Trials of the Track-less: How to run track workouts without a track

The 2 mile warmup was uneventful.  I was a little nervous about the workout but excited to get my legs back on the track and see what I could do.  At 5:30am my running buddy and I reached the school, ran up the sidewalk and came to an abrupt halt as our headlamps illuminated the sign on the fence: IMG_8278

Well, time for Plan B.  With no desire to run back home to drive 20 minutes to another track, and my type-A runner personality demanding that I find a way to complete the workout, it was time to improvise.  So we did.  We figured the empty high school parking lot was big enough (and relatively flat enough) to make do.  A quick math-on-the-run calculation and we had our new marching orders:

Original workout: 2 mile warm-up, 2k (6:45/mile), 1600m (6:30/mile), 1k (6:25/mile), 800m (1:35/400m), 400m (FAO = HARD) ea w/ 400m easy to recover, 2 mile cool-down

Actual workout:  2 mile warm-up, 1.25 mi (6:41), 1 mi (6:27), 0.7mi (6:17), 0.52 mi (6:03), 0.28mi (5:39*) *downhill on this part

Around and around that parking lot we went - sneaking glances at our watches as we wove in between the deserted rows of spaces.  We left the parking lot with a strange sense of satisfaction from having not only completed the workout, but having refused to let the closed track defeat us.  I don't know how long the track will remained closed.  Weeks?  Months?  Indefinitely? But I do know that I can get in my workouts without it.  It may not be as pretty, but they'll get done.  So for those of you who are in the same boat, take heart:

How to run track workouts without a track

  1. Find the flat:  Flat road, that is!  You'll want to find a section of road that's relatively flat for you to do your intervals.  If you are forced to run somewhere with changes in elevation, try to ensure that you can complete a circuit of the road to incorporate both the uphill and downhill areas. If you can't find a flat place to run don't stress, but do realize that you'll have more variation in the paces you'll see on your watch.
  2. Convert the intervals:  The standard track distances don't line up exactly with the distances in miles, but it's pretty close.  For ease of use I've made a chart (slightly rounding up/down as needed to make things simpler) that can help you make the conversion: Slide1
  3. Utilize the "Custom Workout" feature on your watch: I LOVE this tool on my Garmin.  You can set up each interval and rest time in between and then just run.  Each interval is different you say?  No problem - Garmin has you covered.  Your watch will beep when you start/end each interval, removing the need for you to keep glancing at your watch to check distance.
  4. Swap shorter intervals:  Once you get down to around the 400m range or shorter, watches are notoriously fickle.  It's such a short distance that it's difficult to get accurate pace and distance on the road.  Your best bet here may be to swap out the 400m repeats with a set time duration (i.e. run 90 sec HARD) or swap 200m repeats for strides (30 sec HARD, 30 sec recovery).
  5. Run longer intervals:  Since shorter intervals are so fickle on the watch, it's a great opportunity to have your workout include some longer intervals.  For marathoners, these are likely more useful anyway in encouraging the desired adaptations in the body.  Half mile or mile repeats are great ways to get that "interval" feel on the road.
  6. Understand the limitations: When running intervals on the roads, unless you are on a measured course you are relying on your watch (and its communication with satellites...which are ridiculously far away) trying to pinpoint your location and calculate distance and pace accordingly.  I know that my watch is always "faster" than what I actually run.  When I use my watch on the track I'll hit the "Lap" button for each interval so that I'm getting an accurate time since my Garmin always measures that I've run longer than the actual distance I've run on the track.   So I need to take that into account when running intervals.   I'll often go a little longer on the roads (0.53mi vs. 0.5mi) to try and account for the margin of error.
  7. Train your brain:  Your brain is tricky and will regulate the intensity of exercise so that you never fully exhaust yourself.  This is why even if you feel miserable and slow dramatically in the last mile of a race, once that finish line is in sight your body is able to summon an extra kick and speed over the line - your brain has realized the end is in sight and removes the body's limitations on recruiting more muscle fibers.  On a track, the end is always "in sight" - and you can push harder on intervals since your brain knows exactly when you can stop.  (How many of you do what I do and manage to "make up" time on that last 200m on the track?  Yes? :)) On the roads, without such visual cues you are forced to overcome the brain's governing abilities and continue to push even when your brain is telling you to stop.  This skill pays dividends in races as you push through those middle miles.

