Running Hard, but Running Controlled: Repeats

Tomorrow I have practice with Athletics Boulder.

One group will be doing repeats – 4 x 1,600m with 400m easy jog.  This should be a hard workout, but also a controlled workout.  So the question is, how do you know if you ran it controlled?  My simple answer would be, “Could you have run one more repeat in the same time as your last one?”  If the answer is yes, then you ran controlled.  But if the answer is no, then you ran too hard and failed to execute the workout.

Running hard a couple of times a week – assuming you’re 100% healthy – is sound training, as long as you’re doing it controlled.  When workouts go from being controlled to being race-like then you’re on your way to over-training and into a cycle of fatigue that may take you weeks to get out of.

So run hard on your workout days, but run the hard days controlled.

Note: The term “interval” and “repeat” are often used incorrectly by athletes and coaches.  Repeat should refer to the distance being run, while the interval is the time or distance between the repeats.  

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  • DanWay

    Just curious to know how fast you run the mile repeats? Last week our group did something similar: [2 x (1200, 1200, 1600)] w 400m rest. Repeats at 8k pace. This week we’ll do 2000,2000,3200,3200 w 800 rest btw. Again at 8k pace.

  • CoachJay

    Good question. We run on a road that is a bit uphill on the way out and then downhill on the way back. It’s 2k and it’s nice to have it marked every 400m. So 10k to start and then the hope is to run 5k pace at the end. Probably averages out to 8k pace, though I there is no one in the group that has a recent 8k mark (though we have a 5 mile race opportunity this weekend).

  • Doug Petrick

    This is a very relevant post- for the HS Indoor Kids (distance), today we are doing a “combo workout.” 2 Hills (each about .2 up) run up is the hard but controlled, down is the easy. Then mobilit drills on the track- scorpians, groiners, iron cross. Hard but controlled 800 meters on the track. Easy 400 jog. Various GS on the track. Hard but controlled 400 meters on the track. Easy 400 jog. Stairs circuit in the stadium stairs track. Hard but controlled 400 meters on the track. Easy 400 jog. Various GS on the track. Hard but controlled 800 meters on the track. Mobility drills on the track- scorpians, groiners, iron cross. Finish up with 150 accels (fast!) and 30m max outs (fast!) three of each. I was trying to think of the best way to describe hard but controlled to the kids, and Coach Jay, your post summed it up.

  • Matthew

    Jay, your point about overtraining is well-taken, but are you arguing that an athlete should never be “totally wrung out” after any workout? In high school, E, and two of her teammates, were once talking about how a workout that left them totally wrung out — that they had to fight on the last two repeats — gave them more confidence when on the starting line of a race. There were only three workouts like this over the course of the track season, and never near races….

  • CoachJay

    Thanks Matt. I agree with this idea for those who don’t race very often. But to me every race should be all out. So yes, for many elite athletes that I’ve worked with we will do a time trial where we want them to run all out…and then we may take 10 minutes rest and finish with some 120’s where mechanics are the key.

    I guess that’s the problem with some of these posts. The adults I coach in Athletics Boulder will race fairly often. They have also come from a mentality that you run every workout as hard as you can. I see this with a lot of adults. So for that population we need to be careful.

    …but to be honest, I hope more high school coaches will chime in here because I would be curious to hear what other coaches have to say.

    A couple of years ago I presented at the Ohio clinic and gave a template of training for the spring that had time trials. An extremely successful coach from the state presented next and said they raced all of time…and his 4 x 800 has run 7:40…maybe even 7:38. But I’m embarrassed that I don’t remember if he had them race all out in every race, or not.

    I do think it’s important to race most track races either all out from the gun, or have a plan that is conservative through ______ number of laps and then a big change in pace to the end.

    I don’t know if I’m answering the question, but those are my thoughts.

  • CoachJay

    Hope it goes well. You should google “Mick Grant” as he’s had a lot of success with youth runners who run indoors and then not only run faster outdoors, but continue to get better with every season in high school.

  • Ryan Tripicchio

    My thought process when it comes to workouts is that there’s a pace that you’re supposed to hit but its not necessarily the maximum unless that’s the goal of the workout. When I tell my HS guys we’re doing cruise intervals (1000’s or 1 mi. at threshold) that’s the pace I want them to hit. Same thing goes for interval pace (circa Jack Daniels) or even repetition pace. I think of it similarly to weight lifting. You don’t try to 1 rep max every time you go in to lift; instead you have a weight set aside for building endurance and another weight for power. And while I might give the guys a numerical pace to hit at first eventually I want them to understand what pace I’m looking for based on their feeling of it. There is certainly a place for goal pace training but its not every time you hit the track.

