For many runners, training on a track is something other runners – more talented, more dedicated, more serious runners – do. There is a perception that training on the track is for the elite or for athletes training for track distances. But that should not be the case. We have a few athletics tracks still open in this country (despite the apathy of the powers that be and the insatiable appetites of sport-centre managers for all-weather fiva-a-side football pitches) so we should all be using them, if for no other reason than to keep them open for other runners.
And there are other, better reasons for why all distance runners should run on the track. Here are a few that I believe are important:
- it is the best place to run as fast as you can – nothing to navigate, nothing to trip on, no one to crash into
- it is a great way to make sure you are measuring your effort/pace/distance
- track is a great place to get competitive in sessions
- a good track is easier on the legs than the equivalent session on concrete or tarmac
- track sessions make you feel like a real runner*
Run fast or go home
I think that the approach to track sessions should be slightly reckless. No one wants to go off in any run at a pace that is so unsustainable that it is impossible to finish the session. But unlike on the road, if you do find that it is impossible to continue with a session, you are never more than 200m (provided it is a 400m track – the standard distance of an oval in the UK) from your bag. So I believe that people who run conservatively on the track are wasting their time…
I think that the real value in running on the track for an endurance athlete is pushing yourself harder, much harder, than you would in a race, so that your body – conditioned to deal with that higher level of discomfort – will feel much more comfortable at, for example, marathon pace.
I am sure there are biomechanical and physiological explanations for why track training is good for you. But I prefer to keep it simple.
If you train by pushing your body to run at a pace that, at times and for relatively short intervals, is much faster than the pace you want to run your 5km, 10km, half marathon or marathon at, then when you do run at your target pace for those longer distances, your legs will cope better allowing you to go further at a faster pace
Ultimately successful endurance training is about bringing speed and endurance together at the right time for your target race. So you need to do the speed work to go along with the endurance stuff.
What can be measured can be managed
One of the other great things about the track is that it is an exact distance around the oval. A 400m track will be measured around the inside lane and that means that 2.5 laps is a kilometer. Four laps is a near to a mile as you need to be (a mile is actually 1609.344m and the extra 2.33m is usually marked on the track so you can be super-exact if you want to).
This means that you can be really accurate with your running:
- If you are doing a session at 10km pace and you have run a 45 minute 10km race (or you want to) then each lap should take you 1min 48 seconds.
- If you want to run a 3 hour 30 minute marathon then your pace will be 8 min/mile pretty much. That is 2 minutes per lap.
So no GPS required. Just tick off the laps at the required pace with a glance at your stopwatch every 400m or listen out if you have someone at the track calling out splits.
The legs and lungs are all well and good, but what about the brain?
Track training is not just good for the body. It is also great for the mind. Track training will make you feel like a real runner (*) and that is important. If you are confident and you believe in yourself when you toe the start line of your next race, then you are much more likely to succeed at whatever target you have set yourself.
I also think that the competition that comes from track training is also useful. Usually reps in a session will have the same start point and this means that at the start of each rep, the group that you are running with, will all be together. You will naturally respond to the runners in your group and as people push the pace, you will respond, probably surprising yourself with what you are capable of – bottle that feeling, it will serve you well in due course.
All of this is great for your race-day head. If you know you are capable of monster sessions on the track, then you know that you have the mental resilience to hit your target pace in the marathon and stick to it. You might even find yourself racing the person in front, just like in those track sessions.
All for track and track for all
Track training, despite the fact that is should be tough, is really inclusive. The pain of track training is universal and anyone who thinks that fast runners are not working as hard as everyone else is deluded. And therein lies the beauty of the track. You can run your session at your paces and there is no fear of getting abandoned miles from home as there would be if you were out on a long run. Simply set your own targets and work hard according to your paces.
As you can probably tell, I am a big fan of track training. It certainly made a big difference to my training when I started. However I do have a word of caution. In my opinion there is absolutely no point going to the track to run around at your steady, or even threshold, pace.
Track is where you run your heart out. Track is where you ensure that there is a big differential between your fast runs and your slow runs. Track is where you earn the right to collapse in a heap after the session. Track is where you will make a difference to your running, that come race-day will pay off the biggest dividends. Good luck!