Adding some variety to your quarantine runs with sprint, hill, and tempo workouts

Running is on the rise, thanks to quarantine. Running is the perfect quarantine sport; it’s naturally socially-distanced, and it doesn’t require a gym, pool, or other specialized equipment.

I’ve been working through plantar fasciitis for the past few months, which is (literally) no walk in the park, so I’ve been spending a lot of time cycling. However, many of my friends are reaching a new level of running ability on their own fitness journeys, and have asked how to spice up their workouts a bit.

If you’ve been doing the same sort of running workout every time you go out – some distance at about the same pace, along the same routes, you may want to think about adding in a couple of new workouts to the mix. Adding variety to your running has a number of benefits, which can include boredom alleviation, as well as speed increases, injury prevention (if done right), and improvements to overall fitness.

Here are three typical workouts you might think about adding to your routine. Each of these can be customized, so I’ll describe the structure of the workout, then give an example, and indicate where you can bump it up a bit if you’re feeling enthusiastic, or scale back if you aren’t ready yet.

The workouts I’ll go over are 1) sprints, 2) hill repeats, and 3) tempo runs.

1. Sprints

A sprint workout is what it sounds like – you go pretty fast for a predetermined distance or number of minutes, then recover for (typically) a shorter amount of distance or time in between each sprint. You can do this as many times as you want, but for most people I know, a typical sprint workout will last 15-30 minutes, and very few will do sprints for more than an hour.

A good way to think about sprints is that the sprint itself should be about two times the distance or duration of the recovery. For example, if you are sprinting for half a mile, you may do a quarter mile recovery before starting the next sprint. With this structure, you can customize almost any sprint set you want.

Benefits of sprinting include:

  • Increasing cardiovascular fitness as you spend more time in an anaerobic workout zone
  • Working new/different muscles that may not typically get as much attention during a normal workout
  • Increasing overall speed, as your body adjusts to faster movement
  • Improving recovery time between sets (typically measured by heart rate, although I’ve never used a heart rate monitor)

What you’ll need to do this workout:

  • A watch or timer. Phone is okay, but having to carry it and look at it while sprinting is sort of annoying
  • (If you want) A running track, so you don’t have to measure distance (if you’re using distance as the measurement, and not time). A typical running track is 400 meters for one lap, which is about a quarter of a mile

Sprint workout Example A: Distance on a track

I like to do this workout about once a week when I’m training for any distance of race. This workout short enough to be able to add in during the week or at the beginning of a longer run, and it’s enough to get the blood flowing and the legs moving.

  • Warm up: 2-4 laps around the track (about one mile)
  • Main set: 1 timed lap sprint around the track (400 meters), with .5 lap (or a full lap) of a jogged recovery. Do this 4-6 times (1.5-3 miles depending on your variant) You’ll want to try to hit the same time for your sprinting lap each time. On a good day, I’ll average 1:17-1:20 on each sprinting lap.
  • Cool down: 2-4 laps around the track (about one mile)

Total distance: 3.5 – 5 miles.

When I’m training for marathon distances or longer, I like to do 2 laps (about half a mile. or 800 meters, which is about 3:15-3:20 for me) as my sprint, with 1 lap of recovery. I’ll do this 4-5 times. I really like the half-mile sprint distance, as it’s just enough time to make me psychologically uncomfortable with the work I’m doing.

If I’m training for a very long race, I may do 4-5 half mile sprints, then add on a few easy miles afterwards to get my mileage up for that day. If you’re doing sprints and want to add some miles on, it’s best to do the sprints at the beginning of the workout, when you’re fresh.

Sprint workout Example B: Tabata

Tabata is a very common form of HIIT, or High Intensity Interval Training, that is popular in a variety of sports. It is not unique to the sport of running, although can be easily added to a running routine.

The structure is very easy:

  • Warm up: 2-5 minutes of easy jog (or longer)
  • Main set: 20 seconds of sprinting, 10 seconds of recovery. Do this 8 times in a row, for a four-minute main set.
  • Cool down: stand there panting and sweating. Just kidding – it’s a good idea to walk or slow-jog for a minute or two.

If you want to do the main set more than once, add in a 2-3 minute recovery between each 4 minute set. I have done workouts with the main set 2-3 times in a row; doing it more than that doesn’t accrue the same benefits of the high intensity sprinting, as you’re increasingly tired.

Total distance: Whatever the distance is that you’ve run. I find this rarely gets me more than a mile and a half total, but I’m exhausted at the end.

It’s especially important to do a warm up for this type of workout, because the explosivity of 20-second bursts can be very stressful on your body if it isn’t ready for that level of work. So, don’t skip your warm up on Tabata day!

