Get more bang for your buck by switching up the stimulus.
We all have our staple workouts: the 10×400-meter repeats at mile pace we remember from high school or that 4×1-mile session at 5K pace we grinded through in college. As creatures of habit, we rarely deviate from these staples—and they seem to work well enough for everyone in the running world—so why do anything different? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?
The answer is simple; the body adapts to what we give it and if you keep repeating the same type of workout all the time, where does that stimulus for adaptation go?
When I was coaching high school runners at the beginning of my career, I grew tired of what I like to call “straight repeats.” I saw straight repeats as doing the same interval throughout the workout at the same relative pace, i.e. repeats of 200m, 400m, 1K, mile or whatever the distance might have been at the same pace. Everybody was doing them, perhaps rightly so, but for inattentive high school athletes it seemed like a mind numbing way to do things.
I decided to inject some fun into the workouts, while secretly having an ulterior motive of thinking that if we tried for the same adaptations in a couple of different ways, we’d end up in a much better spot then doing the same repeats at the same pace all the time.
The reasoning for this is simple: the body adapts to the stimulus given and if we attack that stimulus from multiple directions, we’ll get more bang for our buck. Thankfully, my hunch that came out of an initial desire to alleviate boredom for some high school runners translated into some great results. So how do you spice up those bland straight repeats?
The first rule is to be creative and mess with the components. You have speed, recovery, duration, distance, terrain and density of the workout to play with. The possibilities are essentially endless.
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The route I recommend is to blend speeds, alter recovery speeds and duration and inject some terrain manipulation. Instead of doing straight repeats all at the same speed, instead inject some variation by blending the interval length and speed. What that means is instead of doing a staple workout such as 5x1000m at goal 5K pace, do a workout like 3 sets of 1200m/400m where the 1200s start out at 10K pace and the 400s are run at 3K pace. As the season progresses, try and work those 1200s down toward 5K pace.
By blending workouts like this, you initially work at paces above and below goal pace, which acts as a support to your specific fitness. Once you are close to your peak race you’ll be combining work at race pace with some work just faster than race pace to improve on speed endurance. By going back and forth within the workout, you create a situation where the faster work is injecting lactate into the system, and then you have to deal with it during the “slower” interval.
A second way to spice up that bland workout is to shift the emphasis to the “recovery” portion of the workout. If you are training for a 5K race, instead of doing the typical 1K repeats at race pace, shorten the interval to 600m at race race and instead of jogging the recovery, run another 600m at marathon pace, or a good steady effort faster than your typical recovery pace. Now instead of getting ample recovery between each repeat at race pace, the challenge becomes maintaining the recovery run speed. These types of workouts create a situation where the faster interval injects just enough fatigue into your legs so that you learn to deal with it during steady recovery portion. Each subsequent faster repeat slowly increases that fatigue and stress in your legs, stimulating further adaptations.
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Lastly, we all are familiar with the utilization of hill repeats as a workout in and of itself, but most miss out on the benefits of intermixing your flat track intervals with some hill repeats in between. Instead of doing your typical 6x800m session on the track, instead do three sets of 2x800m on the track with a set of hill repeats sandwiched between the track intervals. The hill repeats will increase the amount of muscle fibers recruited—and subsequently trained—on the following set of track repeats. In essence, you’ll be increasing your strength endurance. The hill repeats can either be short hill sprints (4×10 seconds) for pure speed and muscle fiber recruitment or longer hills (2×1 minute) for working on the ability to last under heavy fatigue.
Bottom line: Break out of your shell and try something different. It’s not necessary to revamp every one of your workouts but every once in a while try adding a twist and reap the benefits of a new training stimulus.
About The Author:
Steve Magness coaches cross country and track at the University of Houston. He maintains the blog ScienceOfRunning.com which is essentially a place for him to display his inner science and running nerd to the world. He owns a best of 4:01 for the mile and has a M.S. in Exercise Science from George Mason University.