Workouts

Workout of the Week: The Multi-Pace 3K Cutdown

This cutdown mimics the late stages of a middle-distance track race to make you more powerful over the last minute of a shorter distance race.

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In most of the harder training sessions you’ve done, the total fatigue and perceived stress you experience steadily accumulate as the workout progresses, as with set of 10 × 400 meters at 5K pace with a fixed rest or a continuous tempo or marathon-pace run. In this way, workouts naturally mimic most races. 

At times, however, it can be useful to front-load the fatigue in a workout of fast-paced reps, with the goal of spending a few precious minutes mimicking the late stages of a middle-distance track race: Running at close to top speed for a few bursts while already near your limit, and learning to ride the edge of your track-race limits in the process. 

This workout seeks to make you more powerful over the last minute or so of a short (5K or less) race, allowing you to focus on maintaining form and cadence in extremis.

Workout Summary

1000-800-600-400-200 meters starting at 3,000-meter (or 3,200-meter/2-mile) race pace and progressing toward about 800-meter race pace, with 200 meters of very slow jogging (two minutes) between reps. The total amount of fast running is 3,000 meters. The whole workout takes a little longer than a 5K race would, about the length of short tempo run, though aimed at achieving different primary benefits.

Battleground and Benefits

Young female professional athlete listening to music and training by sprinting on running track
Photo: Getty Images

It makes intuitive sense to quicken the pace within a workout if the recovery stays the same and the reps become progressively shorter, especially if you’re prepping for a 1,500-meter or mile race. But by how much should you do this?

Years ago, I explored the system of multi-pace or five-pace training proposed by the British coach Frank Horwill. This centers on the idea that runners should include speeds up to about 10 percent faster and slower than their target race distance in training. What he actually suggested was to add and subtract 4 seconds per 400 to your target-distance pace to create two more pace “zones,” and then do this again, but the math works out to about 10 percent for most people. The result for someone aiming to run 3,000 meters in 90 seconds each lap would therefore be zones of 82, 86, 90, 94 and 98 seconds a lap, with the lengths of the reps ranging anywhere from 200 meters to sustained tempo runs. 

This workout draws on the same rough idea, except that you’re “hugging” your approximate one-mile race pace instead. The 800-meter repeat should be about a second faster per 400 than the 1,000, the 600 about 2 seconds faster per 400 than the 800, the 400 about 3 seconds faster per 400 than the 600, and the 200 about 4 seconds (more if you have a little left) per 400 faster than the 400. See below for an illustration of this.

The Workout

High school track.

Example

A runner capable of 11:15 for 3,000 meters (about 12:00 for two miles) has a race pace of 90 seconds per 400. Her workout would therefore be:

1,000 in 3:45 (90 seconds per 400)
800 in 2:58 (89 seconds per 400)
600 in 2:10.5 (87 seconds per 400)
400 in 84 (84 seconds per 400)
200 in 40 or faster (80 seconds per 400)

All with 2:00 of active rest (jogging 200m).

Think of this workout in baseball or softball terms as a star reliever, a measure taken in specific situations but too intense to be trotted out frequently. It’s physically taxing even when you pace it perfectly, and it’s something you should consider doing within three weeks of a goal 1,500-meter to 5,000-meter race, not as something to include in your regular workout rotation.

As slowly as you’ll be moving in the recovery portion, try to maintain the same cadence, even shuffling, as you do in the reps, in the range of three steps per second. I’ve found that maintaining this rhythm makes the workout easier by fending off the sense of surrender that comes with staggering or wobbling to the next starting point.

Realistically, my personal and observational experience with this session suggests that the recovery should be about three times your 3,000-meter race pace — in other words, very slow. This works out to two minutes to cover 200m for someone who races 3,000 meters in 10:00 (80 seconds per 400). But if your race pace for this distance is any slower than seven minutes per mile, commensurate with about 7:15-per-mile ability for 5K, ease the recovery up to 2:30 in your first attempt at this.

What to Watch For

This workout is ideally suited for track or road runners with a solid handle on both their fitness and time goals. If you have to guess at your two-mile race pace and this proves ambitious by more than about 5 seconds a mile, or you simply go out a little too fast, you may have a hard time completing the workout unless you’re already track-hardened. 

If you do find yourself flagging as a result of a known or suspected overly optimistic early pace, keep the recovery the same and just try to hold 3,000-meter pace for the rest of the session.