What does science have to say about the right training programme for the 10K?
The arrival of spring no doubt means you’ll be running 10k races more frequently. You’d like to do as well as possible, but trimming your 10k times requires a smart, systematic approach to training, not just a hodgepodge of interval sessions and longer runs. Consulting the various running books for 10k advice is like opening a pandora’s box of workouts and training schedules; there are so many recommendations that it’s hard to know exactly where to begin or what to do. Isn’t there a simple, scientifically sound way to prepare for 10k competitions?
Well, science has been annoyingly silent about 10k racing. For one thing, exercise scientists don’t usually look at race performances to evaluate the merits of their tinkerings, preferring instead to assess VO2max, running economy, lactate threshold, or some other variable obtained in the laboratory under controlled conditions. And when a race is utilised to gauge the worth of various training programmes, the chosen competition is almost always a 5K. After all, it’s easier to get initially untrained subjects to agree to run a 5K, rather than a race which is double the distance
However, there have been a few attempts to judge the value of various 10k training programmes. The most notable effort was carried out by a pretty fair runner – Peter Snell (gold medallist at the 1960 Olympic Games and double-gold medallist at the 1964 Olympics) – and his colleagues at the University of Texas Southwestern Human Performance Center in the 1980s. Snell et al worked with 10 runners over a 16-week period. For the first six weeks of the study, the runners, who were pretty well trained to begin with, logged about 50 miles of steady running per week
Tempo v. intervals
During the final 10 weeks of the investigation, the runners, whose average 10k times ranged from about 34 to 42 minutes, were divided into two groups. Members of one group carried out two Jack-Daniels-style ‘tempo’ workouts per week, which involved running for 29 continuous minutes at roughly lactate-threshold pace (the velocity above which blood lactate levels begin to skyrocket). For most runners, this pace is about 12 to 15 seconds per mile slower than 10k race pace
Members of the other group avoided lactate-threshold training and instead completed two interval workouts per week. These workouts consisted of either 200- or 400-metre intervals, which were conducted at about 10k to 5-K race pace or faster. About three total miles of interval running (24 200s or 12 400s) were covered per workout. Aside from this difference (intervals vs. tempo runs), the training schedules of the two groups were identical and consisted of medium to long, moderately paced runs
At the end of the study, the runners were tested during 800-metre and 10k competitions. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to reckon who fared better in the 800: interval-trained runners improved their 800-metre times by an average of 11.2 seconds, while threshold-trained athletes inched upward by just 6.6 seconds. The interval trainees had trained at faster paces than the threshold individuals. The interval runners’ training paces had been much closer to 800-metre speed. After several weeks of training, the interval trainees were simply faster than the threshold people and therefore could sustain higher velocities during an 800-metre effort
What about the 10K?
Since the threshold run is considered a hallmark of 10k training, didn’t the threshold-trained runners do better than the interval people during the 10k competitions? Well, no. The thresholders boosted their 10k clockings by 1.1 minute, but interval runners improved their times by a full 2.1 minutes! That spelled about a 10-second per mile advantage for the interval runners!
