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Kick Your Workouts Up A Notch!

Try these fun and effective variations on some tried-and-true workouts.

Try these fun and effective variations on some tried-and-true workouts. 

Celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse is famous for taking ordinary dishes and mixing in new elements to “kick it up a notch!” Coaches do the same thing, adding fun and excitement to traditional workouts that can help take your racing to the next level. Here are some tried and true workouts from expert coaches with some spicy variations that can lead to enhanced results.

Hammer Intervals

Scott Simmons, coach of the American Distance Project in Colorado Springs, Colo., puts a unique twist on a standard workout of 400-meter repeats. Instead of running a consistent pace during a typical workout of 10 to 20 400-meter repeats with a 200-meter recovery jog after each interval, Simmons adds what he calls “hammers” every few repetitions during the second half of the workout.

For example, a 21-minute 5K runner might aim to average around 1:30 to 1:35 for 400 meters (slightly faster than 5K race pace) during a workout of 12 x 400 meters. However, during every third or fourth repetition in the second half of the workout (reps 6, 8 and 12, for example), Simmons has you “drop the hammer” and run the one-lap repetition around 10 seconds faster than the previous repetitions (i.e., 1:20 to 1:25).

Here’s the kicker: You don’t get any extra recovery after the 400 you just “hammered.” You take the same 200-meter recovery jog as after any other rep, then settle back into your 1:30 to 1:35 target time for the remainder of the workout.

“One problem with traditional repetition workouts that are run at a constant pace is that the recovery between those repetitions allows the athlete to recover to a state very unlike the corresponding point in a race,” Simmons says. “Inserting hammer intervals within your workouts more closely matches the discomfort and fatigue you’ll feel in the later stages of a race.”

As you get closer to your goal races, insert some hammer intervals into a couple of your speed workouts for an added physical and mental challenge.

RELATED: High-Intensity Interval Training

Tempo Plus

Ben Rosario, coach of the newly formed Northern Arizona Elite team in Flagstaff, adds some flavor to the tempo run with his “tempo plus” workout. Instead of just running a 20- to 40-minute tempo run and calling it a day, Rosario has his runners add one mile of speedwork afterward.

For our 21-minute 5K runner, he would run a 3- to 4-mile tempo run at 7:10 per mile pace, then jog for 5 to 8 minutes at an easy pace before performing 1 mile worth of fast running, such as 4 x 400 meters in 1:25 to 1:30 with 2 to 3 minutes recovery jog between reps.

You can make up whatever variation of short repetitions you’d like as long as they add up to one mile. (Rosario often uses 200-meter repeats as well as combinations of 200-meter and 400-meter repeats.)

“With my distance runners, I value speed in the stamina phase but I don’t want to devote an entire workout day to it,” Rosario says. “So I just add it in small doses to the end of our stamina workouts. The athletes get some fast running while our focus remains on the strength we’re developing.  And I like that they’re working on running fast when fatigued—something they’ll inevitably face in their races.”

Rosario suggests starting moderately fast on the short repeats and progressing to roughly your 1-mile race pace by the last repetition. If you’ve been avoiding speedwork or struggle to fit in all the workouts you’d like to run, try this as a way to mix stamina and speed in one session.

Downhill Repeats

Many runners include uphill workouts in their training. A standard hill workout might include running up a moderately sloped hill (8 to 12 percent grade) for 30 seconds at a hard effort then jogging back down the hill for recovery. Most runners complete six to 12 repetitions.

Legendary coach Arthur Lydiard, however, liked to add some variety by having his runners run some downhill repeats as well. He often used hill circuits or loops, with uphill repeats on a moderately sloped hill and downhill repeats on a very gradual decline.

Since the purpose of the hill training is to prepare for upcoming speed workouts, a Lydiard-style circuit provides not only the uphill running necessary for building leg strength but also the downhill repeats for developing leg turnover—making the first few speed workouts feel less like a full-on sprint.

The key is to find a gentle downhill (2 to 4 percent grade) where you can run fast but not feel out of control. This helps avoid excessive pounding and results in better leg turnover.

As with any workout, it’s important to include a proper warm-up before the downhill repeats and to focus on good form when running fast down the hill. If you find your leg turnover lacking, try some gentle downhill repeats. A workout of four to eight 50-meter downhill repeats added to your usual uphill workout can do wonders for your finishing sprint.

RELATED: Downhill Running Workouts

The Fast Finish Long Run

Nearly all runners do a weekly or biweekly long run of 90 minutes to three hours of easy running at a conversational pace. These runs are a fundamental element of building endurance, which is why it’s hard to find a successful distance runner who doesn’t do long runs.

All long runs are not created equal, however, and for athletes who want to add some punch to medium-length long runs (90 minutes to two hours), the fast finish long run fits the bill. In this long run, used very successfully by Italian coach Gabriele Rosa, you start at your normal long run pace but gradually begin to pick up the pace across the workout. By the middle of the run, you are running at a steady pace—reminiscent of marathon pace for most runners—then in the last 2 to 4 miles, you run all out to the finish.

This is a very intense long run, but for runners training for a fast half-marathon or marathon, it’s invaluable. In fact, it’s one of the few workouts where you can approach the fatigue and discomfort you’ll experience in the later stages of a long race.

Because it’s so intense, you can’t run fast finish long runs every weekend. Performing two to three of them in the last eight weeks before your race can do wonders for your performance. Remember to add an extra recovery day or two—more than after a normal long run.

Lastly, the fast finish long run is a great opportunity to practice using your race gear and rehearse your nutrition strategies. Bring your A game. The fast finish long run is the secret to that coveted Boston qualification or a new personal best.

20/20: Sprints For Distance Runners

Mention sprinting to most distance runners and their hamstrings immediately get twitchy. But, we all need to include some fast running in our training. In fact, many of the greatest coaches of the last 60 years regularly include leg-speed workouts in their training programs. Even for long distance runners, a touch of sprint training can help round out a race-ready training plan.

Many of us avoid fast running because we aren’t good at it or are worried about injury. Luckily, help is on the way in the form of the 20/20 workout—a speed session that even the most sprint-averse runner can enjoy.

In this workout, you warm up for 15 to 20 minutes at an easy pace and then begin to alternate between 20 seconds of running very quickly and 20 seconds of “floating,” or gradually slowing down to an easy run pace before picking up the pace again for the next fast 20-second repeat.

Because this workout is run by effort, you can start gently and gradually build your speed from one fast segment to the next. This way, you can monitor your body and find an effort where you are running quickly but under control. This will help reduce your risk of soreness or injury. And, because the recovery jog between repetitions is only 20 seconds long, you can’t go too fast or you won’t be able to perform very many repeats before you are completely spent. In fact, if you can’t complete three to eight minutes of 20/20 repeats, then you are running too fast. Back off slightly and build your sprint speed over time.

This workout is so quick and efficient, you can easily incorporate it into your training plan once every week or two as the racing season approaches. Then, when it comes time to sprint at the finish, you’ll find a new gear you never knew you had.

These workouts have been part of the menu for successful coaches and athletes. Spicing up traditional workouts may be just what your training needs to take your racing to the next level. Give ’em a try and let us know what you think.

RELATED: Basic Speed Workouts For Runners


About The Author:

Greg McMillan, M.S. provides training plans and online coaching for runners of all abilities through his website Outside Magazine calls his McMillan Running Calculator the “Best Running Calculator” and his latest book, YOU (Only Faster), continues to receive rave reviews from runners and coaches.