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Track Workouts vs. Road Workouts

Switching up track and road workouts on occasion can help you improve both your physical and mental fitness.

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Perhaps the two most agreed upon principles in training theory relate to specificity of training and changing the training stimulus. Simply speaking, it’s widely accepted that to improve as a runner, you need to continually be introducing the body to new stimuli or stress in order to spur different adaptations. Moreover, to get better at a particular event, whether it’s the mile, the marathon or any distance in between, you must perform workouts that mimic the exact demands of that event.

I’ve previously discussed the principle of specific adaptation as it relates to workouts and formulating a long-term training plan. Likewise, many others have written about the principle of stress and recovery as the basic backbone of training. However, both of these approaches to the topic of specific adaptation and training stimuli have focused on straightforward aspects of training.

These basic training principles can also be applied to the minute details of training, such as the surfaces you run on and what time of day you head out for your workout. Let’s look at how you can apply these broad principles to the micro level of your training—specifically, where you do your speed workouts—by looking at the advantages and disadvantages of doing your key sessions on the track versus the roads and why switching it up on occasion can help you improve both your physical and mental fitness.

Working Out On The Track

Working out on the track has many obvious benefits: it’s accurately measured, you don’t have to worry about traffic, and the footing is always perfect and trustworthy. For runners who ran in high school and college, the track is second nature for speed workouts, especially shorter intervals such as 400 and 800-meter repeats. But, doing workouts on the track can help even if you’re not a speed demon or doing short repeats.

Improve Your Pacing

Pacing is one of the most critical skills a runner needs to learn but it’s also one of the most difficult to master. Even with a GPS device, it’s hard to get an accurate reading of what your current pace is, which leads to lots of speeding up and slowing down. Moreover, on hilly terrain, relating effort to pace is nearly impossible if you’re not experienced. The track can be a great place to hone your pacing skills.

For marathon and half-marathon runners, staying on pace the first few miles of the race can be difficult. Each second per mile that you’re faster than goal pace can lead to potential disaster over the final 10K. Try running a few of your marathon-paced tempo runs on the track during your training cycle. Admittedly, it can be boring, but the flat surface helps simulate that early race feeling when goal pace is a walk in the park. You’ll have to work hard to practice restraint and not run too fast. If you’re notorious for crashing and burning during long races, this is perfect practice.

Even better, if you’re a marathoner who struggles with taking in enough fluids or handling water cups during races, the track can be the perfect training ground. Set up a makeshift water stop and practice taking a cup from the table and drinking while running. You can try every few laps, which gives you multiple opportunities to practice and can even help with learning to run on a full stomach.

For new runners, getting immediate and consistent feedback is critical to improving your ability to execute a specific skill. On the track, you can easily and accurately measure your pace every 100, 200, 300 or 400 meters. Once you start to develop a sense for the effort needed to run a certain pace, there is nothing to distract you.

Stay Focused

Running countless laps around the track can be mind-numbingly boring. However, so can running marathon, especially late in the race or when the crowds thin out along the course. If you struggle with “zoning out” or staying focused during races, running on the track can help keep you in the present. The improvements in your concentration from the constant feedback every 400 meters will translate on race day and allow you to stay focused during those critical miles.

Working Out On The Roads

While the track is a familiar venue for speed workouts, most runners are racing on the roads. Running workouts in the same environment can help you hone some of the specific skills needed to race well—both physically and mentally—on the roads.

Improve Your Fatigue Management

A lot of sports science research has been focused on the role the brain plays in performance. This theory was made popular by Dr. Tim Noakes and his central governor model. Simplistically, his theory posits that the brain will regulate exercise intensity so that you don’t run hard enough to actually do yourself harm. During a race, this theory manifests when you slow dramatically and feel terrible in the middle of a race, only to sum up a ferocious kick when the finish line is in sight. Once your brain realizes you’re almost done, it stops limiting the recruitment of muscle fibers and let’s you kick it in.

On the track, the finish line is always an easily measurable distance away and visible at all times, which makes it easier to push when you get tired because the brain knows exactly when the body needs to stop. On the road, your brain is devoid of these visual cues—unless of course you are running on a well-marked, familiar course—and therefore, you’re also training your brain on how to overcome this central governor. If you struggle with falling off pace in the middle of a race only to have a lot left at the finish, running some of your key workouts on unmarked roads can help improve your ability to push when your brain tells you to stop.

Simulate the Demands of the Race Course

One of the most innovative training concepts I learned of while running for the Hansons-Brooks Distance Project was the importance of training for the specific demands of the race course. Coaches Keith and Kevin Hanson are fanatical about creating training loops that mimic the specific demands of the race. When training a large group for the Boston Marathon, Kevin went so far as to create the famous CITGO sign as a visual cue.

If you’re training for a course that has hills, off-road sections or lots of turns, running your workouts on the road can help you simulate those conditions. You’ll be providing your body with a specific stress and stimulus and you’ll adapt, giving you lots of confidence when you encounter these condition on race day.

Putting It All Together

Don’t confine yourself to one particular training environment for all your workouts. Break out of the comfort of the track every once in a while and try some intervals on the bike path, or overcome your fear of the track and improve your pacing and focus. Adding new and varying stimuli to your training will help take your personal best to the next level!