Your Guide to Track Workouts

Even after she'd run for years and finished a marathon, Alex Gardner was mystified by the track. Which way do you run? How fast? "I didn't even know what recovery was," says Gardner, 42, of Lake Lotawana, Missouri. "Do I lie on the ground for two minutes? What do I do?"

When Gardner finally mustered up the nerve to try track workouts, she instantly saw results. She shaved 22 minutes from her marathon PR, for a 3:54, and finished a 5-K in 22: 17. "Before, I didn't really understand how important proper pacing was," she says. "And the track taught me how to be more mentally tough."

For seasoned runners like Gardner—and beginners, too—a track can initially seem like a pretty scary place. Even if you're able to shake haunting memories of gym class, track can resemble a mysterious subculture, with its own language, code of conduct, and definitions of fast and slow. Not to mention the prospect of pain. "People are afraid of it because they worry it hurts to run hard," says Vincent Sherry, a Flagstaff, Arizona- based coach for the Run SMART Project, an online coaching service.

The fear factor may be real. But it's actually not that bad. And whether you're shooting for a PR or just want to enjoy running more, experts agree that track workouts are the most effective way to improve fitness and lower race times.

Below you'll find everything you need to get on track. You'll learn why you need speedwork, how to talk like a trackster, and how to do your first workouts. Like Gardner, you may discover that a little quality time on a 400-meter oval gives you a boost that lasts way longer than a glorious race finish.

"It's a huge validation," says Gardner. "Now, I feel like a 'real' runner."

3 Reasons to Love The Oval

1) PROPER PACING
On a treadmill, the belt keeps you on pace, even if your energy fades. "You're just keeping up with what's moving underneath you," says Marius Maianu, a clinical exercise physiologist at the Cooper Clinic in Dallas. By contrast, hitting a certain pace on the track requires more mental effort.

2) POSITIVE PEER PRESSURE
At a group workout, you're likely to push harder than you might on your own. You're also less likely to give up when the going gets tough. Other runners at the workout can spot sloppy form that might be slowing you down.

3) THE FUN FACTOR
strong>Track may be about speed, but at most workouts organized by running clubs, the vibe stays social and supportive. The track is a great place to meet new running buddies—the kind who help you get out the door in epic conditions, or tough out a long run.

Before You Go: Pointers for First-Timers

KELLIE STAMM, 47, hit her goal of a 19-minute 5-K after adding track sessions to her training. Now she leads weekly workouts for her local club, the Sayville Running Company team, in New York. Here are her tips for newbies.

1) PLAN AHEAD
If possible, determine beforehand what the workout will be so you can get mentally prepared for what pace you'll run, who you'll run with, how much recovery you'll take, and how long the workout will be.

2) WARM UP
Trying to run fast without a warmup is a recipe for a pulled muscle or for tiring out early. Be sure to jog at an easy pace for 15 to 20 minutes before the track workout. At the end of the warmup, add some strides to help boost your heart rate and ready your muscles for some quick work.

3) EASE INTO IT
Start conservatively so you can hold back early and finish strong. As the session goes on and you start to fatigue, it should feel harder to maintain your goal pace. But if you have trouble finishing a fast segment, it's best to back off your pace instead of adding extra recovery time.

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