The workout that I call a relaxed 10K time trial is not one that I learned from anyone else. Although I’m sure other runners do it, I came up with it (or reinvented it) on my own. It’s one of my favorite workouts, so I can’t help but try to convert other runners to it, as I’m doing right now!
In format, it couldn’t be simpler. Warm up with some jogging and a few strides (20-second efforts at 90 percent of full speed), and then run a measured 10K at about 95 percent of race effort, on the clock. A post time-trial cool down is optional. (Contrary to popular belief, cooling down after hard running serves no purpose in terms of attenuating physiological stress or facilitating recovery. It just feels good and adds a little more volume to the workout.)
Nailing the targeted intensity of this workout is crucial. It should be close enough to a maximal, race-type effort to give you a strong training stimulus and an accurate measurement of your current fitness level, but it should not become a de facto race. You need to hold something back so the workout doesn’t take too much out of you, compromising your training in the next few days.
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When I say “95 percent effort” I mean exactly that. So, if you currently have 40-minute 10K fitness, you should run your relaxed 10K time trial about 5 percent slower than that, or in 42 minutes. You might think that the difference between a 95 percent effort and a 100 percent effort is negligible in terms of how stressful a workout is, but it’s not. That last 5 percent makes all the difference in the world. If you are currently a 40-minute 10K racer and you run a 42-minute 10K workout, you will feel significantly more comfortable in that workout than you would in a real race and you will also significantly feel better in the next day’s run.
What’s the purpose of running a relaxed 10K time trial? Again, it gives you a very clear view of your current fitness level. In that regard, it’s the next best thing to an actual race. Once you get the hang of this workout and are able to perform it at the right intensity, you will find it very easy to convert your time to a projected race time. As in, “I think I could have run about two minutes and 15 seconds faster than the time I just ran if I’d had a gun to my head.”
Regardless of the distance of the race you are training for, your 10K performance capacity is a great indicator of your race-specific fitness. In other words, you need to be capable of running a solid 10K whether you’re preparing for a 5K or a marathon. So, I like to run a relaxed 10K time trial every three or four weeks to track my progress toward my race goals, whatever they may be at the time.
In addition to being an excellent fitness indicator, the relaxed 10K time trial is also a tremendous fitness builder. It’s important to do some very hard workouts when you are training toward doing your best in races. Hard workouts are uncomfortable, so it requires a certain amount of motivation to put in the effort required to absorb the suffering you must absorb to get the most out of such a workout. In my experience, performance test workouts are the most motivating kinds of workouts. These are workouts where the object is to put up a good number, just as you do in races, and are workouts that you do the same way every time, allowing you to compete against yourself.
Just be sure you don’t let that competition get out of hand. I keep myself in check by running conservatively in the first relaxed 10K time trial I do within a given cycle. I go hard but keep the edge off my suffering and thus produce a time that will be easy to beat when I repeat the session. Ideally, improved fitness alone will enable you to improve your relaxed 10K time trial time in each new iteration. It’s best to allow a little room to improve it through increased effort if necessary, however, because it’s important that these workouts build confidence–you need to set yourself up for success. My goal is to beat my last relaxed 10K time trial just slightly in each new one. Even if I feel capable of blowing my preceding time away on a given day, I hold myself back to leave plenty of room to post a still better time in a few weeks.
Finally, a note on the training environment. I love running on the track, so I always perform my relaxed 10K time trials there. You will certainly post faster times there than anywhere else, and being able to take splits every 400 meters helps you regulate your effort and pacing. But if you hate running in circles or don’t have ready access to an oval, you can do this workout elsewhere. Just do it in the fastest environment that’s convenient to you and do it in the same place every time, for apples-to-apples comparisons.