Want to try one of the most famous workouts of all time? Look no further than “Pre’s 200s,” one of the tools Steve Prefontaine used to train himself into running immortality.
A Brief History
Technically, it’s not “Pre’s” workout. It was developed by his coach Bill Bowerman and became part of the “Oregon System” used by a generation of superstars. But Pre’s name is the one that will be forever associated with it.
As run by Pre, it was simple, wicked, and fast: alternating 200s at 30 seconds, then at 40 seconds, either for a set distance, such as three miles, or until he could no longer hold pace.
Pre reportedly sustained this for 4.5 miles, a record that stood for years. Galen Rupp carried it to 6 miles.
Not Just For Elites (Seriously)
Stories like these tend to make most runners write off this workout as impossible for mere mortals. But you have to put the workout in the context of Pre’s speed, not yours.
Pre was a 3:56.4 miler — about 29.4 per 200. So, his fast 200s were actually a little slower than his mile speed. Transform that to, say for example, a 6:00 miler, and they become a little slower than 45s. Maybe 46s.
Similarly, his “off” 200s, weren’t at a pace that was inherently uncomfortable to him, but instead at 5:20/1600m or about 5:22 per mile. That’s fast, but if Pre had ever run a marathon, it’s hard to believe he wouldn’t have been somewhere around 5:00 pace. So, he was running these at well slower than marathon pace.
This workout suddenly doesn’t sound so impossible.
I recently had a 4:48 female miler try it, targeting 37.5 seconds for the fast 200s and 50 seconds for the recoveries.
The first time, she had trouble finding the recovery pace and tended to hit it too fast. The second time, she nailed it…and nearly matched Pre’s record, carrying it — at her pace, not his — to 4 miles.
I’m not the only one who’s done this. “I have adapted the paces for this workout, too,” says Thom Hunt, a former American 10K record-holder who now coaches at Cuyamaca College in San Diego. “The bottom line is that it has to be a pace they can carry to the finish, but gets them very anaerobic and taxes them at the finish.”
When Pre was doing his workout, University of California, Berkeley, exercise physiologist George Brooks had yet to develop his theory of the lactate shuttle, which shows how the body uses the bloodstream to move lactate from hard-working leg muscles to better-oxygenated tissues like the heart, brain, liver, and arms that can use it more efficiently, thereby improving overall aerobic performance.
Training to improve this process, we now know, involves running first at a pace at which you start to accumulate lactate. Then you slow to one at which you start to burn it up… before ramping up again and dumping another dose of lactate into the system.
That appears to be exactly what Pre was doing, intuitively.
But to do this, the workout needs to be scaled off your own paces.
How to Do It Right
The fast 200s should be slightly slower than your mile pace, and the “slow” ones shouldn’t be a mere 10 seconds slower, but 33 1/3 percent slower. Thus, for a 6:00-miler running the fast segments at 45 or 46 seconds, the slower ones are all the way down to 60 or 61 seconds.
Otherwise, all you do is continue to accumulate lactate, rather than training your body to use it on the fly — and you won’t get far before you have to pack it in.
The first time you try this, don’t worry too much about the distance. The goal is to find the rhythm. You can set a target distance if you want to, dividing it into sets, if need be, with a longer recovery between them, e.g., 2 sets of 6 reps, adding up to 3 miles.
If you do decide to push it as far as you can go, that’s not as grueling as it sounds, because the failure to hold pace, when it comes, occurs quite rapidly.
At a certain point in the workout, the recovery will start feeling too short, and you may cheat it a bit, trying to get a few seconds’ extra recovery. You’ll also discover that the rhythm has gone from hard-but-doable to tough. That’s a perfectly good time to quit. But if you insist on another rep, you’ll know that’s the end, either because you struggle to hit pace for the fast 200, or because you are now slowing the recovery even further.
Whatever you do, realize that this is not a race. Eking out an extra lap won’t win you anything important, so keep the ego out of it.
Nor is this a workout you can or should do every week. “I like these types of workouts when you are trying to put the final touches on a workout season, usually before the final taper,” Hunt says.