The Four Critical Workouts of the Middle Distance Competition Period

Posted by Scott Christensen

The competition period is the last three weeks of the season for a middle distance runner.  This portion of the track microcycle is characterized by a moderately decreased training volume coupled with a sharp increase in training intensity.  In ordinary language it is the tapering period leading to a peak championship performance attempt.

Rest is an important theme of the competition period because strength is gained through rest following an adequate training period.  Rest can be found in several places including a toned down lifestyle for the athlete, and in training it can be found in extended recovery days between hard work sessions and a greater emphasis on rest between bouts of work in a number of the harder training units.

Middle distance coaches frequently and excessively fret over the competition period work sessions.  Are they too easy or too hard?  Are there too many or too few repetitions in a workout session?  What is better: short or long rest?

Coaches want to have their athletes ready for the big competition moment and not be responsible for anything but career best performances.  The reality is middle distance runners are very resilient when fit, so there are many ways to reach peak performances and as long as work is being done it is tough to really botch it up.

There are a number of “key” workouts found in any middle distance training plan, and that includes work done during the competition period.  If a coach was to take this three week period and concentrate on four key workouts while just trying to rest/recover/maintain during the other work sessions it would probably be enough to elicit an excellent championship performance.

This could be done by sequencing the workouts five days apart and configure them into a span of 20 days out from the main competition, 15 days out, 10 days out, and then 5 days out.  Because middle distance events are so anaerobic in nature, much of the end improvement shown in the championship meet will be from improvement in that energy system.  It will have to be fully stoked.

With this in mind, design and sequence four Special Endurance 2 sessions to match the 20-15-10-5 days out model.  Special Endurance 2 work is very hard sustained work and this will be the anaerobic work the athlete needs to sharpen their anaerobic energy system metabolism.

20 days out.  Physiologists say that it takes about 17-20 days for a strong training stimulus to maximize its full training effect.  With this fact in mind, the work session 20 days out from the championship meet needs to perhaps be the hardest session of the entire track season and is the gateway to the tapering period.

For a 1600 meter runner a suggestion might be the following: begin with a strong active warm-up almost like a race day warm-up but cut the time by a third.  Emphasize to just be ready to go.  The bulk of the session will be 8 x 400 meters with exactly three minutes recovery between bouts of work   Goal times for each 400 would be: 57 seconds (4:10 runner), 60 seconds (4:20 runner, 63 seconds (4:30 runner), 65 seconds (4:40 runner), 67 seconds (4:50 runner), 69 seconds (5:00 runner), 71 seconds (5:10 runner), 73 seconds (5:20 runner), 75 seconds (5:30 runner). There should be a somewhat active recovery during the three minute recovery interval, i.e. moving about as in walking and light jogging.  Cool down.


* Coaching Resource: The Mile: Successful Coaching Strategies


15 days out.  Emphasize a very fast Special Endurance 2 workout for day 15.  Because the emphasis is fast, it needs to be on the short end of the Special Endurance 2 spectrum and with lots of rest.

A recommended workout would be: begin with a very active and up-tempo warm-up including many 60-70 meter strides done fast to wake up the neuro-muscular system.  Using a common starting line place a small cone 310 meters from the starting line, another cone at 305 meters, another at 300 meters and so on down to 260 meters for a total of 11 cones on the inside of the track.  Start the runners and they should run “almost” as fast as they can (suggest 98%) and then blow the whistle to stop after 40 seconds.  The runners should each note which cone is right in front of them when the whistle is heard.  Repeat this four times for a total of 5 x 40 seconds.  The recovery interval should be eight minutes each.  Their goal is to reach the same cone on each repetition.  If they cannot accomplish this feat, keep extending the rest until they can.  Cool down.

10 days out.  At this time of the competition period a different style of Special Endurance 2 workout is needed that reduces the recovery time between bouts of work rather than the examples from the previous two described sessions (20 & 15).  Because the recovery interval is shorter, then the intensity will be less and closer to race pace.

A recommended workout would be: begin with a solid and active race day-warm-up taking as much time as needed to get ready.  The work session will be 8 x 400 with a 50 second jog recovery following each fast 400 meters.  Start at the normal starting line and run 400 meters and then jog recover to the 100 meter mark on the first curve and start and finish the second 400 meter there.  The athlete should jog recover to the 200 meter mark on the track and start and finish there.  The runners keep rotating around the track with a 100 meter difference between each of the eight 400 meters.  The pace of each 400 meters should be the runners average 400 split for their 1600 meter race, i.e. 4:20 miler should try to hit 65 seconds on each of the first seven 400 meter repeats.  The final 400 should be absolutely as hard as possible.  Cool down.

5 days out.  The middle distance runner is really close to the big meet now.  The workout should stay in Special Endurance 2 to maximize the maintenance of the anaerobic glycolyic energy system.  The number of work repetitions will be very small and the recovery interval very long at this time.

A suggested work session might be: begin with an extended race day warm-up that is active and dynamic finishing with several 60-70 meter strides.  The main training unit will be 2 x 600 meters done very fast with 18 minutes recovery between the two repetitions.  Again, suggest “almost” as fast as each runner can go (98% is always an idea grabber).  For example, a 1:55, 800 meter runner, should try to hit 1:25 and a 2:25, 800 meter runner, should try to hit 1:50 for both although typically even with that much rest it is pretty difficult to do.  Cool down.


* Additional Teaching Resource: Every 800m – 1600m Workout For The Entire High School Season


The four anaerobic workouts described will suffice for the hard work needed to maintain that metabolic system during the competition period.  Do not neglect the aerobic system however; during the four day gaps between each of the hard anaerobic workouts the athlete should go out for 4-6 mile runs periodically to keep that system active as well.  The aerobic runs should be on the short end during the last five days before the championship meet.



Scott Christensen - Scott Christensen’s teams have been ranked in the national top 10 eight times. He won the 1997 High School National Championship and his squads have captured multiple Minnesota State Championships. Scott has coached 13 Minnesota State Championship-winning teams and 27 individual Minnesota State Champions. He was the USTFCCCA Endurance Specialist School junior team leader for the World Cross Country Team in 2003 and the senior team leader in 2008. Scott is a 14-year USATF Level II endurance lead instructor.

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