One Dirty Magazine

Combo Workouts And How To Use Them In Your Training

Combination workouts can supercharge fitness and add variety to harder efforts.

David Roche May 4th, 2020

Combo Workouts And How To Use Them In Your Training

Combos the snack are best used to fuel exploring existential pits of despair. Combos the workout can help get you out of any running-related existential pits, while also adding multi-faceted adaptation stresses that can improve performance. 

To review, buffalo-blue-cheese-pretzel combo = nihilistic journey into the meaningless of striving.

Workout combo = good training option for athletes looking to take harder efforts to another level.

If you look at elite athlete training logs, combination workouts are often a staple. They use different terminology and there is no set definition, but for athletes I coach, combo workouts involve pace and/or time variation across multiple sets that introduce different stresses into a single day. 

If you look at elite athlete training logs, combination workouts are often a staple. They use different terminology and there is no set definition, but for athletes I coach, combo workouts involve pace and/or time variation across multiple sets that introduce different stresses into a single day. 

After building a base, most athletes should do at least one workout most weeks involving focused higher effort. Maybe it’s short intervals, longer intervals or a tempo run. The weekly workout is the sexiest part of training plans. Or the second sexiest part if you’re anything like me and you’re really, really (REALLY) into spreadsheets.

When designing those workouts, the world is your slimy oyster. While there is a temptation to think there is a perfect workout for each athlete in each moment, hence justifying my coaching existence, the body adapts in a more complex way than that. And with that thought, I just had a sudden craving for combos.

Instead, workouts elicit a range of expected aerobic, musculoskeletal, neuromuscular and biomechanical adaptations based on speed/power output, duration and recovery. That acute workout stress further interacts with chronic training and life stress, genetics, environment and a thousand other variables.

The complexity leads to unpredictability that makes targeting a specific adaptation difficult, even if you have an athlete who never questions what they’re doing and hits every interval exactly as prescribed. Combo workouts can target a broad range of adaptation stresses given the variation in output, duration and recovery in a single day.

There are three general ideas behind combo workouts. Lists, like spreadsheets, are also quite sexy.

 

Fatigue includes many inputs, and they accumulate at different rates.

Think of the old filling-a-bucket metaphor. You have this bucket, which you fill to the top with two-inch rocks. You can’t put anything else in the bucket, right? As motivational speakers everywhere could tell you, that bucket is just getting started and you can find out more if you enter your credit-card number now.

On top of the rocks, you can pour in some pebbles to fill up the gaps. And just when it seems full again, pour in some sand. And just when it seems full again, some water. Now, your bucket is actually full, and you won a round-trip to Barbados! At least I think that’s how it works. I’m not great with metaphors.

Now think of the physical inputs of fatigue, from muscular endurance limits to chemical byproducts of harder efforts. If you’re doing one style of interval duration and intensity, it’s kind of like filling up the bucket with two-inch rocks. There may still be room for more pebbles and water, even if it feels full. 

Perhaps more interesting are the neuromuscular and mental inputs of fatigue. Central fatigue can diminish performance even when the body has more to give, like when an athlete kicks hard at the end of a race when they couldn’t muster any more speed earlier. Plus, the brain deals best with doing big tasks in small increments rather than all at once. A combo workout provides different physical and mental stimuli that can allow some athletes to fill the bucket to the brim. 

 

Adaptation is complicated, and it’s possible to encourage growth along multiple paths to improve overall fitness. 

It’s tempting to think that adaptation follows stress in a predictable way. All coaches learn that the only thing that is predictable is that there is a surprise waiting around every turn of athletic development. 

We know the biological processes at play and have lots of data to make educated guesses. But we can never know a couple of the variables, particularly related to the chaotic nature of how stress and environment interact in individual athletes. With that in mind, the optimal training approach is getting those variables to be the highest non-zero number possible, and not trying to predict the outcome with illusory certainty.

Distributing the stress along multiple vectors could encourage adaptation along a broader aerobic/musculoskeletal spectrum without taxing any one system too much.

The main way to do that is to avoid doing nothing (zero) or doing too much (which can send an athlete back to zero). In between those extremes, distributing the stress along multiple vectors could encourage adaptation along a broader aerobic/musculoskeletal spectrum without taxing any one system too much. Combo workouts may provide an avenue to lots of use without overuse. 

 

Concentrating stress can make training more sustainable and effective.

