Workout of the Week: Combination Workouts

This dynamic, high-intensity workout covers several paces from marathon-pace to sprints to prepare your body for the various demands of racing.

Most often, track workouts and other workouts involving higher-than-usual intensity levels include repetitions of a single distance, or closely related distances, such as 10 × 400 meters, sets of 400s, 300s and 200s, or repeats up the same incline at the same speed. These sessions are usually intended to prepare you for racing a particular distance or range of distances by emphasizing a specific pace, although they’re also assumed to prepare you for more effective racing generally by working specific energy systems.

While these workouts are simple from an accounting standpoint, and can certainly be effective, nothing besides a lack of creativity argues against mixing up both the rep distance and the intensity in the same session. In fact, if you’re willing to go to the trouble of making your harder sessions more surgical, these “combo” workouts may represent your best default option for high-intensity days.

Workout Summary

You have a lot of creative freedom in setting up combination workouts. 

Tom Schwartz, coach of the men’s and women’s Tinman Elite teams based in Boulder, Colorado, suggests the following to start:

  • Marathon: 45 minutes at marathon pace (MP) followed by hill reps.
  • 10K: 20-minute lactate-threshold run followed by reps at critical velocity (CV: roughly 5K to 10K pace) or sprints.
  • Mile/1,500 meters: VO2 max reps followed by race-pace reps or sprints.

VO2 max running, for Tinman Elite purposes, translates into a pace you can hold for about 7 minutes; CV is about 90% of this. The best way to interpret this pace is as a threshold tempo run done overzealously, but leaving the athlete feeling satisfied anyway. Schwartz noted decades ago that competitive runners usually do threshold-paced runs — which are usually defined as approximating one-hour race pace — too fast, yet often reported feeling great throughout and typically established their improved fitness soon afterward in races. As a result, he incorporated the CV term into his lexicon in the early 1990s.

The total volume of hard running generally scales with the event of choice. Also, although it’s not an absolute, it’s wiser to start at the lowest intensity range you’ll be using and proceed up the turnover scale. Thus, MP should come before threshold running, which should precede CV running, which in turn should lead VO2 max reps, which come before and all-out sprint reps. Short hills can be treated as sprints for intensity purposes. 

Background and Benefits

Schwartz has been thinking about how energetics and running intersect since he started competing over 40 years ago. Having studied the effects of training at a cellular level, he is dissatisfied with the notion of quantized “energy systems,” since the fuel your muscles require for contraction ultimately requires contributions from a number of biochemical processes. This labeling has lured many coaches into believing, in effect, that the biological running machine consists of units that must be strengthened separately.

Schwartz noticed when he began competing in his early teenage years that he and most others started out each race with a sprint, gradually slowed to an average sustainable pace, and then kicked to the finish line. “I was using many intensities while racing,” he says “It was logical for me to include various speeds in workouts so that my body would be prepared for the varied demands of racing.” 

He estimates that only about 3 percent, or 1 in 30, of high-intensity workouts he now prescribes are not some kind of combination workout.

Also, even though maintaining an even pace — or more specifically, a consistent work output — in races is typically desirable, everyone is bound to confront in-race challenges that make changing gears at higher intensities a vital skill, such as a burst of speed from a rival or turning into hill turned sloppy by falling rain. Combination workouts help you react optimally in such circumstances by letting you settle into a new “steady effort,” even if only for short periods.

The Workout

After a warmup of at least 10 minutes, the marathon version of the above session would include 45 minutes of steady marathon-pace running followed immediately by four to eight 30-second runs up a steep incline. 

The 10K alternative would include about 3 miles at lactate-threshold pace followed by 5 × 800 at 5K race pace (on the fast end of CV) with 2:00 rest between reps. 

The mile/1,500 option could include 8 × 600 at 3K race pace followed by eight 100-meter sprints (not quite all-out). 

It’s probably best to limit the amount of running at CV or faster to about 20 minutes in a session, although more experienced athletes can push this higher, depending on the composition of any MP or tempo running done in the same workout.

Final Notes

Schwartz stresses that there is a difference between compatible types of running, in which the body tolerates variations in pace without accruing a distinct advantage from the mix, and complementary types, where the structuring produces a better result than either kind of running alone or a less-strategically-chosen mix. His experience suggests that moving from slower to faster running in a combination workout is more complementary than compatible — the sum effect is greater than the individual parts.

Finally, Schwartz says that these workouts are appropriate for all times of year and competitive aims. Since his elite runners rarely do anything else, it couldn’t really be any other way.