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Incorporating Race-Specific Workouts Into Training

As your race gets closer, it becomes increasingly more important to dial in your workouts. Here are four for 5Ks to marathon distances.

Focusing your training and having a specific, measurable plan of action is essential if you want to conquer your racing goals. Very few runners are successful when they blindly cobble together workouts, especially in the last few weeks leading up to an important race.

Too often, runners who lack a well thought out training plan derail their progress by performing 800-meter repeats with long rests in the weeks before a marathon, or running an easy 16-mile long run two weeks before their goal 5K. If you’re looking to perform your best on race day, whether you’re racing the mile or the marathon, it’s critical that the last four to six weeks of your training plan include mostly race-specific workouts.

Let’s explore what race-specific training means, why it’s important and how to implement race-specific workouts into your next training plan.

What is specificity and why is it important?

At its core, training is all about the principle of adaptation. Your body adapts to the demands you place upon it by growing stronger and becoming more efficient. For example, when you run more miles, your heart increases the efficiency at which it pumps blood to working muscles, and mitochondria, the aerobic energy power plant of the cells, grow in number and size. Due to the principle of specific adaption, the closer you can perform exercise that mimics the exact demands you’re preparing to undertake, the better you’ll become at that specific exercise.

Obviously, the principle of specific adaption applies generally as well as at a micro level, meaning running more mileage is going to make you a better runner compared to a session of kettlebell exercises. However, while all types of running will generally help you improve as a runner, race-specific training will produce better results at a particular distance.

As the name implies, race-specific training means training for the specific physiological demands of your race distance. While this might sound simplistic, the difference between the physiological demands of commonly run race distances can be quite different. Certainly, there is some overlap between distances in close proximity, such as 5K and 10K, but there is a large difference between the specific demands of longer races such as the marathon and half marathon. Understanding these differences and applying the correct workouts is the founding principle behind race-specific training.

How does specificity influence training?

In order to race your best at any distance, the last 4-6 weeks of training need to be primarily focused on race-specific workouts. Usually, this means running at or near race pace with short bouts of rest.

Unfortunately, some runners can take this concept too far. You can’t just go out and run 3 x 1 mile at goal 5K pace with 30 seconds rest each week of your training plan and expect to see a big improvement. This workout would be very difficult in the early part of a training cycle and you would quickly stagnate.

Before taking on race-specific training, you need to build a high level of general fitness, or complementary energy systems, for race-specific training to be effective. Second, you need to constantly change the stimulus if you want to progress; meaning your body will quickly adapt to race-specific training and reach a temporary peak after a few weeks.

Therefore, race-specific training should start anywhere from 4-8 weeks out from your goal race. The precise starting date will depend on your experience level, training load, and how quickly you generally respond to workouts (some runners respond and adapt to training quickly, i.e. they “get in shape quickly” while others need longer buildups).

Before you begin race-specific training, you should build a high level of general running fitness by balancing the principle training components of aerobic fitness, lactate threshold, VO2max, and neuromuscular development. Like building a house, the stronger and larger you can build your foundation, the higher and more remarkable you can construct the peak.

The Caveat Of Race-Specific Training

It’s important to remember that when you’re in a race-specific phase of training, your performances at distances outside your goal race range will very likely suffer, and that’s OK. Most runners forget this important lesson when they schedule tuneup races like 5Ks and 10Ks when training for the marathon or when trying to cap off a summer of 5K racing with a half marathon.

There is a balance in training that gets ignored in the 4 to 6 week race-specific phase of training. You’re sacrificing overall running fitness for better results at one specific race distance. If you’re targeting the 5K, you’ll be gaining specific speed endurance while losing a little bit in the areas of aerobic fitness and lactate threshold. Conversely, when training for the marathon, you’ll rarely be running faster than half marathon pace during the specific phase and you’ll be constantly tired, which means you’ll lose the speed and VO2max required to run a good 5K.