Most training systems revolve around periodic bouts of concentrated stress to spur adaptation. The prime example has always been the Nike Oregon Project post-race workouts, where athletes would go all-out on the track or roads, then follow that up with a hard workout. For example, after setting the American Record in the 2-mile in 2014, Galen Rupp signed autographs for a few minutes, then did 5 x 1 mile. The final mile interval was 4:01. That workout may have been designed with the help of a pharmacist, but the same principles are used by many training groups. 

The old wisdom of “hard days hard” doesn’t mean going all-out on every workout, it means giving the body the adaptation stresses it needs in moderation, followed by some serious recovery.

The old wisdom of “hard days hard” doesn’t mean going all-out on every workout, it means giving the body the adaptation stresses it needs in moderation, followed by some serious recovery. Combo workouts can accomplish multiple training goals in a single session, allowing a subsequent focus on the recovery period where growth actually happens.

There are four general types of combo workouts you can use in your training. There I am again with the sexy list talk. Between the combo blocks, there can be anywhere from a minute or two of easy running to a couple miles depending on your goals. Combos aren’t essential at all, but if you do them, almost any workout can be modified with these principles. After each category below, there is a table with example workouts you can mix-and-match, but make sure you adjust them for your background and goals. 

 

Longer intervals plus shorter intervals or strides

These types of combos have a general focus on aerobic development followed by speed development. The longer intervals are necessarily slower to avoid going too hard to adapt long-term. Following that with short intervals or strides can layer biomechanical/neuromuscular efficiency and musculoskeletal power on top of the longer aerobic stimulus.

You can tack faster efforts onto almost any workout, just make sure that the strides or intervals aren’t so fast that you’re sprinting, which can undermine aerobic development. These are a staple of countless training programs, from tons of NCAA track athletes to elite post-collegiate groups.

When to do them: adding smooth, fast tags at the end of workouts can be effective almost anytime.

 

Block One 4-8 x 3 min at 10k+ effort with 2 min easy recovery 5/4/3/2/1 min at 10k+ effort with 2 min easy recovery 3 x 6-8 min at 1-hour+ effort with 3 min easy recovery 8 x 2 min at 10k effort with 1-2 min easy/mod float recovery
Block Two 4-6 x 20 sec fast with 1-2 min easy recovery 4 x 1 min fast with 1-2 min easy recovery 6 x 30 sec fast/30 sec easy 4-8 x 20-30 sec hills fast with 1-2 min easy recovery

 

Hills plus flatter intervals

Starting with hills has a similar emphasis on speed after a strong aerobic stimulus, but with added musculoskeletal strain from the uphill. These hill/speed combos are great options for trail runners looking to develop climbing ability and speed, or master’s athletes looking to reduce impact forces on harder workouts. OCR champion Nicole Mericle and Dipsea podium finisher Mark Tatum do many workouts with this style.

These hill/speed combos are great options for trail runners looking to develop climbing ability and speed, or master’s athletes looking to reduce impact forces on harder workouts.

When to do them: Early in training cycles as a bridge to longer intervals, before trail races, and consistently if hill workouts are the best balance of risk and reward given your background.

 

Block One 3-5 x 3 min hills mod/hard with run down recovery 4-6 x 90 sec hills mod/hard with 2-3 min easy/mod float recovery 4/3/2/1 min hills mod/hard with 4 min easy recovery after each 2-3 x 6 min hills mod/hard with 3-6 min easy recovery after each
Block Two 4-6 x 1 min fast/1-2 min easy 1/2/3/2/1 min fast with 1 min easy recovery 6-8 x 30 sec fast/1-2 min easy/mod float 4-6 x 2 min fast/2 min easy

 

Tempo plus hills or shorter intervals

This combo calls on similar principles as the post-race workouts, but with a gentler tempo stimulus to make it sustainable. Having work to do after the tempo has the added benefit of helping some athletes run more controlled, knowing they are just getting started.

Developing speed/maximum sustainable output while also working on relaxed, up-tempo running combines two essential stimuli into one juicy day.

When to do them: anytime in build phases of training, just with plenty of recovery and at least a couple weeks between similar sessions

 

Block One 20-30 min at 1-hour effort 10-15 min at 10k effort 30-60 min at 90 min to 2 hr effort Power hour starting relaxed and ending hard
Block Two 4-6 x 20-30 sec hills fast with 90 sec easy recovery 3-6 x 1-2 min hills mod/hard with run down recovery 4-6 x 1-2 min fast with 1-2 min easy recovery 4/3/2/1 min fast with 2 min easy recovery

 

Intervals plus tempo

Doing a tempo after intervals can feel like cruel and unusual punishment. During the tempo, you may notice an empty feeling, almost like when you’re straining to do the final push-up of a set and it feels like your arms were replaced by soggy toothpicks. That combined aerobic and muscular endurance stress can spur adaptations that may not come from normal training.

