One of my Favorite Workouts: The Four Mile Track Tempo Run

These runners would be even faster if they did Four Mile Track Tempo Runs.

Today I’m going to tell you about one of my favorite workouts, the Four Mile Track Tempo Run. I started doing these runs over eight years ago with a loose collection of runners that gather at the Los Gatos High School Track Saturday mornings to do this workout with Brad Armstrong, Los Gatos running coach and owner of The Athletic Performance. The workout is pretty self explanatory. You run around the 400 meter track 16 times for a four mile run at tempo pace.

Now if running 16 laps around a track sounds a little tedious, that’s partly the point of doing this. I find one of the hidden advantages of this workout is developing the mental focus and discipline required to keep knocking out lap after lap while keeping on a comfortably hard tempo run pace. And what’s a good tempo pace for these workouts? You can use the Fancy schmancy tables established by coach Jack Daniel’s. Daniels is the revolutionary coach who popularized the tempo run concept to increase the lactate threshold pace, the running speed at which the body starts producing energy anaerobically and generating leg-deadening lactic acid as a by-product of this anaerobic energy production.

Instead of using the tables, you can just do what I do and run at “hard to talk at more than a couple sentences pace”. That’s right, when I’m doing this workout, I can probably say a couple quick sentences to the person running next to me, but no more than that or I’d starting going into oxygen debt. I want to go out comfortably hard so I’m not gasping for breath the whole way, but if I could carry on a conversation with the person running next to me, I’m running too slow and missing out on the full training benefit.

The last six laps should be challenging to maintain pace, but not so challenging that it feels like a race effort. At the end, you should feel as if you could run at least another 2-3 laps if you had too. It takes a while to find the right pace, and the first couple times you do this workout, you may find yourself going out too fast and really struggling to maintain pace the last few laps. That’s OK, since part of the workout is finding the right pace, and it’s better to maintain pace for the whole four miles going a little slower than running the first couple miles fast and then dragging the rest of the way. The key to this workout is doing all four miles at the same comfortably hard pace and still being reasonably fresh the next day so your able to do at least a moderate workout the next day with no drop-off. If a four mile tempo run leaves you too tired to do anything but a few easy miles the next day, you’ve done it too hard.

I’ll add that you’ll want to be running at least 35 miles a week consistently before doing these workouts. If you’re doing a little less weekly mileage that that, feel free to cut these runs back to 3 1/2 or 3 miles. Of course, you can also do these workouts on a running trail or other course other than a 400 meter track. Personally, I like doing this workout on a track because it’s easier to make sure I’m keeping an even pace and while there is a certain monotony running 16 times around in a circle, part of the workout is developing the mental tenacity to overcome this monotony.

Of course, as your fitness level improves, you’ll naturally find yourself running faster. Typically, you don’t want to increase your pace more than about 5 seconds a mile every couple of weeks. It can be tempting to turn these workouts into race-like efforts, but avoid this temptation. Slow and gradual improvement as you keep an even pace over four miles for each tempo run provides best results.

The best thing about this workout is that I find it is great for preparing for a wide range of distances from 10k to the full marathon.   Currently, I’m doing these tempo runs bi-weekly with a training group on the Los Gatos Track Saturday mornings in training for the Monterey Bay Half-Marathon this coming November 17th. So far, these workouts are part of a steady weekly improvement as I ramp up my training for the big day. You never really know how things will go on race day, but by then I’ll have several Four Mile Track Tempo Workouts under my belt, so I like my chances.

Los Gatos High School Track where I run the Four Mile Track
Tempo Runs. Of course, there aren’t a bunch of people milling about
on the Saturday mornings when I do this workout.

