Using Time Trials to Improve Running

Club member, Jimmy submitted this question: You’ve mentioned in past articles that 300m sprint times are a good indicator of racing performance. How can 300m time trials [ED. – time trials in general?] be used for long distance training purposes?

This is a really cool topic because on one front it’s against traditional thinking to use them for training (versus just a progress measurement tool) and on another front it goes against many runners’ mindsets (fear adn loathing) towards time trials.

Let me clarify that the 300 meter and 50 meter time trials that have been used in a couple research studies were performed with distance runners. Usain Bolt, Asafa Powell and Tyson Gay did not line up against them. Be clear, this was research on distance runners. And these research studies have found stronger correlations to distance running performance (i.e. actual race times) than VO2max! In other words, if you lined up distance runners by their speed in a 300 meter time trial – fastest to slowest – it would be very predictive of the order they would finish at a 10k or even marathon for instance. On the other hand, if you lined up distance runners by VO2max – highest to lowest – it would be less predictive; the people with higher VO2max readings in fact do not regularly outperform those with lower VO2max readings in distance races.

The reasons for this are hidden within the measures themselves. VO2max does not have any “efficiency” calculation incorporated. It is merely a volume. On the other hand, sprint times REQUIRE high muscle power output with coordinated and efficient movement. These are critical to ALL race distances. vVO2max is another measure which is far more predictive than plain VO2max because it incorporates “velocity” – speed – within the measure. And finally, lactate threshold levels are good measures of performance, but problematic to identify accurately.

What that all means is that in the process of training, focusing on faster running and doing regular time trials are critical to your performance improvement. Indeed, time trials now become part of your comprehensive program, not some test to through in once in awhile.

So, what is the practical implication?

By doing multiple distance time trials you can plot your strengths and weaknesses. You can identify strength, speed and endurance needs. If you do the same distance time trial, you have a consistent apples-to-apples comparison to gauge your fitness progress. Either way supports a solid training program.

Let me also clarify: a time trial is an all out effort, feeling fresh for the given distance. Time trials are not pace work. Time trials are not run over your goal race distance or even at your goal race pace. TTs are mini-races. Practically speaking, coaches most often use distances less than two miles; but might be as long as a 5k for a marathoner. The research however supports using six to seven minutes or less all out efforts. Thus, for me, I use 2000 meters or less for most of my age group runners.

Time trials (TT) themselves are superb high quality workouts. At only a fraction of a distance ultimate race distance, they can be carried out regularly. There is no science on how often or how much. Here is my recommendation. I would use variable distances for time trials: 200, 300, 400, 600, mile, mile and a half for instance. If you stick with shorter time trials you could probably do one each week – changing the distance each time. You have to be careful not to overdo these. More is not better in miles, just as more is not better with speed.

Next, a time trial is not done in isolation. It is not the only thing you do on that day. It should be designed to fit within a comprehensive warm-up, cool-down, and full workout. It would not offer the best benefits to show up, warm up and just do a time trial. You would not gain as much conditioning with this approach.

For my distance runners I typically do one to one and a half mile time trials. We do a couple miles warm-up. then a 400 @ about 5k pace. Strides, stretches and any other exercises are then done to ensure that they are fully warmed up. Then we do the time trial (amidst the whining of course). After a full recovery, we then hit 4-6 x 400. The goal is to hit your mile race pace on those 400s. Then there is a cool down run. So, you see, time trial day is not an easy one for reasons beyond just doing the TT. My runners will have run 4-6 total miles and 2-2.5 miles at their mile race pace… this is good! My more advanced runners can handle even more.

To have validity, time trials need to be run relatively fresh. Otherwise it wouldn’t be a real test. We don’t usually want to see how you perform when you are tired. The goal is to measure your progress towards your race goals. This being said, you may be jeopardizing a lot of training by doing time trials because of inserting too many “easy” days in order to do them right. I hope this makes sense. Time trials are a tool and they are good training but you can’t have your entire training program revolve around time trialing.

A final factor is personal predisposition. If time trials cause stress this wouldn’t be a good approach. Once a month is good for most distance runners. If you are a middle-distance runner 800-5k you may want and need them more often and of shorter variety.


About Dean Hebert

I’m a mental game coach, author and speaker. I work with individual athletes, parents, coaches, and teams on sports performance enhancement. Beyond my academic post-graduate work in sports psychology - the psychology behind athlete performance – I am a certified Mental Games Coaching Professional (MGCP) and certified hypnotherapist. I’ve authored several books and hundreds of articles. “Coach, I didn’t run because…” (2008) is a seriously light-hearted look at making excuses not to workout and how to overcome them. “Focus for Fitness” (2009) and “Screw the Goals Give me the Donut” (2010) are two of my eBooks on mental game approaches for the everyday athlete. I wrote these because I believe that everyone can benefit from the powerful mental techniques that the world’s best athletes use. I have been cited in Runners World, Best Health magazine (CN), SWEAT Magazine, and the Washington Examiner amongst many other publications. I have been a featured mental games coach in Runner’s World and for the internationally acclaimed trail running resource - I also regularly appear on sports and fitness talk shows such as LTKFitness, Runnersroundtable and for more than three years I have co-hosted a weekly video series with Coach Joe English for I specialize in mental toughness training. My clients include tennis, synchronized swimming, golf, race-kart, soccer, motocross, volleyball, MMA, cycling (road, off-road, time-trialist), running, duathlon and triathlon, basketball, football and baseball athletes. I have coached world-class athletes and athletes internationally. I have a passion for working with youth athletes and helping them apply mental game skills and techniques to all areas of life. Most importantly, my aim is to have people enjoy sports and life to their fullest through peak performances.
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6 Responses to Using Time Trials to Improve Running

  1. Jimmy Holub says:

    Thank you, Dean!
    Ok, followup questions:
    Am I correct to assume the following?…

    50m power
    300m speed

  2. Dean Hebert says:

    Since your distance focus is 800-mile, these distances would be for speed. Power output is a part of speed development, hills or plyometrics and weight training. The next point is speed-endurance…. the longer reps of 600-1000.

  3. Jimmy Holub says:

    Thank you, Dean!
    Am I correct to assume the following?…
    1) a 50m time trial focuses upon power (acceleration).
    2) a 300m time trial focuses upon speed (top end).

    My perceptions as far as using traditional race distances as sprint time trials… (What do you think?)

    The 100m seems too long for a good power test; the acceleration is only half the race.
    The 200m seems too short for a good speed test, too affected by acceleration.
    The 400m is simply too long for many people to actually sprint the whole way.

    Hmmm… I think I’m psyching myself into wishing that the international community embraced the 50m and 300m as standard sprint events for outdoor track and field!

  4. Dean Hebert says:

    I don’t think it’s that clear cut. However, the 50 done in a couple research reports I’ve read use a flying start. The reason is that the actual acceleration phase from a standing start is immaterial for a distance runners.

    I think you may be over-thinking the distances. The main take-way point is that short sprint times for distance runners is highly correlated to their long distance times and capabilities. If through all the various training approaches (from sprints to intervals to plyometrics) you develop a runner’s power and speed it will directly positively affect their distance times. And that in face, is in conflict with the prior beliefs that the most important element in a distance runner’s improvement lies in more and more miles.

    I am NOT saying that a distance runner can get away without running some miles. The point however is much clearer today than ever that integrating very high quality running is the optimal way to get runners faster… it is not just some “frosting” added in the last few weeks of training for the big “10k” or “marathon”.

  5. Pingback: Quality Workout – 800m Time Trial — Rob Run

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