During the tempo, you may notice an empty feeling, almost like when you’re straining to do the final push-up of a set and it feels like your arms were replaced by soggy toothpicks.

Usually, these tempos will be a bit shorter to avoid practicing inefficient movement patterns, but for advanced athletes they can be longer, particularly to simulate the demands of races that stress glycogen stores like marathons and ultras.

When to do them: Save these for when your fitness is developed enough to avoid running into a brick wall at the end. They’re great two to four weeks out from races or other key efforts

 

Block One 5 x 3 min hills mod/hard with run down recovery 1/2/3/4/3/2/1 min at 10k effort with 2-3 min easy recovery 4-8 x 2 min at 10k effort with 1-2 min easy recovery 6-10 x 1 min fast/1 min easy or easy/mod float
Block Two 15-30 min moderate to hard 10 min mod/hard to hard 30-60 min easy/mod to mod, just trying to work with that fading feeling 60-120 min easy/mod, working ups (ultra-focused workout)

 

When it comes to workouts, the general idea is to practice more efficient output over time, rather than learning to go harder for longer. While going hard is great in moderation, you can only ring that bell so many times before your body gets sick and tired of hearing the same tone over and over (or the bell breaks).

Running economy can improve over many years through balanced training that mixes intensity levels on top of a background of aerobic development and health. Combo workouts can stimulate different ends of the aerobic/speed spectrum on a single day, which could enhance adaptations. Or not. And that uncertainty of athletic development is part of the fun.

 

Small Business Shout Out

Fly Nutrition is where tons of athletes I coach go for nutrition analysis and plans. Kylee Van Horn, RDN has an amazing, balanced view of how nutrition fits into a busy athletic life. I trust her advice 100 percent for pro athletes doing high mileage and people just starting out with running, and everyone in between. Kylee does remote consultations and can be contacted at her website here and email here.

 

David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. His book, The Happy Runner, is about moving toward unconditional self-acceptance in a running life, and it’s available now on Amazon.

 

 

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Jocelyne
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I love it when you give out concrete examples like this! Thanks for being so amazing, David!

David Roche
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David Roche

THANK YOU SO MUCH! This means a ton to me Jocelyne!

Tyler
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Tyler

Ok – probably missed it somewhere so please forgive 🙂

Are you talking about adding a second workout block within a single run? Or adding a second run all together (a la double days)?

David Roche
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David Roche

Great question Tyler! It’s a single workout in a single session, just with multiple components. You are awesome!

Tyler
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Tyler

No you’re awesome 😀
Really looking forward to trying out some of the hill variations

Steven
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Steven

How fast someone ran one mile or five miles won’t matter much in trail running where distances that short are barely a warm-up.

I don’t see why anyone would run a “4/3/2/1 min fast with 2 min easy recovery” instead of a multi-hour run in the mountains.

This approach sucks the joy out of running and replaces with “drills” one could do indoors on a treadmill. It’s running, but it’s not trail running.

David Roche
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David Roche

Thanks for the feedback Steven! Many athletes want to explore how efficiently they can move through the trails and mountains, and that requires musculoskeletal/biomechanical/aerobic adaptations from going fast, even if it’s a smaller part of a training plan than it would be for a road runner. But different approaches are fun for different athletes! Thanks again!

Steven
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Steven

I appreciate your patient and kind explanation. My annual ski vacation ended on the first day when The pandemic abruptly closed skiing worldwide. At home, my annual pass became worthless. Six of the ten trail races that I scheduled for this year have been cancelled. The governor has closed down my sports massage guy and PT is delivered only by telemedicine. A 16K race, a 50K race, and helping crew a 160K race remain. Meanwhile, the business that my wife and I run are generating all time record sales. I have more stress and fewer sources of relief than ever… Read more »

David Roche
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David Roche

So amazing on your business!! Such awesome work. If repeats are not something you want to do, semi-structured fartlek efforts during your normal trail run once or twice a week can be a way to target long-term adaptations. It can be as simple as 6 x 2 minutes faster, or anything that excites you. But totally up to you–I am writing for a specific audience and it’s definitely not for everyone. You are great Steven!

 

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