Make Track Workouts Work for You: Don’t Make these 7 Mistakes

May your only mistakes at the track be fashion crimes.
May your only mistakes at the track be fashion crimes.

Runners love track workouts; they give us feedback and structure, plus they break up the monotony of our training weeks. After running mile after mile at the same old easy pace, it’s nice to head to the local track to work! But what if that work isn’t really doing you any good or worse … hurting you?

Many runners don’t know how to run a track workout correctly. Luckily, we’ve seen plenty of track workout mistakes and made lots of our own, so we can save you some headaches and instead make your track workouts work for you.

 What is a “Workout?”

When we use the term workout, we actually mean running with a purpose beyond adding miles. A workout uses a specific combination of paces and timing sequences for the purpose of improving a specific body system. We’ve talked before about the types of body systems that make up athletic performance, like vO2 max, lactic threshold, etc. If you aren’t doing the workouts right, you won’t improve the system you’re supposed to and worse, you can injure yourself.

Types of Track Workouts

You don’t really need a track to run a track workout. Tracks are convenient places to do them because they’re measured, a stable forgiving surface, and free from distractions like traffic (but not necessarily marching bands or football players). You don’t have to run them on a track, but for those reasons, it is by far the best place to run most types of workouts. When we say track workout, we just mean a workout that is run faster than your easy pace, which is meant to improve your speed, strength, etc. Here are the common types:

Speed Intervals

Speed intervals are what most people think of as a track workout. Speed intervals are usually run at vO2 max pace for 3-5 minutes with half to equal time recovery. These are usually run in your current 5k – 10k race pace range.

Cruise Intervals

Cruise intervals are often viewed as a modified tempo run. They are run at lactic threshold pace (approximately 10-mile race pace) for about 10 minutes repeated several times with very short rests. The short rests break up the work but are short enough that you start the next interval still stressing that system.

Strides or Sprints 

Strides are usually very short reps of 50-300 meters run very fast with a relatively longer rest in between them. The purpose of these is to activate fast-twitch muscle fibers and develop leg turnover (speed).

Fartleks 

Fartleks are workouts broken up by time instead of distance and run by effort over pace. These are speed workouts usually not done on the track since there is no need for a measured course. Fartleks can serve any purpose, depending on the intensity, duration of work, or duration of rest.

The Most Important Rule of Track Workouts

The number one thing every runner must remember for any workout, but especially track workouts is this:

Understand the purpose of your workout!

How to Do a Track Workout the Right Way

Before we discuss don’ts, lets discuss how to do a track workout correctly. You must follow a plan. Any good plan, whether from a book, a coach, or an app, will give you instructions for running purposeful workouts. Follow those instructions. Because this is easier said then done, let’s discuss the common mistakes runners make.

Common Mistakes

So now that we know what we’re supposed to be doing, here are the most common mistakes runners make at the track. I’ve included a takeaway lesson about each one to help you remember the right way to handle these situations.

1. Taking it too easy.

Workouts aren’t supposed to be comfortable. Purposeful workout paces are derived from recent races or goal races, but only when those races are at the edge of what you can physically handle, and so the workout paces that go with them should feel very hard.

The Takeaway: If it was supposed to be easy, it wouldn’t be called a workout.

2. Running the fastest girl’s workout.

On the other side of the coin is showing up at the track and running along with the fastest girl there. While you might be able to keep up … at first, you might find you can’t finish the workout or you have to skip intervals before joining her again. Even if you can do her workout, if it’s not right for you, don’t! You might be proud that you could keep up for a lap or two or even the whole thing, but now you didn’t work any of your systems properly and you are asking to get injured.

The Takeaway: It’s ok to be selfish when it comes to track workouts; on the track it should be all about you.