And finally, don't despair.  While the track is a wonderful way to practice pacing, and provides an even, softer surface, the reality is that most races we are training for are run on the uneven, unpredictable roads.  So when you are running your 40th loop around the stupid parking lot, tell yourself this is awesome practice for your next race.




Running Outside My Comfort Zone

Yesterday’s workout: Morning:  5 miles recovery  Evening:  2 mile warm up, followed by 3000m @ 5Kish pace, 4x400 relay at a crazy-sprint pace, and a cool-down “predict your time” mile  

Our group at the track

A lot of runners (myself included) get stuck in a rut from time to time. Same schedule, same routes, same paces.   It’s comforting to stick to what you know and what has worked in the past. If it’s not broken, don’t fix it, right?   But I’d argue that we all need to shake things up once in a while and try something completely different. Not only does it give our bodies a new stimulus to adjust to (which will hopefully provide positive adaptations), but it gives our mind a much needed break from the monotony of training as well. Which is why yesterday found me toeing the line for a sticky, hot and humid 3000m race at our local track.

We are fortunate in Richmond to have a very supportive running community. One of the things that they put on each year is the Summer Track Series.   As the name implies, it’s a series of track events held each week in the summer – at 6:30pm in the evening. Everyone is welcome, and registration happens at 6pm the night of the events. So you just show up, sign up, and run!

I haven’t been on a track to run true intervals in years. The past several marathon training seasons I’ve been using the plan from Pfitzinger’s Advanced Marathoning book and due to the nature of the longer intervals he suggests, I’ve been able to run them all on the roads.

I’ve been comfortable in that little world – with no short intervals, and no real races longer than 15K. But I was recently issued an invitation by a friend to join him for the 3000m at the Summer Track Series. Since I’d normally have a tempo run on Monday, I figured I’d just leave that off the schedule and run the 3000m on Wednesday instead. It’s sliiiiightly different than my regular tempos since a) it was not at 5:30am and b) it was ridiculously hot and humid since it’s held at the end of the afternoon.

But show up I did and I found myself lining up with a bunch of local high school speedsters.  I warmed up, then nervously walked around. Everyone was doing drills and strides and stretches. I figured some strides wouldn’t hurt and knocked out a couple before lining up for the 3000m.   After a crash course in track etiquette (Do I move over into lane 1 after the gun? (In this case, Yes) Do I run around people or holler at them to move? (Run around them)), I found myself staring down seven and a half laps at a pace faster than I’d ever run for that distance. I took a deep breath, the gun went off, and we ran.

I settled into a pretty decent groove after a lap or so. It was work, but it felt like I could maintain it for the duration. Despite running a 6:10 pace, with two laps to go I got lapped by the high school boys (which didn’t feel great, but also made me appreciate their speed!). Throughout the race I also had to dodge slower folks and I also tried to hold lane 1 open for the guys I knew were coming up behind me. In the end I crossed the line in 11:59. Per my Garmin, I’d done more distance with the people dodging (1.94 miles – making my pace 6:10), but the official pace was 6:25.   I was happy enough with the pace given the heat and humidity, and definitely felt I’d gotten in a solid effort.

After the 3000m, my friends and I signed up for the 4x400 relay and got crushed by the high school kids. It was pretty fun to get out there and try to run as fast as we could for a lap (and try not to drop the baton!).   Our cool-down for the evening was a “predict your mile” – one mile on the track with no watches. We didn’t race it, just ran at a steady pace and tried to guess what time we’d end up with. I guessed 7:13 and ended up at 7:25 – I guess I was more wiped out than I thought!

Either way, the evening on the track turned out to be a good effort and more importantly, it was FUN.    It was fun to try something new, to be a bit nervous.  And it was a great reminder to step outside that "safe" comfort zone on occasion and mix it up.  I encourage all of you to try something new this month.  If your city has anything like this, get out there and sign up!  Or choose another event or race that's outside your own distance preferences and give it a go.  You may surprise yourself at how much fun you have doing something completely different.  Even though I couldn’t keep up with the kids half my age on the track last night, it was a fantastic opportunity to feel young at heart.