Being a distance runner who competed in high school and college track, I’ve spent a lot of time running in circles. I remember my time on the outdoor track fondly. It’s where I’ve sweat, bled, and laid it all on the line. Now that I’m older, I prefer to stay off the track and enjoy the freedom of the trails.
Finding a track that is close to my home is a challenge. Just a few weeks ago I ran to a new outdoor track only to find that it was asphalt with no lines painted on it (damn you Google street view!). Another track nearby is in a sketchy neighborhood (I had a large piece of wood thrown at me two years ago) and the last track near my house requires a mile of running uphill to get to.
Needless to say, doing track workouts is not ideal in my neighborhood.
Luckily, there are many ways to simulate track workouts without the actual track. They’re more fun too. Who wouldn’t rather run in a quiet neighborhood or on a dirt trail instead of feeling like a hampster?
There will be certain points in your training that you may need a track. If you’re adamant about knowing your exact splits, then maybe these workout variations aren’t for you. But if you embrace minimalist running, then you may enjoy getting off the track and running by feel.
Below are five classic workouts that many people run to get in shape for the 5k to the marathon. Next time you’re lacing up your shoes or don’t have a running track available, try these variations.
The 5k Introductory Period Workout
At the beginning of many track seasons where I was focusing on the 5k distance, a typical workout that I’d run was 8x400m at 5k pace. This workout helps you get used to your 5k goal pace without the stress of running longer intervals. Now that I don’t run as much on the track, I prefer to improvise.
These 400’s can be run on any non-technical trail or road using the time it would normally take you to complete the interval. So if you’re hoping to run 7 minute pace, run your 400’s in 1:45 on the road at what feels like 7 minute pace to you. Keep in mind this effort will get harder as the workout progresses.
A variation on this workout that I do more frequently is to run hill repetitions instead of doing all of them on a flat trail or road. In addition to building strength, the hills help me prevent injury, reduce impact, and introduce a little more variety in my training.
Running Yasso 800’s Off the Track
A popular workout for many marathoners is the famous Yasso 800’s. It’s simple: if you want to run a 4 hour marathon, work your way to ten 800m intervals in 4 minutes with equal recovery. If your goal is a 2:30 marathon, then run 10x800m in 2:30 with the same recovery time.
Be realistic about what you can achieve, but know that you don’t have to hit these times exactly on the track. Running them anywhere else will give you almost the same physiological benefits and prepare you mentally for the marathon.
The Base Phase Tempo
If you’ve followed some of my previous training logs, you’ll see that one of my staple workouts is the 5k tempo. Except I never run it on the track – I prefer to run my tempo on a short loop in Rock Creek Park. My standard 3 loop tempo is about a half-mile longer than 3.1 miles (I think) and includes some short hills. It’s perfect.
Find a loop or course that works for you. It could be an out and back run along the Charles River in Boston. Or maybe you like running around your neighborhood twice. You have the freedom to run wherever you’d like for this type of tempo workout. All you need to do is ensure the effort is where it should be.
5k Specificity – Getting Sharp for Your Goal Race
To simulate your 5k goal race and be certain you’re in top shape to race well, it’s important to get specific. Workouts that will tax your body in very similar ways to your race allow you to mentally and physically prepare for your goal race distance. If you can run 5×1,000m at your goal pace then you’re setting yourself up to race well.
If you don’t have access to a track, run for the time you think it would take you to finish an interval of this length. I like to err on the conservative side and over-estimate the time. So if I wanted to run 3:40 per interval, I would round that up to 3:45.
For these workouts that require a high effort at your perceived race pace, it’s important to simulate the type of race as well. So if it’s a cross-country race then run the workout on trails. But if it’s a road race then hit the roads. You get the idea.
10k Specificity – Dialing in Your Goal Pace
Like the 1,000m workout I mentioned above, a similar workout that I’ve done numerous times includes repeat miles. This type of workout is better for longer races of 8-10k. It’s challenging and will force you to be conservative in your first few intervals so you can still finish your last repetition strong.
For any race of 8k – 10k, I like to run 5xmile with a 400m recovery jog in between. To do this off the track, I simply round my estimated mile times to 5 minutes with a recovery jog of 2 minutes (I’m not that fast, but the math is easier). If possible, I’ll do this workout on a loop that includes a hill or two to simulate racing on a difficult course.
Building Confidence by Not Sweating Every Detail
Running workouts away from the track is a great way to promote small wins in your training. There are no lines at every 100m mark, so you won’t feel upset that you were one second too slow at the 1,300m mark (who cares?). You’ll finish the workout feeling better and with more confidence.
I’ve found that as I’ve done workouts on the road and trail based on time instead of on the track, I have felt less apprehension about my workouts. When I was training for the marathon two years ago, I would run the last 5-6 miles at sub-marathon pace on the track of my long runs. The fear that comes before long, hard efforts is almost tangible, especially because I was adamant about negative splitting every mile.
In the last six months, I’ve done about five workouts on the track. I’ve only felt good about two of them. Experiencing less workout anxiety is a big deal for me, partly because one of my goals is to enjoy running more and not worry too much about every split along the way.
So far, it’s starting to work. Just last Saturday I ran my second fastest 8k race of all time. This Saturday I’m running a 5k road race, so I have high hopes.
Are you ready to run stress-free away from the track?