  • Tyler McCandless

    Jay, enjoy the discussion and the comments so far. I think a major difference is how hard each athlete can push themselves. If you follow Noakes central governor theory, I’d argue that as the athlete ages he begins pushing his body further and further against the limits his brain sets. A high school athlete has a few days, weeks, months, or at most a couple of years of training. I don’t believe the brain lets them push as close to their true limits as an adult or elite runner. You can give a 16 year old high schooler the same workout – 4×1600 off 400m rest and tell them to go all out. 30 minutes later if you gave the team a frisbee they would have a remarkably athletic game of ultimate frisbee. If you gave me 4x1600m “all-out’ I would be hard pressed to run faster than a light jog on cool-down…definitely not capable of ultimate frisbee. Just some thoughts from a 26-year old athlete and coach.

  • rob hewitt

    There are times for it and then there are not times for it. It’s something that must be valued and understood so it is not abused. Pushing it in a hard workout can teach a kid toughness and boost their confidence. I would allow a kid to push it early in the season but most likely not late. Following that hard effort I would always look to balance it with a tempo or threshold effort later in the week..if I could not balance it out I wouldn’t push it.

    I find at times you must be willing to throw the physiology book out the window and follow your intuition.

  • Matthew Staggs

    For me, it totally depends on the distance, what I want them to get out of it, and where in the season. For something like mile repeats, they should be shooting for a pace where it is at or slightly faster than their PR pace because the goal is to either consistently run a particular time each time, or to negative split a little bit. My runners will not get anything out of a workout when they go 5:00 for the first mile repeat, then average 6:00 the rest of the way. Mile repeats, to me, works on your aerobic racing conditioning, but also helps train the body mentally for track meets, where they are doing 4 events, or in cross country as a type of “speed” workout (relative to XC speed) where you end up doing some overtraining.

  • Marco Anzures

    Great question Jay, especially concerning high school coaches and their programs. For every coach I have observed and had the opportunity to talk to there will almost always be a different philosophy held for the balance between racing and training and what intensity each should have.
    Personally, with high school athletes I have judged training intensities based on what part of the season we happen to be in. Early on when kids have just begun to race, training intensity whether it be intervals, repeats, tempos etc. is kept very manageable – they should always have something left in the tank. High school kids get the opportunity to race so often that I like to keep their races as their time to explore their talents and go all out. Now, this doesn’t mean we treat every meet like a championship race and rest up preceding it.
    As the season progresses and league finals, sectionals, and state qualifiers come up then I might reserve one or two workouts that aim to simulate race intensity and athletes are encourage to run close to “all out”. Of course at this point in the season all the hard work has been done and now we are focused on staying sharp and racing well. Volume is down slightly and we can afford to go a bit more intense to prepare for our best races!
    I’ve found the kids enjoy these types of workouts when they can push themselves and compete against one another in a very low key and low risk environment. There are always a few who surprise themselves.
    That being said, I know some coaches like to take kids to the well during workouts no matter the time of season. And athletes, myself included, do gain a sense of confidence in surviving training sessions like these, but I would argue that part of a coach’s job as a mentor is to instill confidence by presenting the entire training program as the key to success, and not risk an athlete becoming too reliant on herculean training efforts to find their mental strength.

  • Ben

    For me, there is a time and place for pushing through a workout. Typically, I like to control the whole workout. I like for my athletes to feel good on race day and not dealing with any type of fatigue looming over their heads. With consistent good performances will come great confidence in their abilities. I don’t want my athletes to be “workout warriors” but rather great racers. I once heard a coach quoted as saying “we never go to the well in our workouts.” Basically, if an athlete finishes a repeat and has to bend over and put their hands on their knees, it’s a clear indication that they are running the workout too hard. The same coach then said, “if that occurs, we pull them from the workout.” I’m not sure why, but that has stuck with me since I’ve heard it. I do often ask them if they could have done another repeat at the same effort. If the answer is yes, I let them know that the executed the workout to expectation. That is also a confidence builder.

