Time trials have to be viewed in a context of overall training. It is a part of training not something separate. These are opportunities to log progress or get a “grade” on how you are doing, just like a test in a class. You don’t want to wait until the end of the semester (race day) to find out if you are ready to pass the course (set your PR or run your goal pace). So, change your mindset about time trials. They aren’t a waste of time, something extra or something to dread!
Time trials come in different forms. They can be short or long. They can be run at goal race pace or “all out” for a given distance. All time trials serve a diagnostic or predictive purpose. They can be used to determine development areas as well as predict or project performances at other distances when certain formulas are applied. Finally, the most overlooked reasons for time trials are mental toughness training and getting in a great high quality workout! These are not a wasted workout day.
Now, let me address the mindset. Of runners who actually do time trials as part of their progress assessment they most often are dreaded. Sometimes it is the fear of the discomfort of an all out effort. Other times it’s because of the fear of what the “test” will reveal. Much like test anxiety in academics, it can produce anxiety over the performance and results themselves. Unfortunately, this can impair results. A valid time trial should be done while reasonably fresh and the mental and physical efforts will be optimal.
A properly run time trial can be of any number of distances that are shorter than your goal race distance or some race that is less than your ultimate race distance.
For distance runners (half and full marathons) the perfect diagnostic time trial distance is the same as 5k and 10k runners – about a six to seven minute test. For most runners this will be 1200 to 2000 meters. This time trial helps determine your vVO2max (the minimum pace at which you reach maximum oxygen usage). From this we can use statistics (very carefully) and extrapolate your potential at longer distances.
You can run a time trial for half the distance of your goal distance and use this to do and estimated projection of the full race distance with Horwill’s Law. For instance, if your goal is the 10k you can do an all out 5k. Take the 5k time and establish the “per 400” pace (divide by 12.5). Add 4 seconds per 400 to estimate your potential pace for double the distance (10k). Example: 5k time = 18:45 = 18:45/12.5 = 1:30/400. 1:30 + :04 = 1:34/400; 1:34 x 25 (400s in a 10k) = 39:10. So if you can run a 18:45 5k your current projected time for 10k under optimal conditions (and conditioning) is 39:10. Though this formula has wide applications and validity I have found two specific areas of variability. The very best elite athletes will run somewhat faster than four seconds per 400 faster when the distance is doubled (in the 2.5-3.5 second range). And, novice runners will run slightly slower than this figure (in the :05-06 seconds range).
Longer time trials can be run to mimic race conditions. For instance, you may want to know if you can hold your marathon pace without varying more than plus or minus 10 seconds per mile. You run a “goal paced” run for 16 miles with this in mind. It becomes diagnostic on your ability to monitor and hold pace. As well, it gives you valuable feedback on your stamina (ability to hold pace over a given distance). By the way, this run doesn’t evaluate “endurance” (ability to run a long time) a term often confused with or used interchangeably with stamina.
All time trials are challenging. They are tests. In the case of the shorter trials, they are all out efforts, thus the dread. However, it’s been reported that racing two 1-mile distances have more measurable physiological benefits than running a 10k. There is a big bang for the buck in doing time trials. They are great workouts as well as a measuring stick to gauge your progress.
There are many coaching preferences on time trialing. I prefer the vVO2max time trial and running 5k races for time trials. These are short enough to treat as quality workouts and still recovery is rapid. There is another “fun” aspect to the vVO2max test. It happens to be very close to a one mile race distance for a great number of people. The mile has an allure! When you run these, see yourself as a miler. See what barriers can be broken. I have found runners who told me they could never break 8:00 mile – smash through that! The results was a new found confidence in being a “seven minute miler” or “sub-six minute miler.” It builds confidence in your ability as a runner and the benefits are spread to ALL distances you race at – yes.. even the marathon.
Your program should do time trials on a regular basis – every 4-8 weeks (at most). Track them. Observe your seasonal changes. Use them for motivation and break barriers. A final word on timing of time trialing in training. It is a year-round activity. It maintains conditioning better than plodding mindless miles. And, it keeps some leg speed in you so that you don’t start over each year from scratch.
Now.. go out and time trial!