Track: Outside the comfort zone by Peter Brown

What is your perception of the track? Unsatisfactory memories of school sports day or images from the TV of strings of impossibly thin athletes running impossibly fast times? Well, you don’t have to be a superstar to train like one for the benefits of a structured training regime are immense if you’re serious about improving your race times.

The principle involved is quite simple: by running faster than race pace, over time, the body slowly adapts and race times will improve. The problem with this is that it is difficult to maintain this increased pace for an extended period of time. Effort is therefore broken down into manageable chunks of fast running (repetitions or reps) interspersed with periods of recovery (intervals). Training on the track allows the length of each rep/recovery to be accurately measured with the result that changes in performance can be accurately recorded.

An issue with this is that it’s hard work; track is something that you have to want to do. On the other hand, the benefits in terms of your personal best can be massive. If the track appears to be daunting then the speed sessions at Millhouses on Tuesday evening might suit you better to start with. These tend to be more relaxed but have similar objectives following the same principle of fast running followed by periods of recovery.

Thursday evening track sessions at Woodbourn Road normally last about 60/70 minutes and consist of the following format:

Warm up: One mile at an easy conversational pace with the chance to catch up with what everyone else has done during the last week.
Strides: 3 x 100m striding out to raise the heart rate and stretch out followed by drills.
Session: Then comes the session itself, more of this later.
Warm down: Easy mile but you may well find that this feels harder than the warm up.
Stretching: To return the muscles to their original state before the session started. Flexibility is an aspect often overlooked by runners – you should stretch after every session, not just speedwork.  Train the following day if you can, even if it’s only three miles or so, as this helps to remove the soreness from the previous day’s hard session.

Kit Required

  • Running shoes – your ordinary running shoes will suffice but racing flats are better if you possess them. Better still, warm up in your road shoes then change into your flats for the session itself.
  • Wear your ordinary running gear, according to conditions, with a jacket/top and tights/bottoms for warm up and warm down.
  • Stopwatch, preferably with a 25 lap memory or running watch.
  • Logbook – for training performance and planning sessions.
  • £5:00 to pay for use of the track if at Woodbourn Road.
  • Sense of humour

Thursday sessions attract athletes from a number of clubs, not just Steel City Striders, with a wide range of abilities. Peter Brown from Steel City Striders is an English Athletics Level 2 coach whilst we are lucky to have the services of experienced Level 3 coach Mike Theobald who possesses a wealth of experience and has helped athletes from ordinary club runners to Olympic athletes.

Case example: Jennifer Rich

When Jenny joined the Thursday evening training group in 2013 she had pb’s of 42:53 for 10km and 3:36:38 for the marathon. Since then, with track work regularly featuring in her training, these now stand at 38:06 and 2:58:10 respectively whilst her half marathon pb is 85:06.

Jenny is an excellent example of how the track has helped an athlete achieve their objectives but a point here is that the track is just one component of Jenny’s weekly routine. On Tuesday there’s long reps or hills whilst she sometimes uses the fast group at Heeley as a tempo (longer, sustained run) workout. The long run at the weekend is a must. The stress here is on consistency; to get the best out of any training programme you need a sense of routine and Jenny takes advantage of various training sessions that the club provides. If she can’t make the sessions themselves she will try to replicate these on the road or in the park if possible but the quality of group sessions is usually far superior. Keep an eye out on the Striders Facebook pages for less formal sessions that individual club members organise for themselves – training in a group provides that ‘appointment’ to get you out in all weathers.

The Thursday track sessions at Woodbourn Road follow a simple pattern, ostensibly amended for winter (longer reps/shorter recoveries) and summer (shorter reps/ longer recoveries). These can be tailored according to personal requirements however. For example, the marathoners using the track have recently been completing extra reps on top of the published session. Conversely, newcomers may well have their workload reduced to start with.

We mentioned earlier how sessions are broken up into segments of faster/slower running.  A typical example might be 6 x 800m (two laps of the track) with a 200m walk/jog recovery (about 2 minutes). The intention should be to run the 800m quickly but at a pace that can be maintained for each of the six repetitions, i.e. the last repetition should be as quick as the first. Pace judgement can be difficult at first but regulars will find that reps will typically be +/- 1 second – a thing of beauty.

Beware of Brown’s Law, however. If the last rep is significantly faster than the others this indicates that the earlier reps were not run quickly enough; you may well be asked to complete a penalty rep.

Current sessions can be found on the Thursday Night Track page. This extract shows how this follows a straightforward routine with a ‘special’ usually every third week:

19-Feb-15 800’s 6×800 [200]
26-Feb-15 400’s 12×400 [100]
05-Mar-15 Accelerator 2×800 [200], 3×600 [200], 4×400 [200]
12-Mar-15 1000’s 5×1000 [200]
19-Mar-15 600’s 8×600 [200]
26-Mar-15 Mesa 400, 600, 1000, 1000, 1000, 600, 400 [200]

Sessions are not usually targeted towards a particular race/races as individual objectives vary too much. Sessions like pyramids and the accelerator help you to respond to changes in pace. Note the variety of distances involved although the total of the efforts usually adds up to around three miles. Jennifer’s Tuesday sessions will usually be longer however e.g. 5 x mile (200m) although these will be run at a slower pace.

The track provides an idea surface for training, is traffic free and devoid of obstacles such as dogs on long leads. It can get busy however and some simple guidelines exist to keep everybody safe. Our Track Etiquette guide is laced with common sense, the basic advice is:

  1. Don’t step onto the track without looking first.
  2. Keep the inside lane clear for athletes completing efforts.
  3. If someone shouts ‘TRACK’ at you it means you’re in the way so take evasive action.
  4. Don’t walk across the grass if the field eventers (shot, discus, javelin, hammer) are in action.

Don’t be put off if this all sounds dreary and regimented as we do actually have fun. The transformation of the group, even on a cold November evening, can be remarkable. A set of individuals are clearly wary of what is to come to finish as a highly energised group enthused by their achievements: the power of endorphins, the body’s own, naturally produced opium. As above, speedwork performed as part of a group is usually better quality than sessions performed on your own – the training ‘squad’ is a fundamental unit of more formal training programmes.

Hard work, yes, but there’s no ‘magic wand’ and anything worthwhile rarely comes easily. If you take racing seriously and want to improve your personal best then this is the type of workout that you need to be doing on a regular basis and you can take heart that you are replicating the kinds of sessions that our top athletes do.