Track training

Frank Horwill's squad at the track - photo by David Knight

Frank Horwill's squad at the track

There are rites of passage in every runner’s life: the first time you put on a pair of training shoes; your first injury; joining a running club; entering your first race; and the day you run your first marathon.

One of the milestones every runner passes is when you realise that, to improve your performance and enjoyment of running, you need to begin to train at different paces.  So instead of just stepping out of your front door every day for your run – same distance, same speed – you begin to introduce variation into your timetable:  long, slow runs, or shorter, sharper sessions designed to increase your strength or speed. As well as increasing the variety and pleasure of running, this is way to make the most rapid improvements in your performance.

In Chapter 10 we shall look at the rationale for running at different speeds, and the implications for putting together a complete training programme.  For now, let’s just celebrate the great variety of different workouts that runners can do.

Track & interval training

Go down to your local running track on a summer evening and inhale the atmosphere.  There is something quite magical about the experience: a wide variety of runners, all confronting the unforgiving certainties of the track.  In cities, the track is usually a hive of activity – with runners, throwers and jumpers, and often people playing team sports on the adjacent pitches.  There may also be one or two coaches, with whistles and stopwatches, working with their athletes.   In smaller communities, you may well still meet other runners at the track.

Why do track training?

Speed training is unquestionably the most effective way to improve your running performance.  The flat surface and measured distance enable you to see exactly how far, and how fast, you have run. By running faster than your target race pace, you build strength in your muscles, and increase your capacity to produce energy quickly.  Your running form will improve, increasing your efficiency, and you will learn to relax while running fast.  Running on the track is also an efficient way to do a hard workout because you compress your effort into a short space of time.

Why train at the track?

  • performance
  • variety
  • convenience and time
  • concentration
  • safety
  • motivation
  • access to coaching
  • enjoyment

How to do track training

There are infinitely many different sessions you can do on the track.  Runners have particular terms to describe different types of track workout.  The most common are:

  • sprints – these flat-out runs mainly improve your running form; and strides which are slower versions of sprints;
  • repetitions or repeats – that is, running fast for a short period, then taking as much time as you need to recover;
  • (the most common) interval training, which are like repetitions except that  the focus of the workout is on limiting the rest period (“interval”) between each effort; the key to this type of training is that you do not fully recover between efforts.

An interval session is defined by the length of the efforts; the pace at which the efforts are run; then number of efforts; and the time permitted for recovery.  So a typical interval session might consist of 6 efforts of 1 mile (4 laps of a 400m track) at your 10km race pace; with a rest of 45 seconds between each effort.  This is an excellent session for improving your 10km times.

The sessions you should do depend on your current level of fitness, and your goals. If you plan to run half marathons and marathons, you should probably run longer intervals at a slower pace than if you are training for a 5km.

Frank Horwill’s five tier pace system

Frank Horwill, inventor of the 5-pace method used by Sebastian Coe - photo by David Knight

Frank Horwill, inventor of the 5-pace method used by Sebastian Coe

To get the most benefit from track training you need to do a variety of different interval sessions, involving running at a number of different paces. British running coach Frank Horwill has made a key contribution to our understanding of how we should choose our training paces.[i]

Thirty years ago, Frank Horwill invented his five tier pace system, which requires runners to train in different sessions at their 400m, 800m, 1500m, 3k and 5k paces. Horwill established that running at these different paces ensures that the athlete develops both strength and stamina.  This approach was adopted (with some success!) by Sebastian Coe, and was used by other members of the British Milers Club, which Horwill founded and which led to Britain’s middle distance running heyday of the 1980s.  The 5-tier pace system can be adapted for distance runners using a hierarchy of use slower paces, such as your 3km, 5km, 10km, half marathon and marathon paces.

You can work out the correct pace for you by using the training pace calculator on the Running for Fitness website.

Frank Horwill has a rule of thumb that your pace slows by about 4 seconds a lap for men, or 5 seconds a lap for women, as the race distance increases (ie 400m, 800m, 1500m, 3km, 5km.)   For example, if you are a man whose best time for 800m is 2:30 (75 seconds a lap), then your 1500m pace should be 79 seconds a lap. In addition, the rest intervals get longer when the pace goes up (see the table below for an example).

It is important to stick firmly to the recovery intervals: if you find that you are unable to keep to the planned session, then slow down the pace of your efforts rather than increase the time of the recovery.

Table 9.2: Frank Horwill’s 5 tier pace system

Pace Time
(example 1)
(example 2)
Distance Recovery
5000m 105 sec/lap 76 sec/lap 4 x 1 mile 60-90 secs
3000m 100 sec/lap 72 sec/lap 6 x 1000m 75-120 secs
1500m 95 sec/lap 68 sec/lap 6 x 600m 90-120 secs
800m 90 sec/lap 64 sec/lap 4 x 400m 120-180 secs
400m 85 sec / lap 40 sec / lap 8 x 200m 120-180 secs
Adapted from Frank Horwill Obsession for Running, 1991.

Gerschler Fartlek

This session is named after Wodlemar Gerschler of Germany who developed the principles of interval training during the 1930s.. The Gerschler Fartlek is done on the track, and is good training for getting fit quickly.   After a warm up jog, you stride hard for 30 seconds, followed by a 90 second jog.  You do five more efforts, but with a 15 second reduction in the recovery each time.  So the session is 30/90, 30/75, 30/60, 30/45, 30/30, 30/15.  This is repeated three times.  At the end, do a 10 minute warm down jog.

How often to do track training

In general you should aim to run on the track once or perhaps twice a week if you are a long-distance runner; and up to five times a fortnight if you are a middle-distance runner or shorter.  But you should be aware that track training is physically hard, and the type most likely to lead to injury.  So you should build up slowly – you should certainly not go from nothing to three times a week in one step.

[i] Frank Horwill, An Obsession for Running, 1991

One Response to Track training

  • Georgia:

    Hey ypu really helped I injured my leg severly before this season started so I looked up the best way to train therefore this mistake of injury won’t happen again I want to say Thanks!
    Georgia Bath

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