Greek tragic hero of running workouts, in that the heroic trait is connected to the tragic flaw. So the approach to timing track workouts is all based on maximizing the potential adaptations, while preventing an athlete from killing their father, marrying their mother, and stabbing their own eyes out. I think I got lost in the metaphor there.
Aerobic base and background speed development are keys to minimize injury risk.
The track is not the place to build a fitness base or to start speedwork. It’s where you go when you can already handle relatively high volume for your background, with at least one speed workout a week, mixed with strides, approaching the point of diminishing returns with a lower-risk training approach. You shouldn’t do your Driver’s Ed class on a Formula One racetrack.
Start with one light workout a week, only increasing if you are healthy and adapting.
After you’ve developed that aerobic and speed base, introduce the track to replace a weekly workout, starting more relaxed than you might need. Calibrate the fatigue and strain you are aiming for based on the workouts you have been doing. The track shouldn’t be harder, it should just be a bit faster and more efficient. Later, you can do some supercompensation sessions on the track, designed specifically to dig deep.
Question Three: How can an athlete build into track workouts?
Now that we’re this far into the article, let’s get real. I would never, ever let an athlete step foot on a track unless I thought that it could help physiological adaptations in some cases. I mean, it’s an oval. With numbers and crap. Over and over. While there are trails and trees everywhere!
I see the real shit behind the scenes, and sometimes athletes may post an Instagram caption about a great track workout while secretly finding themselves sliding into a loathing of the sport. Yes, the track can be purposeful, and that purpose mixed with the sensation of speed can be fun. But it can also be a black hole that rips your joy of the process past the event horizon before you even know it’s happening.
I once talked to an athlete that wished for a stress fracture just so they wouldn’t have to do the hardest track sessions anymore. The athlete stayed healthy, of course, because not giving a frick is an invincibility shield, but it still sucked for them to go through.
Thus, the key in building into track workouts is to strategically introduce stress in a way that prevents it from becoming a weekly test, allowing it instead to be a celebration of the process. The track can have major physiological benefits, but it’s a high-stakes game that shouldn’t be taken lightly.
Start with shorter intervals, practicing smooth and fast running.
The main stress to start is on the musculoskeletal system, with higher strain on the lower legs for most athletes (from more midfoot landing), along with the hamstrings (speed) and hips (turns). Start with anticlimactic sessions that are not excessively difficult, much like you would with a new weightlifting session. I love athletes to do up to a couple miles of 200s, 300s, and/or 400s with a minute or two recovery for at least a couple sessions before ramping up.
Focus on the interval portion, not the recovery portion, and keep efforts controlled and progressive.
In advanced training, there are marginal gains in tinkering with recovery intervals. The four general approaches are: normal easy running, very easy jogging, standing rest, and faster floats. I like athletes to keep it simple, sticking to very easy jogging for a set distance, allowing an emotional reset after each interval. As a bonus, when you watch the pros train, very easy jogs or standing rest are by far the most common strategies outside of sessions with specific aims for lactate clearance.
On the intervals, focus on form–relaxed upper body, quick cadence, slight forward lean, and knee drive. The track can be magical for physiology partly because it distills the act of running down to its essence, so make sure that essence isn’t laced with rat poison.
For effort, a good general rule to start is to avoid exceeding the pace that you could hold if all of the intervals were smushed together as a race. For example, if you’re doing 12 x 400 with 200 easy recovery, think 5k effort or easier to start, rather than pushing them as hard as you can (which would likely be closer to mile to 3k effort, depending on fitness level). In most workouts, 8k to 10k effort is an ideal aerobic sweet-spot to start. Try to have the first intervals be the slowest of the workout, progressing into the effort to avoid overshooting into anaerobic stress.
And even though the track spits out cold, hard numbers, you don’t need to pace yourself based on looking at the watch. Effort is still what matters most–tune into effort, and only pace peek if it helps you be disciplined. Whatever you do, don’t try to impress the watch. The watch might give you some positive feedback from hitting faster splits, but your aerobic system might be eroding from going too hard. Plus, a happy watch doesn’t mean much with eleven metatarsals (the one that gets broken down the middle counts as two).
Question Four: What are examples of track workouts that can feed back into long-term growth?
In a future week, I’ll write a progressive track build-up for an athlete that is racing 10K and above. But for a primer, here are three of my favorite workouts that an athlete can do almost anytime during a longer-term training block. The idea is sustainably fast workouts that build speed but without sacrificing aerobic development. Note: some very advanced/pro athletes should do these workouts easier than listed efforts to avoid excess stress.
vVO2 speed reinforcement: 3 x (4 x 400) with 200 after intervals and 400 after sets, thinking 5k effort to start and progressing slightly as you go. Optional addition: 4 x 150 faster with 250 easy recovery
Versions of this workout have been staples of pro training for over 50 years. 3 total miles of intervals, focusing on smoothness, with increasing fatigue as the workout goes on. You can do this workout anytime in a build cycle. The optional strides at the end are for athletes racing shorter distances, are experienced with bigger workouts, and/or are speed-limited.
Speed and strength combo: 6 x 600 (think 8k) with 200 easy recovery, 400 easy, 6 x 300 (think 5k) with 100 easy recovery. Optional addition: 4 x 200 (flowing faster) with 200 easy recovery
Smooth 600s help an athlete process fatigue byproducts without going too hard. 300s are my favorite speed stimulus–nothing is more fun on the track than 2 straights and a turn.
All-around strength: 3-4 x 800 (think 10k to 8k)/400 (think 5k)/200 (think 3k, progressing to faster) with 400 easy after the 8, 200 easy after the 4, and 400 easy after the 2. Optional addition: a fifth set.
This workout was created by my co-coach Megan way back when she played field hockey. With this session plus some supporting runs, she walked onto the track team and was all-conference. It’s hefty, but variable; hard, but smooth. I like athletes to focus on maintaining quick cadence as they fatigue in longer track workouts, while making sure the upper body stays relaxed.
As a parting message, make sure that your decisions about track workouts are not dictated by what you see other people doing. Remember: people also vote for monsters and root for the New York Jets. The track might help you, and it might hurt you, so listen to your brain and body.
Unless you’re a Jets fan, in which case you should do the opposite of your instincts.
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.