Benefits of Tabata include:

  • Great workout to do if you’re short on time
  • Very versatile across sports – I do it on indoor bikes regularly, and you can easily adapt it to almost anything you can think of, like pushups, situps, planking, pullups, burpees … the options are endless.

This isn’t as good of a workout if you’re training for longer distances, because you don’t get your heart rate up for a very long amount of time, so it doesn’t work “endurance sprinting” as much. (I know that sounds like an oxymoron).

2. Hill repeats

In a hill repeat workout, you find a hill, then run up it quickly, then run back down it as your recovery. They can be pretty painful, as uphill running can be quite challenging if it isn’t something you are used to.

Benefits of hill repeats include:

  • Hills are often easier to find than open tracks (especially if, like me, you live in a hilly area). Your warm up can often be running from your house to your selected hill, making the logistics easy and negating the need for a car
  • You work a wider variety of muscles, as different muscle groups engage when going uphill and downhill
  • It’s a quick way to get your heart rate up
  • If you’re training for a hilly race, it’s very important to train your body to run up hills, so they don’t come as a surprise on race day. The downhill training can be just as important, so you don’t blow out your quads on race day (this has happened to me!)
  • If you find a scenic trail, it can be a pretty workout, too!

What you’ll need to do this:

  • A hill
  • That’s about it. You can measure the hill length if you want to know how far you’ve gone, and you bring a stop watch if you want to know how quickly you’re ascending the hill, but the workout is beneficial even without these things

Hill repeat workout example

  • Warm up: About one mile on a flat road
  • Main set: Run up the hill, then jog back down it the same way you came (or a shorter route if you want). An ideal hill length is a tenth of a mile to a half of a mile in length. Do this 5-6 times. (1 – 6 miles depending on how sadistic you are)
  • Cool down: About one mile on a flat road

Total distance: 3 – 8 miles.

This is an easy one to customize to whatever distance you want.

I don’t do this workout as much as I used to, as most of my normal training routes have hills as a feature of the run. When I was living in Sacramento, which was very flat, I would do hill repeats about once a week or once every other week (alternating with sprints), as I didn’t naturally get hills as part of my routine.

I went to Big Basin last week and got some accidental hill repeats in

 

3. Tempo runs

Tempo runs are a slightly more advanced workout, typically employed by those who are training for half-marathon or longer distances. I almost never have done these, however, many advanced runners I know swear by them.

How they work: During a medium-to-longer run, pick up the pace for a mile or two at a time. Do this 2-3 times during your run.

Benefits of tempo runs include:

  • Increased endurance at a higher speed than your body is used to
  • Psychological training for working through physical discomfort over a longer duration, which can be very helpful during races
  • Training your body to be comfortable at a higher speed, which can help adjust your average speed up a bit
  • Training your body to run faster than your race pace, so your race pace feels “easy” (intentionally in quotes) on race day

What you’ll need to do this:

  • A watch or app that will track distance and current pace. Again, I prefer a watch, because holding a phone is uncomfortable and can throw off your form fairly substantially, which can cause injuries in the long term

Tempo run workout example

For this one, I’ll give example time targets that I use, because that’s probably the best way to explain how it works.

For context, my aspirational marathon target pace is about an 8:00 minute mile. The fastest marathon I’ve run, I averaged an 8:07.

For a tempo run, I might do something like this:

  • Warmup: one mile at 8:45 or 9:00 pace
  • Tempo interval #1: 1.5 miles at 7:15 or 7:30 pace
  • Recovery: 0.5 mile at 9:00 pace
  • Tempo interval #2: 1.5 miles at 7:15 or 7:30 pace
  • Recovery: 0.5 mile at 9:00 pace
  • (Optional) Tempo interval #3: 1.5 miles at 7:15 or 7:30 pace
  • Cool down: one mile at whatever pace I feel like

Total distance: 6 – 7.5 miles

This is a very good workout to teach your body how to run faster than your race pace. I find it’s a hard one to manage well, because I often do it outside, so I’m constantly checking my watch to see how far I’ve gone and if I’m hitting my target pace. You can probably fix this by doing it on a track or on a treadmill, which I’ve seen done as well.

Conclusion

Well – those are the workouts! Let me know if you try any of them for the first time. Hopefully this can help add some variety to your running routine. I hope everyone is doing well in quarantine, and, as soon as my foot heals, I’ll see you on the trails!

1 Comment

  1. Timely post. I have just started adding some variety and speed work back in. With no racing in the foreseeable future, I’d really fallen into a rut of doing the same thing every day.

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