Targeting your training to one specific goal is crucial if you want to run your best on race day, but it’s also important to remember how the training will impact your overall running as well.

Examples Of Race-Specific Workouts

Each distance has its own physiological demands, but designing a race-specific phase of training has two universal principles:

1. You must progress to harder and more specific workouts week-to-week, just like you do in a normal training cycle. Your first-race specific workout should include more rest between intervals or be slightly shorter than your final workout. The goal should be to make progress toward running goal race pace with as little rest as possible in your final hard workout.

2. You can manipulate two variables when progressing your workouts: the length of the intervals and the amount of rest you take between them. So, the pace of each race-specific workout remains the same, but the rest gets shorter, the interval distance gets longer, or both. For example, your first race-specific 5K workout might be 5 x 1K at goal race pace with 90 seconds rest between intervals, while your final workout six weeks later might be 3 x 1 mile at 5K pace with 45 seconds rest between intervals.

Here are sample race-specific workouts for four of the most commonly run distances, along with an explanation of what is being targeted physiologically.

Specific workouts for 5K

In a 5K-specific training phase, your goal should be to improve your speed endurance – your ability to maintain a fast 5K pace for the entire race. You’re more than capable of running much faster than your current 5K pace for one mile already, so you need to work on holding race pace for 3.1 miles. My favorite starting workout is:

12 x 300 meters at 5K pace with 100 meter jog rest in 30-35 seconds (i.e. “jog” 100 meters in 30-35 seconds as your “rest”).

Once you get comfortable with this workout, you can progress to 12 to 16 x 400 or 600 meters at 5K pace with a 100m jog rest between intervals.

Specific workouts for 10K

The 10K is similar to the 5K in that you need to hold a fast pace for a relatively short period of time. However, the pace for 10K is slower than 5K, but you have to hold it for twice as long. Therefore, 10K specific workouts require longer intervals. Here are two of my favorite:

5 x 1 mile at 10K pace with 45 seconds slow jog rest, hammer 1 more 1-mile interval (to make 6 total miles) as fast as you can.

3 x 2 miles at 10K pace with 2 minutes jog rest between intervals.

Specific workouts for half marathon

The half marathon is a test of your ability to quickly clear lactate while running at a pace that is just above comfortable. Moreover, you need to train your legs to endure running hard for 13.1 miles. Here is my favorite specific half-marathon workout:

3 x 3 miles at half-marathon pace with an easy 800-meter jog rest between intervals. This is a very difficult session, so you can start with a slow 1-mile jog or reduce the intervals to 3 x 2 miles.

Specific workouts for marathon

Specific marathon workouts get a little tricky because it’s impossible to simulate the distance and intensity of the marathon in one run without totally ruining yourself. The marathon requires you to be very efficient at burning fat as a fuel source to conserve carbohydrates while running fast on very tired legs.

Therefore, marathon-specific workouts are often a combination of workouts throughout a week that build up fatigue and require you to run with low glycogen levels rather than one long, specific workout.

While hard long runs are certainly an important part of marathon training, my favorite workout is 2 x 6 miles, which was made famous by runners at the Brooks-Hansons Olympic Development Project:

1 mile warmup, 2 x 6 miles @ 10-20 seconds per mile faster than marathon pace with 10 minutes rest between intervals, 1 mile cooldown

The purpose of this workout is to run at your threshold pace for a total of 12 miles, which will help you: (1) increase your ability to burn fat as a fuel source when running at marathon pace; (2) practice running on tired legs; and (3) simulate the “dead leg” feeling many marathoners experience after 18 miles. Likewise, the goal of the 10 minute rest is to get your legs stiff, stagnant and uncomfortable to simulate how your legs will feel during the latter stages of the marathon.

The next time you’re building your training plan, think about the specific demands of the race you’re targeting and schedule one, progressive race-specific workout each of the last 4-6 weeks of the training plan.