Let’s face it: track workouts can be mentally and physically demanding, especially when you’re in the throes of half marathon or marathon training.
Ladder workouts are a great way to mix things up and get your legs turning over when they’re tired. Coach Sarah Crouch of Runners Connect says a ladder workout is an interval session where you either ascend or descend the time or distance—along with the pace—of each repetition. “Ladder workouts that start with shorter, faster intervals flood the legs with lactic acid and teach your body how to persist with fast running even though they are tired and heavy,” she says. “Descending ladder workouts that decrease in interval length throughout the workout—but increase in pace—teach your body how to change gears late in a session.”
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Along with these physical benefits, ladder workouts also provide runners a mental advantage. Coach Ewen North of Revolution Running points out that the first few repetitions of ladder workouts serve the purpose of tiring the legs. As the workout progresses, and the distance of each rep and/or speed increases, the mind has to communicate with the body to maintain pace as your fatigue level rises. “This also helps to train you mentally by pushing through the fatigue and telling yourself to keep it going even when you really don’t want to,” he explains.
Both Crouch and North say the best thing about ladder workouts is that there are really no hard and fast rules to completing them—create your own fun through experimentation. “There are so many variables,” North says, “that you never have to do the same ladder workout in a block of training and you can make it as fun as it is tough.”
Crouch suggests evaluating where you’re at in training before choosing either a time-based or a distance-based routine. She points out that time-based ladder workouts are great for the early season when non-quantifiable workouts serve the purpose of keeping your training relaxed and stress-free. “They are a great way to boost fitness, especially when you are traveling or unable to get to a track or marked bike path, as they can be completed almost anywhere,” she says. “They also keep you free from the worry of weather or hills impacting the quality of your workout since you are running hard for a certain amount of time rather than a distance.”
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Later in the season, Crouch recommends shifting the focus toward running intervals of a specific distance at a set pace. As key races approach, getting an accurate reflection of your fitness by trying to hit a specific distance in a pre-determined amount of time can give you confidence heading into your next workout or race. “They are a great test of your ability to properly pace yourself and walk away with good, quality feedback,” she says.
Here are two ladder workouts to try out:
— Warm up with 15-20 minutes of easy jogging, followed by a set of strides, or short sprints, to get your legs used to moving at a faster pace.
— The first repetition is 2 miles at your 10K race pace followed by a 3-minute recovery. Crouch suggests taking it easy on the recovery between intervals. “Many runners choose to take standing or walking rest between pieces, but if you choose to take active [running] rest between harder pieces of a ladder workout, don’t get caught up with pace during the recovery segments,” she advises. “Feel free to jog as slowly as possible as the purpose of the resting period is to help you recover for the harder pieces.”
— The second repetition is 1 mile at your 5K race pace, or 15-20 seconds per mile than your 10K race pace, followed by a 2-minute recovery.
— The third repetition is a half mile at your 3K race pace, or 15-20 seconds per mile faster than your 5K pace pace, followed by a 1-minute recovery.
— The final repletion is a quarter mile hard, as if you were kicking at the end of a 5K race.
— Cool down with 15-20 minutes of easy jogging.
“Descending ladders are fun because after the first interval, the workout gets shorter and shorter,” Crouch says.
This workout—a favorite of North—is simple. The speed for each repetition is your 5K race pace.
— Warm up with 15 minutes of easy jogging, followed by a set of strides, or short sprints, to get your legs used to moving at a faster pace.
— Run 1-2-3-4-5-4-3-2-1 minute repetitions at your 5K race pace, jogging for half the time of the preceding repetition for recovery between intervals. So after the 1-minute interval, jog for 30 seconds, after the 2-minute interval, jog for a minute, after the 3-minute interval, jog for 90 seconds, and so forth, all the way till the end.
— Cool down with 15 minutes of easy jogging.
“I often like to use ladder workouts that go up and down again so it makes it very tough in the middle section so people have to engage both mental and physical strength before the pleasure and fun of coming back down again so the finish feels relatively easier,” North says. “I like people to enjoy their workouts and it isn’t always about pushing it to the max.”