At some point, most new runners get the urge to run a bit faster. Maybe you want to explore your potential, perhaps you want to train for a race. Or, more likely, you just want to progress a little more than you have so far by just running as you normally do.
New or beginner runners develop fitness quite quickly, but sooner or later, after a few weeks a plateau is reached. To move on to the next level we need to start running at different speeds. The track is a great place for this: you have an accurately measured distance, a superb running surface and probably most important, an environment that most of us connect with great inspirational people and performances.
So you get to the track for the first time, what do you do? Firstly, you should warm-up. It much more important to warm up before a track session than it is before your usual run. Your muscles, joints and connective tissues will moving beyond their normal travel both in speed and distance. Your warm-up should consist of some light jogging for a few minutes to get the heart rate up. Then some more dynamic movements — lunges are great for this — and then some running at a faster pace to prepare for the increased speed you will be running during your session.
Our introduction detailed below is a staple for runners of all abilities and experience. It suits training for all endurance running distances, be it 5k or the marathon and beyond. It’s simple to remember and simple to record.
Introductory track session
A modern running track is 400m long, that’s just 2m short of a quarter of a mile; very convenient for pace judgement. All we are going to do is run around the track, a lap at a time with a rest in between each lap.
The laps are called repetitions (or reps), the rests are called recoveries.
Our session looks like this:
10 x 400m with 200m jog recoveries.
The jog recoveries are run very gently and will be a similar duration to the effort (or the rep).
What speed should I run?
It depends on various factors: the specific distance you are training for, the length or your recoveries and your experience and of course your ability.
Here’s an example for a runner who is training for 10k and hoping to break 45 minutes.
To run 10k in 45 mins you need to run 4.30 per km and that’s 1.48 per 400m, so we are going to run just a little quicker than that by just 4 seconds per lap, at 1.44 (that’s more like 5k race pace for our soon-to-be 45m 10k runner).
If it’s your first time on the track then you’ll probably not have much idea of pacing so you can monitor progress by timing at the 200m mark, just as the second bend starts on the opposite side of the track (there should be a line on the track and an indicator mark next to the inside kerb). Your recovery should be the same 1.44 so a very easy jog round to the 200m mark (or up and down the straight will take care of that); it’s important to keep moving during your recovery phases so that the products of this higher intensity running are cleared from the muscles. After your recovery you run straight into your next 400m rep; a further 8 reps completes the session.
At the end of the session finish off with a gentle mile or two of jogging and some very light stretching. Hold these stretches no longer than 15 seconds per muscle as the aim is just to restore them to their starting states and not over-stretch them after this more intensive workout.
The important thing to keep in mind here is consistency, both during the reps and over the whole session. Your aim is to run all the reps at a consistent pace (no sprinting down the home straight to make up time), and run all the reps in the same time. It will be quite a challenge, usually getting hard by rep 7 and 8. If you cannot manage your targets then you’ll have to adjust the times back a little, say by 5 or 10 seconds per lap. This is better than allowing the pace to gradually drift slower.
There’s infinite variation with track training sessions, but this particular one is a great way to start and get your body used to running faster. It will help you to develop your technique or form for running faster and it will also develop your ability to manage running at faster speeds.
When you are cooled down, showered and, importantly, fed, spare a thought for the Czechoslovakian runner Emil Zatopek, who in 1952 won Olympic gold in the 5,000m, 10,000m and marathon. He popularised training like this, and was said to run staggering sessions of not 10 x 400m, but 100 x 400m!