You’re going to a desert island and you get to bring two things? What would make your list? What would be your third, fourth, or fifth? This survival exercise might apply to your physical exercise right now.
Periodization, which I’d define as structuring the training cycle (including nutrition and lifestyle factors when controllable) that sets an athlete up to feel best on race day, is magic. It’s the ‘secret sauce’ of meticulous runners everywhere and a beautiful accident for the less intentional ones. Ever feel like hills can’t hurt you? Or your breathing just doesn’t feel labored, even at fast paces or extreme altitudes? Those elusive days are a major driving force for many in the MUT (mountain, ultra, trail) community, and there’s certainly much to learn from the more conventional end of running, for example elite marathoners typically peaking for just two races a year. But trail races rarely merit that level of commitment (read: intolerable FOMO), and especially now, when events all over the globe are postponed or cancelled altogether, it’s a great time to consider how to structure intentional training without a goal event.
Enter “island workouts.” This is a concept I’ve been exposed to a few times via the excessive number of coaching certifications I’ve attended, and I love the wording; “island workouts” is catchy isn’t it? Like a desert island, you only have limited resources (workouts in our case) at your disposal, and you will have to use them for everything you need. In practice, we’re talking about workouts we can do every week of the year, regardless of race date -or even race distance or type. Most people can recognize a peaking workout from a base building workout: 3×1 mile at 5k pace being an example of the former, while 3×1 mile at marathon pace the latter. But it’s a long order to iron out specific sessions in a sport that includes vertical kilometers as well as 200 milers! So I’ll begin with the least controversial, and most agreed upon options and move to my own opinion as we go, seem fair?
1-Easy running. This should already make up the bulk of your training, 52 weeks out of the year. This is not up for debate. Easy running is king. From about a minute a mile slower than 2-hour race pace, up to 200 mile race pace, or 90-140 beats a minute’ish, depending on age and training level, for those inclined to HR zones. When in doubt, slow down.
2-Strides, or any alactic, anaerobic exercise with the intent of improving running economy. A step many miss, when jumping from purely easy mileage, this and easy miles alone can bring you 70+% of the fitness you’ll need on race day. This includes supplemental work like squats, lunges, dynamics, or plyometrics, as well as sprints of less than 10-12 seconds (strides), core and hip work, and most other ancillary things runners already know they should do. These workouts have minimal effect on aerobic development, positive or negative, if kept short with full recovery between sets, but can prevent injuries and help you become a more efficient runner. Beyond that, they are all things we can do week in and week out, whether it’s race week or 16 weeks out from it. A typical session of strides would be 5 by 10 seconds at 2-10 minute race pace, with mile race pace being a good place to start. A trail runner can use an incline to ensure less mechanical stress and work on uphill economy.
3-Tempo work. For ultra running purposes this includes “true tempos,” runs of 20 minutes at 1 hour race effort (half marathon pace for some, 10k pace for others, 5k pace for others), but can be expanded to include paces as slow as three-hour race pace I’d assert. True tempo effort is about handling lactate in your system, training the body to utilize it more effectively. This has benefits for every type of runner, from 800 meters up to 200 miles, as it will further decrease your energy cost of running. For slower paces, say 3-hour race pace (similarly, half marathon pace for some will be 55k pace for others, to equal 3-hour race effort), the goal is still to become comfortable at less-than-comfortable paces, while making all slower paces feel easier. There’s rarely a runner that can’t PR confidently off of just these first three foundational workouts, and they can all be repeated year-round for any runner and event.
4-Race specific pace work. You know you’ll want to run a Vertical K again, or a 100 miler, so there’s rarely harm in keeping a toe in the pool of these efforts, for visualization and logistical (shoe choice, nutrition, etc) reasons alone. Since the goal race might be months away, I prefer these as “micro workouts,” where the goal is feeling race effort more than truly building fitness there. An example would be 2-4 hours at goal 12-36 hour race pace, long enough to feel like you can fuel and try out gear and paces, but not long enough to do much damage. On that note, this doesn’t include runs longer than 4 hours, or hard long runs, as those should be reserved for when you have a defined goal (or do them for fun of course!).
5-Overspeed of all kinds. I really like these, due to the idea that mitochondria, the “powerhouse of the cell” require long, slow effort to multiply, and harder efforts to grow larger. The nervous system also thrives when given this sort of stimulus, and that should leave you feeling amazing. For this we’re talking 5-10 by 20 seconds at around 2-10 minute race effort (simply longer strides), depending on the type of runner you are. An alternative, that’s a bit more mountain- and ultra- specific, is downhills: 1-3 miles (in one go or split up) at dream 5k pace down a gravel road is an ideal target to shoot for. These can be playing with fire for those runners with an overabundance of speed, but can be ideal year-round for those with less of it. Use some discipline and gage your effort honestly, beginning these only after a few weeks of consistency with the above four types of workouts. You will probably find you don’t need the extra abuse on your body, at least until you’re “in-season,” whatever that might mean for you.
Notice what didn’t make the cut, from conventional speed workouts like 12×400 all-out to race-specific sessions, or any intervals so hard to merit recovery slower than your typical easy pace -or passive recovery for that matter. The sessions we use to peak for a race need to be specific to the race, done at the right time before race day, as well as customized to the type of runner you are and your background. The good news is that those workouts, sexy as they are, are simply icing on the cake; you can achieve 95+% of your potential without them, and in most cases you can and should cram them in during the last month before race day. For the rest of the year, and for uncertain times like these, you have island workouts.
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