Track Workouts vs. Road Workouts

Running workouts in the same environment can help you hone some of the specific skills needed to race well -- both physically and mentally -- on the roads. Photo: Jon Segesta

Working Out On The Roads

While the track is a familiar venue for speed workouts, most runners are racing on the roads. Running workouts in the same environment can help you hone some of the specific skills needed to race well — both physically and mentally — on the roads.

1. Improve your fatigue management.

A lot of recent sports science research has been focused on the role the brain plays in performance. This theory was made popular by Dr. Tim Noakes and his central governor model. Simplistically, his theory posits that the brain will regulate exercise intensity so that you don’t run hard enough to actually do yourself harm. During a race, this theory manifests when you slow dramatically and feel terrible in the middle of a race, only to sum up a ferocious kick when the finish line is in sight. Once your brain realizes you’re almost done, it stops limiting the recruitment of muscle fibers and let’s you kick it in.

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On the track, the finish line is always an easily measurable distance away and visible at all times, which makes it easier to push when you get tired because the brain knows exactly when the body needs to stop. On the road, your brain is devoid of these visual cues — unless of course you are running on a well-marked, familiar course — and therefore, you’re also training your brain on how to overcome this central governor. If you struggle with falling off pace in the middle of a race only to have a lot left at the finish, running some of your key workouts on unmarked roads can help improve your ability to push when your brain tells you to stop.

2. Simulate the demands of the race course.

One of the most innovative training concepts I learned of while running for the Hansons-Brooks Distance Project was the importance of training for the specific demands of the race course. Coaches Keith and Kevin Hanson are fanatical about creating training loops that mimic the specific demands of the race. When training a large group for the Boston Marathon, Kevin went so far as to create the famous CITGO sign as a visual cue.

If you’re training for a course that has hills, off-road sections or lots of turns, running your workouts on the road can help you simulate those conditions. You’ll be providing your body with a specific stress and stimulus and you’ll adapt, giving you lots of confidence when you encounter these condition on race day.

Putting It All Together

Don’t confine yourself to one particular training environment for all your workouts. Break out of the comfort of the track every once in a while and try some intervals on the bike path, or overcome your fear of the track and improve your pacing and focus. Adding new and varying stimuli to your training will help take your personal best to the next level!

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