Running in Circles

There is something that I feel right before a track workout, it's a mixture of pre-race butterflies, memories of the dreaded Friday mile we'd have to run in Jr. High, the anticipation of burning legs, burning lungs, shoes spitting up dirt while rounding the 100 meter turn and pushing hard on the straight.  I was never good at track as a kid in high school, I didn't have that determination, the mental strength it takes to move the pain to the back of your mind and just run.  Managing that short, sharp pain isn't something I was ever good at; the long, dull pain is manageable, but the short stuff eats me up.

I'm in gray, not sure why everyone else is wearing blue and white.

I only ran track for one year, the year between trying wrestling as a 96 pound Sophomore and switching to clove cigarettes, Ministry and Nietzsche as a Senior, but the memories of that one season still linger, the Spring smells, eucalyptus trees, the fresh-cut grass, the coach taking us to a dirt hill and making us run up and down over and over until I thought I was going to throw up, and then the final run to the top, sprawling out on the conquered peak and noticing the amazing view for the first time as the sun set over the ocean.  I remember the long runs that were supposed to start easy, and usually did, but would end up as a sprint to the locker rooms.  Someone would eventually and gradually pick up the pace as the conversation became one-word, breathless, grunts, then silence and feet pounding, legs flying and expressionless faces because to show the pain would mean it was no longer an easy run, it was a race and at sixteen years old, we raced every day.  The long runs were seldom easy, but the interval days were always hard because Coach Davis would be out there with his stopwatch yelling splits urging us back-of-the-packers to reach deeper, knowing that the reason most of us did this sport was because there were no tryouts and it gave us a chance to letter in a sport and hang out with the cute girls because all the cute girls did track, and none of the cute girls wrestled or played football.  So, Coach Davis would give us the intervals for the day, two 200s, four 400s, two 800s, one 1600, then back down the ladder, starting easier than you finished and those last 200s always hurt.

So, at 37, I'm back at the track, feeling the same mixture of excitement and dread, knowing that there will be some pain, and some burning, but also knowing that it will be fun and the stretching afterward as the sun is going down, the kids are playing on the field and there is a beer at home in the fridge make Wednesday night track workouts worth it and my favorite evening of the week.

This next part is for those who are planning to come to the track workout that I host (not quite coach) on Wednesday evenings in San Elijo Hills.  It will give you an overview of what we do and why track workouts are important for your training.

Why we run track

Intervals have their place in any good training program whether you are training for a marathon, a half marathon, a 5K, or even an ultra-marathon.  That said, putting too much speed work into your training plan or running fast too often can lead to chronic injuries and diminishing returns.  When done right, speedwork will improve your VO2Max, which is the maximal amount of oxygen-rich blood that your heart can pump to your muscles and that your muscles can then use to produce energy (thanks Wikipedia).  You can improve your speed and running performance by training at a level that is around 95-100% of your current VO2Max level (you can take a fancy test to determine your VO2Max, or you can estimate it as a little faster than 5K race pace).  If you spend some time at this level in training, you will increase your body's ability to extract oxygen and convert it to energy.  To learn more about this process, you can booklearn it, or you can come to a track workout and experience it.

Running faster helps you run faster.  I know that is totally scientific and I have all kinds of data to back it up, but I don't want to bore you with all of that.  It's hard at first and it's uncomfortable, but once you learn to actually pick up your feet and run, it will get easier, no, actually it doesn't get much easier, but you will go faster.

How we run track

If you show up to one of my track workouts, this is what you can expect.

We warm up by jogging slowly a few times around the track, then we do some active stretching and core work -- lunges, twists, inverted hamstring, front and side planks, and push-ups.

Next, we do drills, which, if nothing else, makes the track workouts worth it.  These will help improve your running efficiency by improving your strength and form.  They will also prepare your body for the running ahead.  We do each drill for 50 meters, then transition into a slow run for 50 meters, then take 100 meters to recover, so our four drills cover two laps or 800 meters.

These are the usual drills -

High knees (Asafa Powell demonstrates this way better than I could and his accent is much sexier):

Butt kicks:

Skips for height:


We then do the main set of the track workout, and I try to switch this up to keep things interesting and to work different systems.  We start out the season with longer, slower intervals working up to about 20 minutes of speed work.  Towards the end of the season, or in preparation for a goal race, we focus on sharpening speed with shorter, faster intervals.

I always try to end the track session with striders.  A few of the really fast runners that I know swear by ending most runs with 4-5 100 meter strides.  A stride is a short, fast, but relaxed effort.  You aren't taxing your aerobic system with these, but you are working your physiological system and training your body to run fast and relaxed.  I like to do these on grass, and start slowly, building to a fast pace but staying relaxed, and backing off at the end.  I will then recover by jogging back to the start.

We end with a couple easy cool-down laps.

The great thing about these workouts are the people that show up, some are training for their first 5K and just want to finish, others are training to break a 3 hour marathon or a sub-16 minute 5K.  They all come together to run hard, get faster and share in the pain.

For more information about our track workouts or to join us, go here.  Tomorrow is Wednesday and I'll be running circles.


  1. I became very passionate to your meetup and decided to host one here in Helsinki. Will people show up? And I think Wednesday is the perfect day for that, so I am copying your idea to bring it here in Helsinki.

    Thank you for the info!

  2. Really great read. I feel the same way about speed work when I haven't been doing much of it, but on some level I enjoy the feel of going fast. I haven't made it to the track in a long time, but when I do this has given me some ideas!


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