No single workout is going to make you much faster, but overdoing it in even one training session could bring about lasting fatigue or, worse, an injury that sets your training back by days or weeks.
There, you’ve been warned.
With that much said, hard workouts can be a big part of the fun for any runner. The advantages they provide are equal parts mental and physiological—just knowing that you are capable of pushing through a hard hill session or a demanding track workout can provide a major confidence boost.
Performing any of the eight workouts below is a real challenge, and for anyone who isn’t an elite-level runner these are generally not the type of efforts to attempt multiple times in a given week. Even top-tier runners parcel out demanding training efforts, but they also look forward to them and use them for benchmarks.
For example, marathon and ultramarathon elite Michael Wardian cited a favorite confidence-building session in this training article. “I think a solid track workout of 10 x 1K with 30 seconds of recovery is pretty rad,” Wardian said. “I feel like if I can get through that, I am ready to rumble.”
We’ve arranged the eight workouts below from shorter, speed-oriented sessions all the way up to long efforts for marathon training. Don’t be fooled by the duration though—any of these workouts can inflict significant muscular and neuromuscular fatigue. A good rule of thumb is to end short interval sessions feeling like you could still squeeze out one more repeat without your performance level falling off a cliff. For longer workouts, don’t be afraid to pull the plug if you’re worried that finishing the run will leave you wrecked. Always be sure to get in a good warmup before launching into any demanding training effort.
Hit the Hills
Coach Brad Hudson’s scheme for hill work is simple: Start with just one or two 8-second sprints on a moderately steep incline and build from there. Hudson’s runners progress toward steeper grades, longer repeats and performing larger numbers of them, as described in this straightforward training article. If you’re itching for a tougher hill-oriented session you can also attempt elite coach Mario Fraioli’s fearsome Sisyphus Session.
RELATED: Steep Hill Sprints
If you’ve run marathons, you might wonder how repeats of a measly 100 meters could be considered a taxing session. You’ll find the answer to that question in this account of how the great distance champion Haile Gebrselassie incorporated 100-meter sprints into his weekly training schedule.
RELATED: Haile’s 100-Meter Sprints
Speed Anywhere, Anytime
You don’t need no stinking track to do speed work! There’s nothing magical about making left turns on an oval, as evidenced by the fartlek-style workouts in this training article. The brief, but demanding, interval ladder described here gets you to your 5K race pace and a bit better. But since you’re running by feel and time, the workout also helps you develop a stronger sense of your race paces.
RELATED: Speed Workouts You Can Do Anywhere
Climb the Track Ladder
Though a track isn’t strictly necessary to build speed, there’s something inspirational about doing a workout in a facility built just for runners. The “ladders” described here provide options for both ascending and descending structures, so you can start with longer efforts and work down to speedy ones or try the opposite approach. Either way, you’ll be exposed to a variety of paces and distances.
RELATED: Track Ladders
Break it Down
Another track-based session, these 600-meter breakdowns are meant to be run flat-out fast. We’ve outlined versions of the workout for beginners and advanced runners. The advanced version in particular offers a fairly high degree of both volume and intensity, so be sure to save this workout for periods where you’re really trying to tax your system.
RELATED: 600-Meter Breakdowns
Precision Tempo Run
The final track-based workout in this collection comes from two-time Olympian Alan Culpepper. The phrase “tempo run” is notoriously fluid when used by different running coaches, but Culpepper’s workout is reassuringly well defined. The protocol here calls for using a heart rate monitor and pegging the effort at 80- to 85-percent of heart rate maximum, or about half-marathon pace.
RELATED: Alan Culpepper’s Track Tempo Run
Progress Your Running
This distance-oriented session comes from David Laney, an elite ultra-runner, marathoner and trail runner. “The workout gives you a ton of volume around marathon pace and a ton of work at your aerobic threshold without the effort of hammering a half marathon at race pace,” Laney explains. The underlying structure is also easily adaptable—for runners doing lower weekly volumes breakdown of a 4-3-2 or 3-2-1 miles might be preferable.
RELATED: David Laney’s 5-4-3 Progression Run
The 2 X 6-mile workout is one of the benchmark sessions for the members of the Hansons-Brooks Distance Project. It’s meant to run a shade under your goal marathon pace, with a 10-minute break between the two efforts. This workout has a reputation for revealing whether an athlete has overestimated or underestimated his/her marathon race pace, so go into it rested and ready for a demanding session.
Be a Trooper
Lee Troop is a former elite marathoner—he represented Australia three times in the Olympic event—turned coach and running store owner in Boulder, Colo. His 18-mile progressive long run is typically scheduled three weeks out from a goal marathon. It starts off at an easy pace but ramps up every 3 miles, with the final 6 miles performed at goal race pace. If all goes well, Troop believes a marathoner has a very good chance of nailing the goal event.
RELATED: Lee Troop’s Progressive Long Run