Workout: Descending Time Trials

This tough track session has been a secret to many a fast 5K runner's success.

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If you ran high school track, you probably know what it’s like to run three races in one day. Your coach signed you up for the 1,600m at the beginning of the meet and the 3,200 at the end of the meet, and then he made you run a leg in the 4 x 400 relay to close out the competition. It was pretty hard, but doable.

Here’s a workout that will remind you of those days, if you did in fact experience them. And if you did not, here’s a workout that will give you a taste of what it would have been like to run high school track. Actually, it’s probably a little tougher than running two races plus a relay leg in a single track meet, because it consists of no fewer than four all-out efforts with little time between them.

Here’s how it goes: Visit your local running track and warm up thoroughly with at least 1-2 miles of easy jogging (preferably 2-3), drills and accelerations. Then run four laps around the track (1,600 meters) as fast as you can. I don’t mean start at a dead sprint and hang on; I mean treat it as a 1600-meter race, where you aim to achieve the lowest finishing time possible. Rest passively as long as necessary to feel ready for more hard running, but no longer. Three to four minutes should do the trick. Then run three laps (1,200 meters) all out, rest again (3-4 minutes), run two laps (800 meters) all out, rest (2-3 minutes), and finish yourself off with a one-lap (400 meters) time trial.

This grueling session was a favorite of the late English manager/coach Kim McDonald. You wouldn’t believe how fast some of his runners (mostly Kenyans) were able to run it. I once interviewed one of McDonald’s former athletes, Bob Kennedy about another of McDonald’s former athletes Daniel Komen. Kennedy remembers running the four time trials on one occasion in 3:56, 2:55, 1:55, and 54, and getting smoked by Komen.

Many hard workouts are too hard for non-advanced runners, but because of its relative brevity, this is one hard workout that any runner with a decent base of fitness can do. In fact, it’s really hardest for advanced runners who are fit enough to run all four time trials very fast. If you’re less advanced you’ll start to fatigue early and spare yourself the kind of stress the likes of Bob Kennedy experienced by slowing down involuntarily.

I’d say the number-one benefit of descending time trials is increased tolerance for suffering. It’s really quite grueling. It will also increase your physiological fatigue resistance at very high submaximal intensities. There’s a nice stimulus for increased aerobic capacity in there too.

As for who would want to do this and when, I’d say it’s most relevant to runners getting ready to run a personal best in the 5K. If you’re in 5K training, do this workout periodically when you’re in the heart of the high-intensity phase of your training. You can benefit from descending time trials if you’re training for longer races too, but in that case you might just want to toss in a session whenever you need a solid supra-threshold training stimulus and are in the mood for something a little different.

What’s cool about the workout is that it entails essentially racing at three standard track race distances (plus 1,200 meters), so you’re pretty motivated to post good times when you do it. As such the session provides a helpful check on a particular aspect of your fitness.

Be sure to cool down with at least another mile or two of easy jogging and a few deserved pats on the back.