Runners are creatures of habit. We have favorite routes, favorite times of day, favorite workouts. We are also caught up in numbers, especially round numbers. We strive for the 3-hour marathon, the 5:00 or 6:00 mile, the 40-minute 10K. Whatever our pace, we find some number that becomes the magic beacon against which we assess all else.
We do the same in training, especially in speed workouts. But we are struck by the fact that the track is divided into tidy 400-meter increments and focus on multiples of them: 400s, 800s, 1200s, 1600s. Sure, sometimes we also do half-laps — 200s, 600s, or 1000s, but everything tends to be in 400m or 200m increments.
Why do we stick so rigorously to even numbers? After all, most tracks are marked in lots of other increments. The 1500m start is one, as are the midpoints of 4 x 100 relay exchange zones. If you know how to read a track, you can easily divide it into 100m segments.
This means that if you want, you can break out of the ordinary realm of even numbers and instead do “odd” workouts: distances not so cleanly divisible by 200, or 400.
In Praise of Odd
Sounds…odd? Yes. But from a physiological perspective, why not run 7 x 700 instead of 6 x 800 or 8 x 600? Are 1100s and 1300s really all that different from 1200s? And there are reasons tackling uncommon distances can be beneficial.
Jeff Simons, a sports psychologist at California State University, East Bay loves the idea. To begin with, he says, variety is fun.
“Odd distances can be refreshing and enjoyable,” he says. “If it seems like play, it can make the workout all the better psychologically and socially.”
This is important even for dedicated, goal-oriented runners. “The more serious the runner,” he says, “the more a bit of play may be needed.”
Oddball distances are also useful for training, because you have no benchmarks against which to compare your results.
That can be useful for two reasons. First, it’s hard to get down on yourself if you’re doing something you’ve never done before. Is that 2:31 you just ran for 700 “good” or “bad?” Unless you are really good at doing base-sixty arithmetic on the fly, you won’t have a clue.
“For runners who are preoccupied with numbers and results, this could be very useful in terms of getting to simply focus on putting one foot in front of the other,” says Mackenzie Havey, coach and author of Mindful Running: How Meditative Running Can Improve Performance and Make You a Happier, More Fulfilled Person. “We so often end up fixated on the end goal, that we forget to exist in the moment and concentrate on how we are executing a workout. By taking expectations out of the equation, the runner can just run.”
“We can get hung up on set distances and the ‘meanings’ of times,” Simons says. “If we can remove some of the ‘knowledge’ of what intervals are supposed to mean, we might better engage the purpose of the workout.”
Such workouts can also spur a breakthrough.
“Many runners are very good at hitting splits right on,” Simons says, “Want a 69? Exactly. Want 66 this time? Exactly. Ease back to 73? Right on. We used to call this ability the ‘calibrated crotch.’”
This is, of course, a useful skill in certain types of races. But in training, it can hold you back. “Odd distances can knock an athlete out of their robotic pacing,” Simons says. “Free up, and see what pushing pace feels like. A shift out of ‘calibration’ might bring a breakthrough.”
Clock Confusion Can Create Breakthroughs
Want an example? In 2018, Valerie Weilert, now a shoe designer at Hoka One One in Santa Barbara, California, was in a heat at the Portland Track Festival. Her goal was to (maybe) break 18:00. “Maybe,” because that would have been a whopping 20-second PR. Anything better than 18:15 would have been a win.
An 18:00 5K is a little over 87 sec/lap. Normally, Weilert is one of those runners who focuses strongly on goal pace. But during the initial jockeying of the race, when the pack she was with took a bit to settle into rhythm, she slipped up, and thought the pace she needed to find was 85s.
In some circumstances that might have been a huge mistake. But Weilert was also well tuned into how she was feeling, and had run a lot of 5Ks. The 85s didn’t feel that bad, and by the time she realized she’d erred, she was committed. So, she switched mental gears and decided to make the “mistake” her friend.
She didn’t just hit her goal, she crushed it. Breaking 18:00, even by .01 sec, was a lifetime dream. She ran 17:40, all because an arithmetic error sent her through the first half of the race 2 seconds per lap faster than she ever dreamed she could run.
What this means is that occasionally getting the clock out of the equation — and out of your head — can be very useful. Weilert isn’t the only runner to have had a breakthrough race in which they ignored the planned “numbers” and just ran. And running oddball intervals is a great way of practicing that — so long as you don’t cheat and calculate what you “should” do in advance. Save those calculations for afterward, if you want them.
A Variety of Oddballs
The workouts you can do to achieve this is limited only by your imagination. I like 7 x 700 as a starter, because you can run it either at 5K pace, on relatively short recovery, or 3K pace on longer recovery. It’s a very flexible distance.
500s are equally flexible; one of my go-to 5K workouts is 10 x 500 on 1-minute recoveries. Run 1.25 laps, then take a minute to turn around and circle back to your initial starting point.
But 900s, 1100s, 1300s, 1400s (nobody does 1400s, even though it’s an “even” distance), and 1500s are equally useful. You can also do pyramids and ladders combining these distances. The key is to make sure the total volume adds up to about what you’d do on a normal workout. I.e., don’t substitute 5 x 1300 for 5 x 1000, because that’s an extra 1500m.
When I asked him about oddball distances, Simons was so enthusiastic that he started brainstorming other types of workouts that might achieve the same thing.
His most interesting suggestion? Run in an outer lane. Two laps in lane 8 is not the same thing as 2 laps in lane 1. I like that idea enough you might be reading about it in a future article. I can come up with some very interesting games to play with that concept.
Meanwhile, “games” are fun. And they can not only be good for your head, they can be good for your legs. So why not give it a try? Run 700s, 900s, 1100s, whatever.
The result might be a pleasant surprise.