Answering the Burning Fall Racing Questions

No doubt you’re all tossing and turning each night, unable to sleep wondering what races I’ll be running this fall.  Well let me break that awesome suspense and tell you I’ve signed up for the Let’s Go 510k, a 10k in Berkeley October 19th as a tune-up for the big “circle the calendar race”, the Big Sur Half-Marathon on Monterey Bay this November 17th.  The Let’s Go 510k runs around the Berkeley Marina and has a unique finish on the Golden Gate Fields Horse Race Track, the Big Sur Half-Marathon runs mostly along the Monterey Bay coastline, offering plenty of views of waves crashing into rocks in spectacular fashion.

I’m looking forward to the Let’s Go 510k because I’m a big believer in a tune-up race 2-4 weeks before the big goal race.  Tune-up races serve as a reality check of how the training is really going,  and the Berkeley 10k should provide a means to establish a sensible opening pace for the Big Sur Half-Marathon.

So far, training for the Monterey Bay Half-Marathon is going well.  I’m up to about 45 miles a week, more than I was doing weekly in preparation for the Santa Cruz Half-Marathon I ran last April.   I’m still doing the Eric Orton core and form workouts and they continue to pay off in improved running efficiency and injury prevention.  I’m also doing a lot of tempo running, including the long distance tempo runs I wrote about previously to get ready.  Stay tuned, because I’ll be writing about one of my favorite work-outs, the four mile track tempo run shortly.

Sure, I’ll admit this is a pretty self-centered post with a very high density of self-referencing links.  But if I can’t write about myself at least once in a while, what’s the point of writing a blog?

Half-Marathon Training: Do Your Long Runs Fast

The start of the 2012 Santa Cruz Half-Marathon,
complete with time stamp
Over the past couple years, I’ve been training for a number of half-marathons and stumbled upon a workout that’s really paid dividends on race day.  It all started when I started running on the Sawyer Camp Trail on the San Francisco Peninsula.  The six mile trail is marked every half mile so I started getting in the habit of wearing a watch and timing my pace for out and back runs of up to 12 miles.  Of course, my inner competitor emerged on these runs and each mile I did went faster and faster.  Next week, I’d come back and run it hard all over again.  Surprisingly, instead of tearing myself down with these fast paced long runs, I started making major gains in my training I’ve seldom experienced in over thirty years of running.  From then on, I make sure to do my long runs fast whenever I train for a half-marathon.
Now running long runs fast goes against most conventional wisdom, as most people will tell you to slow down during long runs to avoid injury and over training.  I disagree with this conventional wisdom.  Here’s why:
  1. Running form tends to get a little sloppy when you run slow, and I can’t think of a better way to injure yourself than spending a lot of time running with sloppy form.  At higher speeds, running form gets more efficient and so you can actually run at higher intensity at little or no more risk for injury than if you ran slower.
  2. One of the most important and underrated running skills is “pace sense”, understanding what running pace you can maintain over a certain distance.  Fast long runs are great at developing pace sense near the pace you’ll run in the half-marathon, and that’s not something you’ll gain on long slow distance runs a couple minutes per mile slower than race pace.  How often have you gone out “feeling easy” in a half-marathon only to come through the first mile split was 30-45 seconds under goal pace?   You can avoid getting caught up in the early race frenzy and excitement if you’ve put in plenty of miles around your half-marathon goal pace.
  3. Fast paced long runs, when done right, are similar to running intensity and duration you’ll experience on race day.  In addition, running several miles in succession at consistent pace requires a mental discipline you’ll develop on long fast runs.  The race will seem more like “just another weekend run” when you have plenty of fast long runs under your belt.  You don’t get this type of training effect with long slow distance.
How far should these runs be?  I consider a “long run” to be any run that’s between 25-33% of your weekly mileage.

So how fast should you do them?  I go no faster than what I call “hard to hold a conversation pace”.  When you’re at your fast long run pace, you could say a sentence or two between gasps for breaths, but it you kept talking for maybe 30 seconds, you’d have to stop and catch your breath. 
Sometimes you’ll hear these runs called “tempo runs” but since tempo runs are a bit vaguely defined  concept and often refer to runs of 2-6 miles, I prefer to call them “fast long runs”.

