My Favorite Early Season Workouts
Preparing for a 5K, 10K or even Half Marathon buildup can be tricky. Before you get into the race specific workouts of your build cycle, you have to establish a strong aerobic base through plenty of volume. The challenge is how to enter the build phase a little crisper that someone who just spent several weeks pounding out miles at the same slow aerobic pace. Conventional wisdom is to mix in a few strides and maybe some longer tempo runs. However, I've found a couple of workouts that get you to your build cycle sharper allowing for shorter overall training cycles and the ability to race well sooner in the training cycle. The benefit of shorter cycles is a lower probability of burnout and more opportunities to peak. The advantage of racing sooner is more tests to gauge your fitness and progress as well as more opportunities practice going through the mental and emotional aspects of racing.
I learned these workouts when working with James Sheremeta, an amazing coach and top-tier masters runner based out of San Diego. The workouts are called Rolling Hills and Rolling 200's. The "Rolling" is key because these are early season workouts meant to enhance your aerobic base while adding a prepping your legs for the speedwork that will come later. They are meant to be hard but not all out. If you go all out, you risk injury, burnout or peaking too soon. Remember you're also going to be doing long runs and possibly tempo runs at this time as well.
For this workout, find a loop that contains, you guessed it, rolling hills throughout. I usually start out with 6 - 8 miles and over the base period build to 12 - 13 miles. This adjusts up or down depending on the distance I'm training for and the shape I'm in prior to the season. Ideally the hills are between 50 and 800m with a mixture of length and steepness. Avoid hills that are extremely steep or long.
Begin with an easy jog of about a half mile at your normal warmup pace. The begin the Rolling Hills workout. Start out at your normal aerobic pace. I found it best to not have any dramatic uphills in the first 20% of the run just to make sure you are properly warmed up. The rules of this workout are simple: Flat sections run at your normal aerobic pace. Uphill sections run at about 85% effort. Downhill sections run at your normal aerobic pace. What this gives you in a base period aerobic workout but accented with hill work, which is show to build turnover while putting less stress on your legs. Maintain this up and down tempo throughout the remainder of the run then finish with a half mile at your cool down pace.
Finding the right loop is critical. If you live in a flat area, you may have to drive to a more hilly location or repeat a smaller loop multiple times. Also, be sure to have ample flat sections as well. This is a base workout and simply going up and down hills makes it hill repeats, which is not necessarily the intent.
Rolling 200's are done on a track or grass circuit. You alternate running 200m fast and slow continuously throughout the workout. The key here is to alternate a quick, but not all out, interval with a faster than normal recovery interval. The biggest mistake here is to run the fast 200's too fast and the recovery 200's too slow. If you do that you're doing true speed work which is definitely not something you want to be doing early in the the season.
To determine pace, I estimate my pace for 1600 repeats and normalize that to 200m by dividing by 8. For the recover, I do the same thing but use my normal aerobic pace. For example, someone running 1600 repeats at a little over 5 min/mile and aerobic runs at 7 min/mile would alternate 200's of ~38 and 53. Start off with your normal warmup for track work: a jog with some strides for most people. You can begin with either the fast 200 or the recover 200. Getting the pace right and not overdoing the fast 200's is key so make that your focus on the first few intervals. Once you've got a rhythm, settle in and go to work. If done properly with an even pace for both types of reps throughout, the workout should feel fairly easy at the beginning and then get progressively harder with the last few reps being pretty challenging. Finish with your normal cool down routine.
Incorporating These Workouts
Both Rolling Hills and Rolling 200's are challenging workouts and I wouldn't do them without a few weeks a base under your belt. The long run is king at this phase in a training cycle but you can work Rolling Hills and Rolling 200's into your routine a number of ways. Someone doing 3 workouts per week might do a long run, a tempo run and alternate Rolling Hills and Rolling 200's other every week. With a little experimentation, you should be able to find a pattern that works for you.
Best of luck. I hope these workouts help you as much as they've helped me. Thanks again to James for showing me!