A favorite workout is like a favorite song. No matter where you are in training or in life, reuniting with them can bring back sepia-colored memories of past experiences.
My “60-second hill” in North Carolina, for instance, takes me back to training for local trail 10Ks. Meanwhile, Black Mountain outside San Jose, California, brings me to the present, training for ultramarathons all over the world.
So asking top runners and coaches about their favorite workout is a highly personal line of questioning—the type that feels like it should be accompanied by a couple drinks. Fortunately, even without me buying them a round, some of the best trail runners in the U.S. were willing to open up that window into their training philosophies.
Below, you’ll find the favorite workouts of six amazing runners and coaches, broken up into three categories: flat/rolling intervals, hill intervals and up/down workouts.
(Note: We asked for structured workouts, so a long, beautiful day in the mountains was disqualified, even though we all know epic adventures are the best).
There are three big takeaways from this snapshot of elite training. First, focus on effort, not pace. On trails, how fast you actually go is often less important than perceived exertion, because teaching your body to hold the same speed for an entire race is not essential in the way that it is on roads or the track.
Second, make sure you run downhill at race effort in training. Because they beat up your quads and other muscles, downhills are the farts of trail racing—the silent but deadly killers of race performance.
Third, focus on recovery from workouts, only doing one or two truly hard workouts each week. Spend the rest of the days doing easy running that builds the aerobic strength to handle the hardest efforts.
1. Flat/Rolling Intervals
The Runner: Stephanie Howe, Ph.D. in Nutrition and Exercise Physiology, winner of the 2014 Western States 100 and coach at Endurance by Stephanie
The Workout: Easy warm-up; 6 x 1K moderately hard with 2 minutes easy recovery between intervals; easy cool-down.
Stephanie says: “I do these tempo intervals based off feel and perceived exertion, not pace. They help me with pacing and feeling comfortable being uncomfortable.
“Usually I do a 20-minute easy warm-up, then do these on a grassy loop or rolling trail. I try not to use my watch too much and just really go off how I feel. I think to myself, ‘Run comfortably hard,’ to get the pace right. I take two minutes of easy jogging before starting the next interval.
“A bonus of not relying on pace is really being able to intuitively ‘feel’ the pace. That’s a really powerful tool to have when racing.”
Ease in: Start with three intervals before working up.
The Runner: David Laney, 2015 Ultra Runner of the Year and top American finisher at the 2015 UTMB; coach/co-founder at Trails and Tarmac
The Workout: 3-mile warm-up; 2 x 4-mile tempo with 1-mile jog recovery; easy cool-down.
David says: “For one of my last key workouts before a shorter race, I like to practice running with a focused race mindset.
“My favorite workout is a three-mile warm up, followed by 2 x 4 miles at tempo effort with a one-mile recovery jog. Most importantly, the second tempo run is faster than the first, leaving you feeling strong and energized.
“I like the workout because it’s really hard but really fun, just like a race, making it a good simulation to do about three weeks out from a 50K or shorter event. It builds huge aerobic strength while also touching on some race-pace speed.”
Ease in: Start with two-mile intervals before progressing to four miles.
2. Hill Intervals
The Runner: Megan Roche, U.S. 10K and 50K Trail Champion and winner of the 2015 and 2016 Way Too Cool 50K
The Workout: Easy warm-up; 10 x 90-second hills hard, with jog-down recovery; 6 x 1 minute fast on flats, with jog-back recovery; easy cool-down.
Megan says: “During a busy week, longer intervals sometimes feel like work. Shorter efforts require much less mental focus for me, plus they simulate the hardest and fastest parts of races.
“Hard hill efforts teach me to maintain good form while exerting myself at VO2 max or even harder. Then, the flat strides build my running economy, which makes all of my runs faster.
“Most importantly, short hills and fast strides are like recess from real life, allowing me to sprint around like I’m on a playground!”
Ease in: Start with 60-second hill intervals and 30-second flats.
The AllieMac Attack
The Runner: Zach Miller, 2015 North Face 50-Mile and CCC 100K champion
The Workout: Easy warm-up; 10 x 3 minutes hard uphill, with 1-minute jog-down recovery; easy cool-down.
Zach says: “One of my favorite workouts is 3/1’s on the Manitou Incline [a roughly one-mile, 2,000-foot climb in Manitou Springs, Colorado]. I learned it from Allie McLaughlin [2014 U.S. Mountain Running Champion].
“It’s pretty simple. You start at the bottom of the Incline and go up hard for three minutes, then turn around and go down easy for one minute, then up hard again for three minutes and down easy for one minute. You do that until you reach the top. I like it because it doesn’t require a lot of thinking, while still being fun and having a great rhythm.
“This one workout is great for developing strength and cardiovascular fitness. It’s a real lung and leg buster! It’s also tough on the mind, so it’s good mental-toughness training.”
Ease in: You can do this workout on a mountain or a molehill, so choose the type of climb you are ready to tackle.
3. Up/Down Workouts
The Runner: Magdalena Boulet, Olympic marathoner, winner of the 2015 Western States 100 and coach of 2015 US 50K Champion Caitlin Smith
The Workout: Easy warm-up; 4 x 1 mile uphill/1 mile downhill tempo; easy cool-down.
Magda says: “One of my favorite workouts is doing long up-and-down mile repeats. I usually find a respectable, not too steep uphill [around eight-percent grade] that is about one mile long. I run hard but controlled uphill, then turn back and run fast on the downhill.
“The workout builds aerobic fitness by running up, while the eccentric contraction of running downhill triggers micro-tears in my quads, causing soreness and fatigue, which in turn stimulates muscle growth. Given proper recovery and nutrition, this workout will prepare your body to handle monster courses like Western States 100.”
Ease in: Start with one quarter-mile up/one quarter-mile down before increasing to longer workouts.
The Runner: Ryan Ghelfi, Top-10 finisher at the North Face and Lake Sonoma 50-milers; coach/co-founder at Trails and Tarmac
The Workout: Easy warm-up; 4 x 4 minutes tempo downhill/4 minutes tempo uphill, with 3 minutes jog recovery; easy cool-down.
Ryan says: “You will need to begin the tempo portion of this workout on top of a decent-sized descent—two to four miles of continuous downhill, depending on your speed.
“For the downhill tempo you should be running fairly fast, pushing your aerobic system a bit and making sure your legs take some beating—this will enhance the physical and mental training benefit. However, do not go all out on the downhill; stay in control.
“Once you hit four minutes of downhill tempo, immediately turn back uphill and go four more minutes at tempo effort—meaning fairly hard breathing but still capable of speaking a few words at a time. For the recovery jog between repetitions, go back downhill at a very easy pace for three minutes.
“One of the most difficult things to do in a trail race is to bomb down a descent, beating up your legs, and then have to turn back uphill and do a 2,000-foot climb. The first few minutes of the climb are always the worst; getting into the climbing groove and not losing it mentally can be super challenging. So I like to have my runners do short repeated versions of this workout, just like they will encounter in races.
“It is not a workout I would do more than once per week, as running truly fast downhill is something that takes time to recover from and can be overdone.”
Ease in: Start with two intervals before working up to four.
David Roche is a two-time USATF trail national champion, the 2014 U.S. Sub-Ultra Trail Runner of the Year and a member of Nike Trail Elite and Team Clif Bar. He works with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. Follow David’s daily training on Strava here, and follow him on Twitter here.