4 Judgment-Free Workouts for Trail Runners

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At work, your supervisors judge your performance. At school, your teachers judge your assignments. On reality shows, mean British men judge your singing voice. Life is full of judgment, which means it’s also full of that sinking feeling when you don’t live up to expectations.

Trail running, though, is different; it’s all about internal expectations. No one in the trail-running community is judging your speed, your clothes or even your questionable smell. However, there is still one person who can judge you like a mean British man, and that person is in the mirror. (If you are a mean British man, that sentence applies doubly.)

I’ve seen it time and time again with athletes I coach. Self-criticism sabotages their potential. The key is to remove opportunities for self-criticism from training by designing judgment-free workouts.

As a reminder, most of the time, you should run aerobically. But at least once a week (if you are running at least 15 miles per week) and up to three times a week (if you are running more than 50 miles per week), you should inject some effort into your runs—though that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be carefree and joyous.

Judgment-free workouts are designed to remove feedback on your performance, aside from how your feel. Removing those objective metrics means you cannot fail to live up to expectations (and experience the dreaded sinking feeling). These four judgment-free workouts will make you faster than ever—not that anyone is counting.

Any of these workouts can be done with uphills or on technical trails—since they are all time-based, the terrain doesn’t matter. Photo courtesy of David Roche

1. Build Running Economy

6-12 x 1 minute fast

Running economy describes how much energy it takes to run. By improving it, every pace will be easier.

If you are the type of runner who always runs the same pace, or if you are coming off of a base-building offseason, these workouts should be how you get started with structured pace variation. Then, once you improve your economy, you’ll be able to get more out of the longer intervals. Do at least one set a week for a few weeks before thinking about getting more complicated.

After a warm-up (15 to 20 minutes of easy running), pick up the pace, staying relaxed and focusing on smooth, effortless speed, approximating your one-mile race pace. After a minute, step off the gas. Run easy for two minutes before kicking it up again, maintaining relaxed speed for another minute, and repeat 6 to 12 times.

Your actual pace is irrelevant. Just run for time and don’t judge.

Alternative options: 8-15 x 30 seconds fast with 90-second recovery in between. Or, 20 to 30 minutes of “diagonals”: Run fast from one corner of a football or soccer field to the diagonally opposite corner, then jog across the end zone for recovery. Run fast from that corner to the one opposite before jogging back to where you started. Your fast sections should form an “X”.

2. “Smell the Kibble”

A good way to bridge from running-economy workouts to longer efforts is to make like a puppy.

When walking my pup in the evening before dinner, I notice a pep in her step once we turn for home. Then, when the kibble is only a couple minutes away, she yanks the leash like she is auditioning for the Iditarod. You can harness this puppy power with what I call “Smell the Kibble” workouts.

If you aren’t racing the clock, you can always take detours to splash in the mud. Photo by David Roche

When you feel frisky near the end of a normal easy run, pick it up and run the last 2 to 10 minutes faster—as if there is a reward waiting at the finish, but you need to have some breath left to enjoy it.

From a training standpoint, this workout introduces your body to faster running over longer distances without any pace judgment. From a life standpoint, there are very few things more motivating than kibble, or whatever your equivalent treat is. As my pup would say, SNARF!

Alternative option: Out-and-back: Head out easy-peasy for 20 to 50 minutes, then run back faster.

3. Build VO2 max
4-8 x 3 minutes fast

Now it is time to lengthen the intervals. After a warm-up, run three minutes fast, imagining you are running a 5K (so a bit slower than economy intervals, but faster than lactate-threshold intervals). Back off for two minutes, then kick it up again.

Remember, each interval is not a race, and we don’t care about your actual pace. Instead, it is a controlled effort that you could keep up for longer if needed. If you go too fast, you won’t be working your VO2 max (you’ll be working your anaerobic threshold). And VO2 max is important because it increases your body’s oxygen-processing power.

Alternative options: 2-5 x 5 minutes fast, with 3 minutes recovery in between; or, 1/2/3/4/4/3/2/1 minutes fast with 1 minute easy between each.

4. Build lactate threshold
2-3 x 10 minutes fast

Lactate threshold is the point at which your body can’t clear all of the burning chemicals it produces when you go fast. It corresponds roughly to the effort you’d run for a race that takes you one hour (so a good bit slower than the VO2 max and economy intervals described above).

Lactate threshold might be the most important predictor of your performance. However, it has a scary name that conjures up laboratory experiments involving very unhappy mice. So instead of calling it lactate threshold, the no-judgment term I use with athletes I coach is “RAWR pace.” It’s the pace at which you feel powerful and strong without too much difficulty, like a T. rex that owns the trails in the park, Jurassic-style.

After a warm-up, settle into RAWR pace, focusing on complete comfort and relaxation while speeding along. These workouts should not be hard—a few 10-minute intervals, or a single 20-to-40-minute one, at one-hour race pace with recovery won’t be too taxing. However, if you can home in on your RAWR pace, you’ll see great benefits.

Most importantly, remember that running is all about personal fun and fulfillment, and it’s essential to never take “performance” (or anything running-related) too seriously. To put it another way, T. rexes don’t judge since they don’t understand numbers, and if any jealous stegosauruses are out there, you can eat them. As a prehistoric Taylor Swift would say, haters gonna get ate ate ate.

Alternative options: 3-6 x 8 minutes at RAWR pace, with 4 minutes recovery in between; or, 1 x 20 to 40 minutes at RAWR pace.

David Roche is a two-time USATF trail national champion, the 2014 U.S. Sub-Ultra Trail Runner of the Year and a member of Nike Trail Elite and Team Clif Bar. He works with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. Follow David’s daily training on Strava here, and follow him on Twitter here.

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