Find Your Fitness: Time Trials

Good times with time trials
Good times with time trials

With fall racing season now in full swing, many of us are ramping up our workouts accordingly.  But when your training plan calls for you to run at 1-mile pace, or 3K pace, or 30 seconds faster than 5K race pace, what does this translate to for you, especially if you’ve never run a race at that distance?

Time trials might just be the tool you need to establish a baseline for your fitness and fine tune your training. 

What is a time trial? A time trial is a race without the race. What this means is that you hit a measured course or power up your GPS and run the prescribed distance as fast as you can!

How to run a time trial: Determine your distance; common distances used are 1 mile, 2 miles and 5K.  If possible, pick a flat course and one you can return to for future time trials, such as a track or measured road.  After a comprehensive warm-up, time yourself or have a friend/running partner time you while you run the distance as fast as you can, maintaining a steady pace for the full distance.

Well-known running author Matt Fitzgerald advises you should feel at the end that you gave it a solid effort (about 95%) but still have a little something left.  One strategy to keep you on track with this is to aim for a negative split, i.e. run the first half of the trial at a hard but controlled effort, and then run harder for the second half.  Remember, this exercise should not exhaust you too much; all-out efforts should be reserved for races!

English: The A321, Hurst The Wokingham to Twyf...
To do a time trial right, make sure you don’t have to deal with a lot of traffic or other distractions. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Gauging current fitness: A time trial will give you a good idea of your current level of fitness, something that is often referred to in training plans for various race distances.  Knowing your current capabilities over a common distance such as the mile or 5K can give you concrete splits to aim for during workouts, as many workouts in a training plan are run at current fitness paces.  Additionally, this can help you to formulate realistic improvement goals to shoot for over the course of your training block.  As one coaching website, Champions Everywhere, points out, noting where the trial is difficult for you can also guide your training.  Laboring to get up to speed at the start tells you speed and leg turnover are areas to target in your training.  Struggling towards the end indicates you need to focus more on endurance.

Practicing pacing:  Time trials can also be an opportunity to practice pacing.  According to the NYRR coaching website, good questions to ask yourself after a time trial are: Did I have a lot of energy left over? Did I run out of energy before finishing?  The answers to these questions will tell you if during future efforts you need to run more aggressively at the start, or hold yourself back until the latter stages of the distance.  If you are performing a time trial with a partner, have them call out splits as you run laps of the track to help teach you the feel of even pacing without having to stare down at your Garmin while you are running.

Measuring progress: Time trials can be performed multiple times over the course of a training block, and should be used as an indicator of fitness gains.  Be consistent and use the same course, road or track each time you run your time trial to get the best gauge of your progress.  Early in your season, you can do a trial as often as every two weeks.  Unlike with races, where course conditions can vary, if performed over the same course each time a time trial can provide a more accurate measurement of improvement and can be a great confidence booster as you see your times drop over the given distance.  Later on in your training season when you are also running races you can decrease the frequency to one a month.

A good conditioning workout in itself: A time trial is as close to racing as you can get without actually running in a race, and can be an excellent workout in its own right.  After all, when you run one you are conditioning your body to run at race or near-race pace, good practice for when you need to deliver on race day.  Because time trials should be challenging, they can also be useful for developing mental toughness and practicing things like mantras to help get you through.

Do you use time trials in training?  How do you use them, and do you find them helpful?

Mom of three kiddos and a black lab, running enthusiast, sports-med-doctor-in-training. I love the science and sport of running and all things related.

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  1. Yeah, but I call them “practice races.” I use half marathons as my practice race, but most people would probably prefer a 5k. 5k is run at about interval pace, so it is easy to plan the practice race.

  2. So this sounds a little crazy — but in 19 years of competitive running I can only recall 3-4 time trials! 3 were in junior high, and maybe once in high school. However, I’ve done many races with such sparse competition that they felt like time trials. Expensive time trials.