How to Build Workouts to be Race Ready
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Do Workouts and Get Race Ready
Now that you have the foundation, the frame and the walls, you can start having some fun with the design. Workouts are what turn an ordinary house into something spectacular.
Basic Workout Principles
To the mix of easy runs, a long run and strides, add one workout a week at first, and work up to two if you are advanced (with the second falling during the long run). Workouts come in all shapes and sizes, but at their core, they all involve sustaining moderate to hard efforts multiple times (or just once if you are doing a fast tempo run, sustained long run or race).
They improve running economy and aerobic fitness, like other types of running, with the added benefit of kicking your lactate threshold and VO2 Max into high gear. These higher-intensity energy systems allow your body to push harder, faster and longer—as long as you don’t get injured from the increased demands on your musculo-skeletal system or burnt out from the increased mental energy it takes to make it hurt a little bit.
Start with short and simple intervals before building to longer and more complex efforts. The shorter focus at first is because you want to run all of these intervals with proper running mechanics. In shorter intervals, you can focus on staying smooth and effortless, since they are just an extension of the strides you have been doing for weeks or months.
For most athletes, 10 x 1-minute fast with 1-minute easy recovery is a great place to start, with intervals on any type of terrain (if you want to get faster, run them on flat or rolling trails; if you want to get stronger, run them on uphills and downhills). The next week, increase the number of intervals, before lengthening them to two minutes the next week, and three minutes the next.
You are ready to move on from the short, fast intervals when you reach 30 minutes of total fast sections—completing a workout like 10 x 3 minutes and feeling smooth and comfortable. All of these short intervals primarily work VO2 Max, but with some lactate threshold thrown in. Your running economy will likely skyrocket as you start adding the harder workouts—it’s not uncommon for major breakthroughs to take place in the first few weeks of workouts.
As your body adapts, you can add longer, lower-intensity intervals, like 6 x 5 minutes with 3-minutes recovery, 3 x 10 minutes with 5-minutes recovery or even longer tempos between 20 minutes and an hour in length. If you are adding a second workout to the week, you can incorporate these workouts into your long run as well. Your total weekly running volume can drop slightly, but don’t let it drop much. While workouts are great for short-term breakthroughs, long-term success is founded on sustained training volume.
Trail-Specific Workout Concepts
But what about the track and pace-based intervals? While that stuff might be helpful at the margins, it is not necessary to be the best trail runner you can be and it could increase injury risk. The track is the hamster wheel of running training, with monotonous motions. Monotony is boring and constant left (or right) turns can increase exposure to overuse injuries. Pace similarly is not important for trail training—since trail races are all different types of terrain, focusing on pace numbers is not necessary. Plus, the incessant judgment of a watch adds unneeded stress.
Instead, focus on effort. Short intervals should be moderately hard at aerobic capacity, breathing hard near the peak of your respiration rate. Long intervals should be moderate, where you can say a sentence or two, but would prefer to be silent. Trail-running training is an art, so don’t try to make it a boring, counter-productive science.
Length of Workout Phase
There is no perfect recipe for how long the workout phase should be. Ideally, it’ll be about the same amount of time you spent building your endurance and resilience. So if you spent two months after the base period doing aerobic threshold work, spend two months doing workouts. However, this is the one phase where it is not OK to linger. Err on the side of fewer workouts, not more, since workouts are the riskiest part of training in terms of injuries and burn out.
SHORT-INTERVAL WORKOUT PROGRESSION
Workouts build on top of the foundation phase, which involves lots of strides but little sustained speed. By starting with short intervals and building up, you can use the energy systems that you have already primed in training. Then, subsequent workouts can build on top of other workouts to let you really use your newfound speed. Start and end each run with a warm up and cool down of at least 15 minutes of easy running. On all of the intervals, focus on sustainable speed—you always want to finish each interval and workout session thinking you could have done more. Here is a sample progression, though you can change things to fit your timing and structure.
Workout 1: 10 x 1 minute fast/1 minute easy
Workout 2: 20 x 1 minute fast/1 minute easy
Workout 3: 10 x 2 minutes fast/2 minutes easy
Workout 4: 12 x 2 minutes fast/1 minute easy
Workout 5: 8 x 3 minutes fast/2 minutes easy
Workout 6: 10 x 3 minutes fast/1 minute easy
LONG-INTERVAL WORKOUT PROGRESSION
Long intervals come after you have built up your speed using short intervals. Unless you are an advanced athlete, you don’t want to spend too long doing long intervals since they come with enhanced injury risk. Focus on relaxed speed, rather than straining. Remember, comfortable is sustainable, and you race at a sustainable effort.
Workout 1: 5 x 5 minutes moderate/2 minutes easy
Workout 2: 3 x 8 minutes moderate/4 minutes easy
Workout 3: 3 x 10 minutes moderate/3 minutes easy
Workout 4: 1 hour moderate