Earlier 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.
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.
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!).
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.
Maybe 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?