Every time you start training for a race, whether it is a marathon or an Ironman everyone says “you’re going to do some track work right? It’s the only way to get faster!” Then you get tons of free advice on what track sets to do and when to do them. Trouble is that advice is worth about as much as paid for it. Leaving off the distances for now let us chat a little about why you are going to the track.
When you are training, you are building muscle as well as aerobic capacity. If you were training for a 100-meter sprint, you would be training anaerobic capacity. When I talk about building muscle, I am not talking about going to the gym and pumping out max reps. Muscle is weight and it slows you down, period. (Unless you are a sprinter, they are all about power and only have to carry it for a very short time). No, I am talking about the muscles you use for running.
Building aerobic capacity is a balancing act of recovery, hard efforts and variety. First the two are the easy parts: recovery and variety. If I do a track workout today, I will need at least one recovery day and about 10 days to 2 weeks to see a benefit. Running the same track workout every week on say Fridays will show only very limited improvement unless it is a different type of workout, we will get into that later. Variety means different distances with different purposes.
Now let us talk about the efforts but instead of distances let us talk energy systems. Efforts of 90 seconds or less are, for the most part, anaerobic efforts. Efforts 3 min but not longer than 5 min are V02 max efforts and running more than 6 minutes to 20 or even 25 minutes are sweet spot or tempo efforts. I do not care about distance I am just talking times and of course, everyone is a little different.
Then biggest bang for your training buck is V02 max efforts. Those were you are going HARD for at least 3 minutes but there is no way in hell you can run longer than 5 min. You can bring in enough 02 but eventually all that lactic acid is going to build up and bring you down hard. If you were Steve Austin (for those young folk aka the Bionic Man) you could do these every day and become an aerobic monster. However, for us normal people getting up and doing V02 max efforts, whether on the track, on a bike or in a pool, day after day, would drive us to stop working or break us down on the side of the road. Therefore, we cannot do them every day. So what distance on a track can you run HARD for 3 to 5 minutes? For most people those are 800’s, for others it may be 1200’s. Rest is usually 50% of the distance and time of your effort.
Sweet spot efforts are workouts where you push, just below you threshold, for at least 6 minutes and up to 25 minutes. These are specifically for improving your body’s ability to deal with lactic acid. At the end of the effort you should be pretty spent and need a short recovery before performing another one. These are not cakewalks by any means; they are hard but just not V02 max hard. What distance works for these? Mile repeats, 2-mile repeats or maybe 1200’s for others. Rest would vary but it’s not especially long, say 1 to 3 minutes tops.
Anaerobic efforts build increase your ability to work anaerobically. However, you are a distance athlete! True, but building up one system allows you to build up another, and so one. Here the distances might be 200’s or 400’s. Hard, all out, done and done somewhere between 20 secs and 90 secs. With a 4 min or so jog in between.
Let us go back to that rest and variety. If I do a 10 x 800 today in 7 days I will not be appreciably faster. I will begin to lose interest and after several weeks and take my jock strap and go home. But if I do 800s today, then next week do 1200’s then the following week do 200’s then I circle back around to 800’s it’s a good bet you will be a chunk bit faster and have worked on 3 different energy systems and stayed focused during each one. What about mixing distances? These have their place but that requires another whole discussion and a real plan, not just numbers picked out of a hat. For now, I would stick to these efforts and build your energy systems.