Dissecting Elite Level Middle Distance Workouts

Posted by Scott Christensen

Training theory is a fascinating point of discussion for most middle-distance coaches.  These conversations can vary from something as simple as typical microcycle mileage to something as detailed as workout construction.  There is no doubt that there are “many roads to Rome” in the journey to getting a talented middle-distance runner into top physical condition.  There are a large number of variables that go into such a project, but success usually boils down to appropriate workout stimulus and sequencing workouts in a logical manner that follows basic biological principles of adaptation.


mid distance workoutsMiddle-distance workouts can be simple or complex.  It is not necessarily the design, but the level of stimulus that is most important.  The most basic work that is done in middle-distance training is on the aerobic side.  There is no need to make continuous runs anything more than what they are.  The duration of the run serves as the main variable to consider when constructing a workout, although intensity becomes a key factor in a tempo run.  The real creativity in work is usually found on the anaerobic side of development.  That is, the training area of race pace and faster.  The theme for any workout is to do the least amount of work to achieve the desired stimulus.


Consider a single round of anaerobic repetitions, or the same repetitions broken up into multiple sets; which is the best road to take for success?  The most skilled middle-distance runners benefit from complex anaerobic workouts, while beginners do fine with a simple design.  However, skilled or beginner, there is no doubt that multiple sets of work allow an athlete to do more volume and/or intensity then single sets of repetitions do.  It then becomes the art of training design to construct the proper workout types for your athletes.


Let’s take a detailed look at four different, high anaerobic percentage workouts, designed for elite athletes.  Note the style of the work and the volume/intensity of the stimulus.  These are advanced workouts for skilled athletes, but the principles of training remain the same no matter what the skill level of the athlete is.


1)  The athlete is a 1:51 800 meter/4:06 mile athlete in the Specific Preparation Period.  A ladder workout.   The prescribed work is: 1600meter – 1200 meter – 800 meter – 400 meter at approximately 4:33 per mile pace.  The rest/recovery interval would be 2000 meters of volume between each repetition of work at 5:20 per mile pace.  Total volume of the workout is 6 miles.  A ladder can be done in one of two ways: the pace stays the same as the work distance changes, or the pace changes as the work distance changes.  The described workout would consist of work components of the former design.  This type of ladder works well in advanced, elite runners, that are addressing development of the combined anaerobic and aerobic energy systems that are fairly close to race pace.


2). The athlete is a 1:51 800 meter/4:06 miler in the Specific Competition Period.  This is a sets and repetition workout designed to build capacity.  The prescribed work is: two sets of three repetitions of 300 meters at 40 seconds which is near race pace.  The rest/recovery is 1600 meters at 5:45 pace between the repetitions and an additional three minutes of light jogging between the two sets.  The total volume of the workout is eight miles. This sort of workout is designed as a lactate tolerance workout done correctly at race pace.


3). Elite middle-distance runners can also benefit from sophisticated ladder workouts that get progressively faster as the work distance decreases.  These workouts are generally known as single breakdowns.  The athlete is a 1:51 800 meter/4:06 miler in the Pre-Competitive Period.  The prescribed work is a five mile breakdown at 3k pace.  The components are 1 x mile @4:24, 2 x 800 meters @ 2:11, 4 x 400 meters @65 seconds and 8 x 200 meters @ 31 seconds.  The rest is a 400 meter jog between each of the 15 bouts of work.  Total volume for the workout is eight miles.  This sort of workout takes a very long time complete, and is athlete and date specific.  This is not a workout to do in a diverse training group, but rather in a very small homogenous group.


4). The last middle-distance workout to dissect is the double breakdown style  where the athlete alternates in breaking down two different racing distances within the same workout.  The athlete is a 1:51 800 meter/4:06 miler in the latter segment of the Competitive Period.  The components of the workout are a set of 4 x 400 meters alternating between 3k goal pace and 1500 meter goal pace, followed by a set of 4 x 300 meters alternating between 3k goal pace and 1500 meter goal pace.  The rest between each 400 meter bout of work is a 400 meter jog and between each 300 meter repetition is a 500 jog.  Between the two sets is an active three minutes of additional jog recovery.  Like the other three workouts described, the overall goals of this workout is physiological race modeling and lactate tolerance.


Use creativity in setting up sophisticated anaerobic work in the combined zone.  Understand what the outcome is expected to be from these workouts.  Like any work done such as these sessions, adjust the rest interval so the athlete can complete the high-level work.


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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