Get Off the Track to Get Faster

img_20160308_202527Earlier this summer when I went to the track to do a workout, but when I got there it was closed due to construction. Already lacking motivation for the workout in the blistering heat, I drove back to my house because driving around to the other tracks would have zapped whatever mojo I had left. Back at home, I improvised. I quickly logged into Garmin and made an automatic workout for what I was supposed to do, synced my watch, and was back outside in minutes. I left my water bottle, a towel, and some Honey Stinger chews on the trunk of my car at the end of the driveway, and set off on my workout. I did a larger two-mile loop for my warm-up, then used the shorter loop right around the house to do my speed work, with my car serving as a water stop.

I finished the workout, glad that I got it done and oddly proud that I made it happen off the track. I’ve done strides down the side street next to my house many times and I’ve used hills on other roads for workouts before, but until this day, I almost never did short speed on roads. Getting off the track for my speed work was a perspective-changer for me and if your aim is to get faster, I think it might be for you too.

I realized a few years ago that the track is a crutch for me. As a former college track athlete, the track feels like home. It’s safe and comfortable, even when it’s hard and uncomfortable. When I started working with my former coach, he changed the way I trained quite a bit and gave me more tempo workouts than track workouts. That was new to me, scary and uncomfortable, but I saw results in my times especially at longer distances. You see, tempos were workouts that I didn’t know a ton about and didn’t do much of because I thought I could get the same benefit at the track. In reality, I was strengthening my strength, short distance speed, instead of strengthening my weakness, endurance. I still had track workouts occasionally, but learning when to structure in tempo versus track was a game-changer for my race times.

This summer, when I stepped back on my driveway at the end of that workout I had another one of those “aha moments”. Here I was, years later still using the track as a crutch. Since that workout, I have done the majority of my speed work on the neighborhood loops around my house instead of driving to the track. After all, I’m not training to race on the track; I am training to race on the roads.

Don’t get me wrong, I know that there are certainly benefits of running track workouts. The track is a soft surface and is a measured, known distance. Those two things alone can be hugely beneficial. The soft surface is a nice change for your joints especially during hard workouts. The known distance removes the need for a GPS, is more accurate than the GPS, and really helps you focus more on effort than a pace that some watch is telling you. Add in the fact that cars are not allowed on a track, and your chances of being run over by some distracted driver are drastically reduced. However, if you can find a safe road to do your workout, the pros outweigh the cons in many ways.

Benefits of doing speed on the roads instead of the track

Race on the roads, train on the roads.

You should train for the terrain you will be racing on, at least most of the time. You wouldn’t run on roads 100% of the time if you were training for a trail race right? What about training for a hilly course on a pancake flat path, it simply doesn’t make sense. Doing speed work on the roads is good specific training.

Mental Training

In a race you typically don’t know what a half mile is in front of you just by looking, so learning to push without cues (such as a turn on the track, or a new lap) can be really good mental toughness training.

Modifiable to suit your needs. 

You can change up the challenge level (rolling course, flat loops, hills etc.) which can be good for more race specific training as well.

You can still get your numbers.

By planning your route ahead of time or using a GPS watch you can still track/know the distance of your workout intervals even without the known .25 distance of the track.

Less hard turns, more “real” turns.

Unless you are racing on the track, you probably aren’t running a race that requires you to adjust your momentum/direction every 100m. Tight turns can be hard on the body and are not really race specific for the roads. Learning to take turns at race pace (and not 16x per mile) is a great benefit of doing speed work on roads.

Run your own schedule.

Sometimes getting to the track can be tough as you may need to work around the school’s schedule. Obviously the track team takes precedence, and you don’t want to interfere. Add in the fact that there are other teams that will use the infield, it can get annoying trying to figure out exactly when you can run, and if it’s safe to (Note: try and avoid tracks when lacrosse is going on, those balls will seriously hurt). When you do speed on roads or at a park, you are more likely able to run on your own time and schedule without worrying about who will be there to hinder your workout. If you are lucky like me to have a good neighborhood at home to do this, it can even save you time of driving to the track. Your time is valuable; save what you can!

So now that I’ve convinced you that getting off the track will be good for you, let me offer some pointers for making the transition as smooth as possible.

Tips for doing speed work on the roads

Plan your route ahead of time.

Find a relatively flat loop (or one with hills if that is what you need) and measure it out ahead of time (I use sites like Map My Run or RunningAhead’s route planning feature). You can also find a stretch of road that you could do an out-and-back run on if a loop isn’t feasible.

Avoid traffic.

Choose side streets, neighborhoods, or park roads that are going to have less traffic.

