With running training, it’s essential not to let perfect be the enemy of good. That sounds like a fortune cookie delivering a TED talk, but it’s true. Because over months and years, lots of good training will get you as close to perfect an athlete as you can possibly be.
Perfect training involves a meticulous plan, with each element building on top of a previous one over months and years. Think of it as a fancy cake served at a wedding in Nantucket.
Meanwhile, good training is simpler. It involves consistency over time, doing what you can when you can, mixing workouts with easy running. It’s more like gumbo served at a family reunion. You throw pretty much everything you have into the pot, heat it up and hope for the best. And guess what? It’s usually freaking delicious.
The training gumbo still requires lots of thought. You don’t want to throw in bananas or the family pet. But once you have a general taste you are after, you can have fun with the ingredients within that framework. Unlike the cake, where each element comes through in the final tasting, the gumbo is a bunch of good stuff blending together to be something great. Trail running responds really well to gumbo training because it rewards many different skillsets and being a well-developed athlete is sometimes more important than being the absolute fastest you can be.
Workouts are an essential part of good gumbo training. One complaint I hear all the time is that training theory is too complicated for an athlete’s goals. They’re never sure when they can do workouts and might not even have a race in mind, so they just go out and run. That’s great, but it’s not enough to find your true potential. That type of single-speed training is like a big pot of flavorless broth, rather than rich gumbo.
So let’s throw some good stuff into the pot! These five workouts are useful at almost any phase of training all year round. Do them with a warm-up and cool-down consisting of easy running, with an easy day before and after. Add them on top of a broth of easy running and long runs, and you’ll be feasting on breakthrough fitness soon.
The Binary Code: 10 to 15 x 1-minute fast/1-minute easy
Getting faster over time requires improving your running economy, reducing the amount of energy it takes to go a given pace. The Binary Code slays the running-economy dragon by breaking down intervals into manageable chunks. It’s so versatile that it is the default workout I give professional athletes who are unsure of their time availability while traveling.
Go fast on the one-minute intervals (as if you’re racing a 3K or 5K) and slower on the easy portions and it targets velocity at VO2 max. Go a bit slower on the fast portions (around 10K effort) and float during the recoveries (around marathon) and it targets critical velocity and lactate threshold. Do it on uphills or variable terrain and you can work on trail skills while you are at it.
Shark Teeth: 6 to 8 x 2-minutes fast/2-minutes easy
A few years ago, I was talking to a pro athlete in Boulder on an easy run, when I asked him about the workouts his coach assigned. He confided in me: “I’m nervous. The big one is tomorrow.”
Now, this guy is strong as heck and a top road marathoner, so I expected some devilish long tempo like 20 miles hard over a bed of hot coals. Instead, it was something simpler. “We are doing 2-minute intervals.”
The training group did hard two-minute intervals every six weeks or so, pushing themselves close to their limits at the end, with lots of recovery in between. By doing the intervals fast (around 5K effort or even faster to finish), they were straining their biomechanical and aerobic limits, putting out lots of power that would make slower paces feel easier in future runs.
Some athletes thrive on doing these faster intervals with a slight downhill assist, like the almost imperceptible one-to-two-percent grades you’d see on a path along a creek. That lets them maintain good form throughout the interval. But you can do them anywhere, just make sure you have lots of recovery in the days afterward.
Corrine’s Hills: 5 x 3-minute hills moderate/hard with easy run down recovery
Back in 2013, Corrine Malcolm was an elite biathlete training with Team USA. When she switched to trail running and no longer had to carry a rifle on training days, she needed to bridge her aerobic strength from skiing to trail speed. That’s where three-minute hills came in.
She did this type of workout around once a month for the coming 18 months. Unlike the flatter-ground workouts above that work velocity at VO2 max or lactate threshold, these hills work power output at VO2 max, which translates well to trail running. Start the first hill more relaxed than you think you should—it can get really hard later.
At three minutes, stop for a quick breather of 10 to 15 seconds, noting where you turned around, and then run back to where you started. Then run each subsequent interval to the same spot without timing them in order to avoid racing yourself into a puddle of human-shaped sludge like in ’90s sitcom The Secret World of Alex Mack. You might not get that reference, but it’s probably funny to anyone who just did Corrine’s Hills, who will be so delirious from endorphins that everything is funny.
Batman and Robin: 15 to 20 minutes moderate, 5 minutes easy, 6 to 8 x 30 seconds fast/30 seconds easy
Shorter intervals are great when you are just trying to get some quality work in. But when you want to get race-ready, you need to do some tempo efforts to prepare for the specific demands of sustained faster running.
Batman and Robin can be the bridge between speed and strength, letting you put your improved running economy to work. On the tempo, think an effort you could sustain for around one hour. These types of controlled 20-minute tempos are a staple of training programs, because they target lactate threshold with surgical precision. Do the recovery five minutes at your normal easy run pace, then do the 30-second strides around the pace you could race a mile, putting a speed cherry on top. The short rests will keep you from going too hard.
Biscuits and Gravy: 30 minutes moderate on variable terrain
You can’t get any simpler than Biscuits and Gravy, a workout designed to prepare your body to push up and down hills without stepping off the gas pedal. Ideally, the route you choose would have multiple climbs and descents to practice pushing over variable terrain. Think one-hour effort to keep it under control—go too hard and you counter-intuitively get less from the workout by recruiting the wrong muscle fibers and using the wrong energy systems. This is a great workout to do a couple times in the month before a race.
Toss these workouts in the training pot when you feel good, do one once a week (or twice if you are an advanced athlete without injury concerns), and you’ll have a delicious pot of gumbo in no time.
David Roche runs for HOKA One One and NATHAN, and works with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play.