The Not-So-Tortuous Oval: Track Workouts for Beginners

Don’t be afraid. It really can be fun!

It’s the one place many beginning runners do not want to train. Heck, even people who have been running for decades may be afraid of it.

Yes, I am talking about that rubber 400m oval — the track. I’m all too aware how frightening splits can be and how achy your calves can get even after a short workout. It took me ages to figure the best way to run curves. But now, as someone who absolutely loves racing on the track and track workouts, running on the track will help you. Yes even you, the most trackphobic runners out there! My favorite race, the 10K, is 25 laps around an outdoor track, and as painful as they may be, I have grown to love them. (Yeah, I said LOVE!)

Here are some useful tips and track lingo that will hopefully have you doing workouts confidently on the track in no time!

Running on an indoor track -- only 200m.
Running on an indoor track — only 200m.

First, a little about the track (so you don’t embarrass yourself next time you’re talking track). A standard outdoor track is 400 meters long, making four laps equal to about a mile.  If you hear someone say they’re doing a “quarter workout,” they are probably running 400s. Some standard workout distances on the track include (but are not limited to) 150s, 200s, 400s, 800s, 1000s, 1600s, and 2000s. There are, of course, an infinite amount of distances you can use, and usually they depend on what distance you are training for. A sprinter training for a 200m race may do 6x150m whereas a 5000m runner may do 3x1600m.

Now that you know what a track workout is, let’s talk about the basics of doing one right.

1. Etiquette. Okay! You’ve made it to the track and are ready to run. But the track is a little crowded, and you’re planning on doing  three miles at 5K pace today. If it looks like you’re the speedster of the track for the day, take the inside lane. Otherwise, taking the outside lane is the smart thing to do unless you want to hear “TRACK!” from other runners. And likewise, if you’re barrelling down the home stretch within milliseconds of hitting your goal and some kid with a tuba is standing in your lane, you are the one to yell, “TRACK!”

2. Splits. I highly, highly recommend going to the track with a training buddy — or a few. That way, one person can take splits while another can run alongside you. I wear a plain ol’ Timex watch when I’m doing track workouts to help me keep pace, but glancing down at your watch can take seconds off of your splits (and save your brain a little bit). I don’t ever do track workouts without my coach, but I have done workouts by myself.

3. Pacing. When doing any track workout, it’s important to train at pace. You’re not trying to race out there — you’re trying to feel what it will be like to sustain a hard effort during a race. There is no need whatsoever to go faster, unless you’re feeling really good. I often go too fast and it hurts me in the long run, so pacing during workouts is something I am currently working on.

See? This is how happy you feel after a good track workout!
See? This is how happy you feel after a good track workout!

4. Keep your head in the game. The biggest piece of advice I can think to give you is to not psych yourself out. Pick one or two days a week where you KNOW you will be running track workouts (our track workout day is usually Tuesday). Choose your workouts days, or even weeks in advance in order to plan your training right.

5. Get comfy. Finally, get to know the track. Get comfortable with it. Instead of warming up on the pavement or trails before your first few workouts, do it around the track. The track is only as scary as you make it! And who knows…maybe you’ll begin to actually love it (like I do)!

How about you? Do you LOVE the track like me? Hate it? Scared of it? Never been? 

Former collegiate coffee-fueled distance runner who loves track workouts.

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  1. I haven’t trained on a track since high school (when I joined winter track for a total of 1.5 weeks). There’s a track at a nearby high school, but it’s either closed or being used. I want to try a track workout, though.

  2. HATE the track, let me repeat, hate it. But, I respect and understand the necessity of a quality track workout. I find my dislike ironic since I was a sprinter in high school who, as an adult, I am considered a distance runner. I am currently training for my 5th marathon, so I have longer intervals on my training schedule. Tomorrow I have 2 x 3000, followed by some repeat 200’s. Yuck. I do have to say that when I nail my paces I walk away so proud and satisfied. However, I feel so disappointed when I do not hit the targets.

  3. Thanks for the etiquette tips. I have been track-averse, having no experience. Recently I joined a group of friends in once-a-week track workouts. I needed that group support to get me off the road and trails and onto that mysterious oval. It’s a learning curve for me, which isn’t all bad.