Plan your hydration and rest stops.

If I know that I am doing half mile repeats, I want to make sure I can loop back to my car or house around that distance so I can hydrate during my rest (maybe not every interval but at least every few!).

Minimize distractions.

I know we all go back and forth on using music during runs, but this is a case in which I’d definitely nix the headphones. When running fast and focused, we are less aware of the surroundings (anyone ever forget the things you run by during a race?) so try and eliminate anything that could make you even more unaware.

Plan the workout ahead of time.

neighborhood-runsMaybe this means putting the workout in your Garmin so you don’t need to stare at your watch since you don’t know the distance. This allows you to focus on running and putting in the effort than seeing where you are in the workout. If you don’t have a GPS or don’t want to use one, map the distance ahead of time.

For example, I know exactly which tree to start at and where to finish for certain distances on the loop around my house. Like the GPS, this allows me to focus on running instead of focusing on how far I need to go. Note: I find I tend to run faster this way because I just try and keep my head up and run forward until my watch beeps or until I reach my designated tree. Staring at the watch slows you down more than you think!

Do you ever do your speed work on the roads? 

An Upstate, NY resident who loves the marathon, a good beer, and all of the numbers/nerdy things. I write about my journey to a sub-3:00 marathon, training tweaks for improvement, and finding that "running/life balance" unicorn. On tap Next: Training to be a first time mom, time for 3rd trimester...ready or not!

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19 comments

  1. I do my speedwork in the park, on trails, or on this flat stretch of bike path across from my office. To me the track is actually a good mental challenge because I get soooo bored…we actually have a track at work but it’s made out of tennis court clay and I’m pretty sure it’s short, so I rarely use it.

  2. 100% agree with this! I have never used a track for speed work due to access (lots of schools seem to have stricter rules on it now) and so I do all of my speed work on either flat multi-use paths or a paved trail on rolling hills. I do my speed work by time, fartlek style, instead of by distance unless it’s something like mile repeats or 2K repeats. It’s such a confidence booster and it prepares me so well for the varied terrain of races.
    I have a feeling for me, speedwork on the track would actually be mentally difficult since I’m so accustomed to doing it on the roads. 400 meters looks so much longer on the track to me!

  3. My training program recommended doing speed workouts on the track so that I could be steady in my splits, but after a few weeks of crappy track workouts, I finally decided I couldn’t bare the track any longer, and ran my intervals on a hilly loop in my neighborhood. I surprisingly ran the intervals faster than intended, even with the hills. It was such a confidence booster, and I’m totally a believer in getting off the track now.

    1. I like the track because then I can’t get in arguments with my watch. I feel like if I’m significantly too fast or too slow while relying on the GPS I don’t trust it and get in my head. The track makes it less mentally “a thing” for me. But I’m a heavy worrier on the worrier-warrior spectrum.

  4. Because I didn’t run track in high school or college, I LOVE going to the track – it feels like a completely different workout and it is new and fun. It is even more fun now that I know I’m supposed to run in the inside lane (boy, was that a relief. Try meeting your interval splits while always running in lane 5). We also have a great park near us that is a big loop and has quarter mile markets, so I do longer intervals there. It is also always plowed in the winter, while the track is usually closed once it snows.

    1. That’s a huge perk Jen of the park/roads- our tracks aren’t clear here in the winter either. Though I admit, I tend to do most of my speed work on treadmill in winter. Speed+Ice scares the pants off of me!

  5. Great post, Barley! I’m in Eugene, OR for the week visiting family ( I live near Salty in Cleveland.) If you know Eugene, you know the roads are awesome because there’s such variability in the grade – almost every street is different- flat, short/long undulating hills…and speedwork on the multitude of trails is wonderful. BUT, I am hoping the gates of the ‘Holy Grail’ of tracks – Hayward Field – will open so I can ‘sneak’ in a workout! ( not likely!)

    1. I hope you enjoy the time in Oregon! It’s so pretty out there, my cousin actually lives in Eugene! Would be awesome to get a workout in at Hayward but not sure if they keep it open or not?? Who knows. Either way enjoy the trip and happy running!

    2. Thursday nights, the Eugene Flyers have a community speed workout that meets on Hayward frequently. 6:00, I believe! (Go to the Run Hub running store for details). Make sure to run Pre’s Trail, which starts at Alton Baker Park– 6-miles of bark trail that connects to the river path (nice 12-ish mile loop with bathrooms along the way). If you feel like trails, hit up the Ridgeline trail through the forests and foothills around Eugene. Or continue out to Springfield and check out the new Clearwater path. Or 20 minutes south on I-5 and you can run on the Row RIver Trail in Cottage Grove (where I am), or heck– head up the McKenzie River and run on that trail past several waterfalls! So much to do around here!