3. Finishing broken workouts.

Speaking of not being able to finish a workout … We all want to go out to the track and run the workout perfectly, but sometimes it doesn’t go that way. If you can’t hit the paces in the workout should you continue? The answer depends on whether you can still achieve the purpose of the workout. If, for instance, you start bombing the workout and break the work-rest cycle and over-recover you are no longer stressing the right system and you end up getting nothing out of the workout but aggravation. Wrap it up and save that workout for another day.

The Takeaway: If it’s broken, don’t fix it; jog home instead.

4. Finishing broken workouts the next day. 

When I said save it for another day, I didn’t mean go out the next day and do the three 800s you couldn’t finish yesterday! Once a workout is attempted, the workout is done for the week. This is even more pointless than finishing it up after skipping a few reps the day before. Once you throw in the towel on a workout, it’s time to move on. Doing otherwise is just inviting disaster and is completely pointless.

The Takeaway: If it was broken yesterday, you can’t fix it today; forget about it.

5. Running aspirational paces.

Workouts should be run according to your current capabilities. Just because you wish 79 seconds was the right 400 meter split for you doesn’t make it so. Even if you are physically capable of achieving that aspirational time on the track during a workout does not mean it’s furthering the purpose of your work. Remember this: speed kills. Running workouts too fast for you is the quickest way to get injured and provides no benefit justifying that risk!

The Takeaway: The only way for your aspirational pace to become the correct pace is to earn it.

Goofing off at the track is fine if it's done before or after the workout, not during.
Goofing off at the track is fine if it’s done before or after the workout, not during.

6. Dismissing the importance of the rest interval.

In order to stress the right system for the workout, the timing of rests and recoveries are just as important as the work. For cruise intervals, for example, the rest interval is supposed to be short so you start the next interval still stressing the lactic threshold system. No matter the workout, if you need more time to hit your paces, that’s a good indication you’re running the intervals too hard.

The Takeaway: The rest interval is part of the workout: respect it.

7. Too much complexity.

Complex workouts aren’t better than simple ones.  A crazy combination of 400m sprints followed by a series of 1000m intervals followed by 2 miles at a race pace and then a 200m sprint isn’t a better workout than going to a track and running 5 sets of 1000m at the same pace. The best workout is the one you do right. Simple track workouts have a clear objective: hit the same pace each time.

The Takeaway: Keep it simple, do the work, achieve the purpose.

So how about you? Have you ever made these mistakes or do you always behave at the track?

I'm a subelite marathon runner, but I didn't come from a collegiate running background. Instead I'm trying to break into competitive running in my thirties. I write about chasing the dream of running with the elite girls and tell stories of adventures along the way. Watch me chase the next big thing.

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4 comments

  1. Let’s see, I’ve been guilty of 2, 3 and 5. I always raced best relative to my training when I ran longer intervals 800-1200 with short rest at closer to 8k – 10k pace with a few speedy 200s after. Once I start doing a lot of 5k or faster stuff I struggle. I totally agree about the rest interval – it is the most under-appreciated element of training 🙂

  2. FORM! One of the biggest issues I see with track workouts. Overstriding because one wants to go way too fast. And looking down. Quick feet, keep your legs underneath you-, and focus ahead. I am always telling my group to look at the fence that goes around the track, it’s amazing to see the immediate improvements in posture and leg turnover.

    Also–keep lane 1 for the fast group.

    Also x 2–DO NOT GO BY INSTANT PACE ON YOUR GARMIN–GO BY TIME ELASPED FOR THE INTERVAL! I did an experiment earlier this fall where I ran 1200s on the track. My instant pace showed 6:05, but the time equivalent was closer to 6:25. For some reason the Garmin can’t figure out circles. Not sure why???

    The track really is awesome!

  3. I’ve definitely broken most of those plenty of times, but would like to think I have gotten better about it. I think the biggest thing I struggled with for a while was running the proper paces- and actually thinking about what they are. Dreaming of faster times, and training at those paces even though they were out of my realm at the time. I also have a bad habit of short cool down, like I did the work and just wanna be done and go eat everything in sight.