    Now, I do have my athletes complete a pyramid workout at various different paces and by the end, they are really getting after it. I prefer to use this workout 10 days before a major competition. This allows time for recovery prior to the competition.

    Thanks Jay

  • Mike Callor

    Hey Jay. If I want to know if a workout was controlled and run as it should have been, I just need to have a good amount of information on the athlete (recent performance time is always the best). I am a fan of the 3200 meter time trial, because if it a well trained athlete that runs the trial smart and to the best of their ability, you basically have a tested vVO2. From there, you can easily design workouts for the athlete based on current fitness. Early season (track), I like tempo repeats progressing into tempo runs. These paces have been tested to be about 85% of vVO2, or LT pace (IF that is the energy system you want to train). So you can do the simple math to find 85% of the athletes vVO2 and know exactly how fast they should be running to be in control. From there, I like the 12 week Vigil progression going from 85 to 88 to 91 to 94% as the athlete gets fitter. So, for example, a 10:00 3200 meter runner (5:00 per 1600) could do 4 x 1 mile in around 5:45 with a 3 minute recovery interval, and you would know it was controlled, barring the athlete is healthy, well rested, etc.

  • thomas_t

    Good discussion. Ryan’s comment about Jack Daniels reminded me of how he–JD–says you should work as hard as you have to and not harder. In other words, if you can get the same bang for your buck running at 90% as you can at 95% run at 95% (similar to what Mike alludes to with Vigil’s progression).

    I like to keep the workout controlled. After the penultimate rep I’ll as the kids if they’ve got one more or two more in them. If they say “one” or hesitate (or if their body language belies their words) I’ll cut them off early. If they say they have two more in them, we’ll do one more.

    That said, I agree with the others, there is a time and place for going to the well/coming to Jesus/bleeding out your eyeballs. Those places and times only align themselves maybe 2 times a season. As a high school coach where we are competing once a week, I don’t want to leave our race (an all out effort) in the workout (generally a controlled effort).

    Going to the well, however, can serve a couple of purposes. 1) As alluded to by others it can build confidence. For high schoolers, there is almost magical quality about pretending to be Quenton Cassidy and running a bunch (10-12 not 40) of 400s. Like Rob says, sometimes you have to throw out the physiology text.

    2) It can teach runners what race effort really should be/what giving 100 % really is. Tyler hits the nail on the head when he says that half an hour after a hard workout you could pry get a pretty good game of Ultimate going. There is a learning curve to this whole process of becoming a distance runner. Racing is all about stepping out of your comfort zone. And that is something high school kids aren’t particularly used to doing (well, at least not in a physical sense. Adolescence is so full of opportunities to fall flat on your face, can we really blame a kid for not risking doing exactly that by laying it all out there in a race?).

    For the majority of kids we coach this is their first exposure to an endurance competition. A race isn’t just one race, it is a lot of races all going on at the same time. There is the race between the leaders, between the chase pack, between the next pack and the pack after that and so on. How many kids are content to find a running buddy and “see what I have left at the end” simply because they don’t know how much they are capable of? Workouts provide a relatively controlled (and like Marco says) low key and low risk environment for kids to explore their limits.

  • rob hewitt

    a 5minute h.s. boy miler vs. a 4:20 h.s. boy miler vs. a girl miler can all be different answers as well. In my experience: the 5 minute boy with a huge ceiling has so much to learn in terms of toughness and pushing themselves, the 4:20 miler can shred themselves to pieces ripping a workout, girls do great pushing it more often then boys. I believe fractional use of Vo2 max is massively important but most of the kids I coach aren’t 4:20/9:15 kids. The 4:20/9:15 kid needs more science and the 5:00 boy needs more art. I cant control every variable for them all the time- a lot of good can come from them exploring workouts and races unleashed.

  • John Kenworthy

    Tyler, I 100% agree here. My high school girls frustrate me endlessly when they finish what are some of our biggest workouts, say that they’re dead and it was the hardest thing they’ve ever done, but will giggle and laugh and goof off through cool down and GS/drills. I picture myself post-workouts and, like you, struggle to remain perpendicular to the earth let alone bounce around with energy.

  • Carly Pizzani

    Great description of running ‘controlled’ – but wouldn’t your average runner in training for an event (ie not an athlete attuned to their body) have trouble working out if they were doing it right until *after* the workout? How long do you, as a coach, think it takes for someone to start recognizing what different effort levels feel like?