  6. Great post! I totally agree with you – although still like to get on the track when I can, logistics permitting :) The track is certainly a known entity, which I don’t think is always a bad thing. I feel like there are already so many variables, I don’t mind minimizing some where I can. It’s also much more forgiving than the road – which I think my legs are thankful for. That said, it doesn’t always feel great to run hard on a constant bend! Getting back into shape post injury I’ve been to the track a couple of times and it is nice to be able to keep tabs on pace/distance so I know that I’m not overdoing it. That said, I will always run tempos on the road and any workout that is time based (i.e. 6 x 3mins or something).

    I love the map of your neighborhood, you have a great step up!! We have a great spot a coupe of miles away that is exactly a one mile loop with a couple of little undulations, I like to run there in the winter as they remove the snow pretty well. You’ve inspired me to scout out more spots around my house!

    1. I’m definitely not anti-track but it’s been nice to switch things up this summer and have found it to help me get back a little quicker I think or at least trust my paces a little easier. I love the track for straight forward workouts like 400’s, 800’s, miles etc. The simplicity of running 1 lap, 2 laps, etc etc is oddly comforting.

      Our little neighborhood is definitely awesome for it, otherwise the running around my house isn’t great (so many stop lights and traffic). Looking forward to moving next year and finding some new running routes (and hopefully far less stop lights!)

  7. One thing I think is important to think about is that if you think you need to do your speed work on a particular surface to hit your paces, your goal paces are probably too fast for you. You should be able to hit your speed work paces on whatever surface (most of the time, of course).

    1. That is a great point Salty! Track paces tend to be a bit faster for a multitude of reasons- I found that I trust my road paces a bit more as they reflect more closely to race situations. I’d rather see a slightly slower workout pace, but have it be closer to what I can hit on race day than a faster workout pace and not being able to come close on race day.

      1. I know this looking back at my own training when I used to feel like I HAD to do my workouts on the track to hit my coach’s paces. In retrospect that was a red flag that the paces were too aggressive.

    2. Totally agree! I found this out in the spring. But last night I was reading Meb for Mortals. And Meb’s philosophy is that your speed work needs to be on the same surface as what you’ll be racing. So for road racers, his opinion is to use the track no more than once every two weeks. On a seperate note… Now that I’ve updated my GPS watch (best idea ever) I program the repeats in and just go when it beeps at me and stops when it beeps again. I’ve found that I am now a much more consistent runner when it comes to pacing myself.

  8. Same! Speed work always on the road unless it’s on the treadmill. The last track workout I attempted was 400s and I quit. The sheer number of laps tends to overwhelm me. Also, tracks are not shaded, which makes them no fun in the summer. And all the ones near me that are open to the public are old cracked asphalt, so I don’t even get the “soft surface” benefit!

    I have a nice neighborhood loop that is easy to get to with a 1-4 mile warm up, has just a little bit of gradual incline/decline and not much traffic. I can jog over with my handheld water bottle and drop it, then get to work. The loop works so that I can just run a straight oval that’s just shy of 1 mile, or I can loop up and down the other streets and get about 2 miles, depending on the intervals. There’s one street that gets a little busy that can be tricky to get across during rush hour, but I can also skip it by just doing the oval part. I like this area a lot for tempo runs, too, since there aren’t any streets to stop and cross, either.

    Interesting perspective — I suspect former track athletes agree that the track is a known entity, while those of us who started later and went straight to road racing see it as a circle of fire, haha.

    1. Oh I’m sure my background skews my perspective on tracks being comfortable/uncomfortable! But yeah I’d definitely not even bother if I had those old asphalt tracks, definitely not worth it at that point.

  9. Unless I’m on the treadmill, all of my speedwork is on the roads! Sometimes I choose a section of the multi-use path and do repeats back and forth, sometimes I do an out and back along the multi-use path, using my GPS to guide the intervals, and sometimes when I need to, I work the speed sections into my regular run commute along city roads! This last one is not ideal because sometimes I hit a traffic light mid-interval, but depending on my schedule, it may be the only way I can fit it in.

    1. Schedule wise and logistically roads can be so much more efficient for speed work. It can be frustrating with traffic lights though for sure. I know it’s not always feasible but that’s why I like to choose a route where I may have to do more loops to cover the distance but know I’ll hit less lights. (I live in a busy area, but still have wiggle room within my little neighborhood to be able to do this)