I suggest you first ease into these runs, slowly ramping up the intensity to find a pace that works for you.  Wearing a GPS watch or running on trail with mile markers really helps on these runs.   It may take a few weeks to determine what pace you can handle and that’s OK.   Part of the training effect is learning what an ideal pace is for these runs and just what you can handle.

Make no mistake, these runs will take a lot out of you so you have to be careful to make sure your recovered after each one.  Two years ago I made the mistake of doing two fast long runs within six days and ended up with hip bursitis which knocked me out of running for a couple weeks, and I never made it to the starting line for the half-marathon I was training for.  So I’ve developed my own rules of thumb to prevent these runs from tearing myself down, which will work well for most runners.
  1. The long run should never be longer than 33% of your weekly mileage, and 25-30% is best.
  2. Two days before the fast long run, don’t do any workout that is above a medium daily effort.  The day before should be a medium to easy effort, and sometimes I completely take the day off before a fast long run.
  3. May sure the day after a fast long run is an easy run, and two days afterwards, your run not exceed a medium effort.  
  4. Make sure you can hold the pace for the entire duration of the run.  If you have to slow down the last few miles to finish, you’re going too fast.  You should feel as if you could do one more mile and still maintain your pace at the end of your run.
  5. Don’t do these more than once a week.   Every other week is probably best to keep yourself fresh.

Your limits may vary.  It’s important to make sure you’re well recovered from these efforts before taking on any other hard running efforts like speedwork, trail running, shorter tempo runs or another long run (fast or slow).    I’ve been surprised how much progress I can make simply by running a fast long run once every week or two with no other hard workouts in my training.

No doubt about it, running long runs fast is hard work but like all well directed hard work, will pay off on race day.

Reality Check for the New Year

It’s hard to beat a 10k race for starting the New Year for two reasons.  One, every one’s in a good mood for the holidays and the event is pretty good natured.  The more practical reason is that it’s good to have off-season reality checks to see how well you’re really doing with your training.  These smaller, less intense races actually provide a lot of good information to take into your goal races later in the year.  And besides, if you run well, you can say “Wow, I’m ahead of where I thought I would be!”. But if you run poorly, you can console yourself with “Well, I still have plenty of time to train for the big race”.  So how did it go for me at the New Year’s Day Run for a Healthy World 10k?
I’m glad there’s plenty of time to train from my half-marathon race target.  I finished with a time of 39:39 for the 10k run on mostly gravel paths in the Palo Alto near the San Francisco Bay, virtually identical to last year’s time.  That despite I put in a lot more mileage in 2011 than in 2010, when I was just coming off a dislocated shoulder in October and a bad flu in November.  All things considered, it just was a pretty lack-luster performance.
The first mile in that seemed easy at 6:06 was encouraging, but too fast, as was the next mile in 6:07.  Then the wheels started coming off with 6:30-ish pace the rest of the way, and a real loss of focus around mile 5, which allowed someone to catch me with about 100 yards to go.  So the take-aways from this race were:
1)  A need to develop a better pace sense.  The early pace at sub-6:10 was too fast, even though it seemed reserved and comfortable.  Developing better pace sense should come from the weekly tempo runs I’ll start doing this week that really helped for last years half-marathons to run at a more even and energy efficient pace.
2) Find a way to stay focused and run strong at the end of the race.   The end of a race is a lot about simply digging down and finding a way to get through a “crisis period” where your body and mind want to shut things down.    Of course, developing inner desire is an elusive intangible training objective, but putting yourself through a some “mini-hells” leading up to the race will prepare for the “total hell” at the key point in the big race.  It’s time to start ratchet up the intensity on the hard days.
So now that I have a good idea what I need to do, it’s time to starting doing it.  You want to start out things well, but for a runner, it’s not realy about how you start.  It’s how you finish.