Why was interval training superior? Well, setting a new PB in the 10K is in one sense not that much different from reaching a new record in the 800: to do either, you have to be able to run more quickly. The interval trainees trained faster than the threshold people and thereby developed better economy, coordination, and comfort while running fast. All of that translated into higher-speed 10k running
In addition, remember that the interval trainers’ intervals were ‘cooked’ at 10k speed, 5-K speed, and faster, while the threshold runs were slower than 10k speed. Since they actually ran at 10k speed and faster during training, the interval-runners’ training was more specific to the demands of 10k racing – and also specific to the demands of faster-than-usual 10k efforts. The interval trainers’ use of 5-K and faster speeds also made their usual 10k paces feel relatively easy. In contrast, threshold running at less than 10k velocity offered little practice at real race-pace running. During competitive situations, it’s always more difficult to move up to a faster-than-usual pace than it is to back down to a speed which is slower than the one used often during training
In line with this, when Yobes Ondieki was training to set a world 10k record, he set up his interval workouts so that each interval was run at slightly faster than world-record pace. He would cover a full 10 kilometres during an interval workout, with short recoveries. The idea was to mimic the overall effort required for a world-record performance, while at the same time making record-shattering pace feel more comfortable, since it would actually be a bit slower than interval-training pace. It worked. ‘My world-record race actually felt easier than my tough interval workouts,’ reported Ondieki. The lesson is that a way to get comfortable running at your goal race speed is to practice running faster than your goal speed during training
A variant of this is utilised by Kenyan stalwarts Moses Kiptanui and William Sigei, who like to run intervals at goal race pace – but at high altitude (about 8000 feet). When such paces are run at sea level during record-breaking attempts, they feel relatively easy
The success of Snell’s interval trainees also reminds us that intensity is the most potent and most time-efficient producer of fitness. The interval runners spent just 31 minutes per week carrying out their actual interval running, while the tempo runners spent 58 weekly minutes with threshold running. This means that compared to the tempo trainees, the interval individuals achieved double the 10k performance gains while carrying out half as much quality training! The lesson is that the most productive way to improve your training and performances is to upgrade your average workout intensity (running speed)
From a physiological standpoint, intervals were head-and-shoulders above threshold runs. Interval trainees hoisted maximal aerobic capacity (VO2max) by a full 12 per cent, while tempo runners nudged the same variable up by just 4 per cent. Rises in VO2max help 10k performances by enabling runners to run more comfortably at higher speeds. Strangely enough, the interval-trained runners probably got a greater lift in their lactate thresholds than the threshold trainers, because as VO2max ascends, it pulls lactate threshold along with it
True, Snell’s study wasn’t a perfect one. It would have been nice to have a group which incorporated interval work and tempo runs into their training schedule. After all, tempo training does have value (it lifted average 10k PBs by one minute or so). It does produce some physiological bonuses, and it does teach runners to function at close-to-race pace for longer periods of time, compared to interval sessions. Perhaps, runners who combined intervals and tempo runs in exactly the right way might have hoisted 10k performances by more than 2.1 minutes in Snell’s research
However, Snell’s investigation does show nicely that interval work at 10k pace or faster is the number-one priority for 10k trainees. Below, we’ve listed the key workouts which will get you started toward a 10k PB. All of the training sessions emphasise intensity. Remember to limit each workout’s quantity of fast running to no more than 10 per cent of your weekly mileage. Use your favourite sessions from the ones listed below twice a week for a minimum of six weeks, recover properly between workouts, and you will start running your 10Ks faster
10 10k Diamonds
Workout No. 1: A 5-K race at your goal 10k pace. Benefit: Raises VO2max and economy, gives you confidence that you can set a new PB
Workout No. 2: Warm up by jogging easily for 10 minutes, and then run 1200-metre work intervals at your current 5-K race pace. Jog easily during recovery periods, and let each recovery last about a minute less than the amount of time required to complete the 1200-metre work interval. As with all interval sessions, don’t let the total work-interval distance add up to more than 10 per cent of your weekly mileage (Example: You run 30 miles per week. Since 10% X 30 = 3 miles, or 4800 metres, you can ramble through four 1200-metre intervals per workout). Benefit: Heightens VO2max, makes 10k pace feel easier
Workout No. 3: Mark out a 10kilometre route over terrain you’d like to run on, or simply use the 10k course used for a local race. Warm up by jogging for 10 minutes, and then sizzle through the full 10k route, alternating 2- to 3-minute bouts at what feels like goal 10k pace with 60- to 90-second jog-recoveries. Benefit: Teaches you that you can handle a 10K at high intensity and that you can run well even when you start to become fatigued
Workout No. 4: Warm up with 10 minutes of easy running, and then cruise through one mile on the track at a tempo about 10 seconds (per mile) slower than your current-best 10k race speed. Jog for just two minutes, and then scamper through a second mile at 10K pace. Jog easily for two more minutes, and then blast through a final mile about 10 seconds faster than 10K velocity. Warm down with a one-mile jog, and it’s over! Benefit: Gives your ‘lactate threshold’ a shot in the arm, which will make 10k race pace feel much more comfortable
Workout No. 5: Jog easily for 15 minutes, and then run 800 metres at your current 10k race pace. Jog lightly for two minutes, and then scurry through 400 metres at 5-K race speed. Amble easily for 60 seconds, and then dash through 200 metres at current one-mile race tempo. Rest for 30 seconds, and then launch yourself into 1000 metres at 10k pace. Jog easily for four minutes, and then repeat this 800-400-200-1000 pattern. A 30-mile per week runner can complete two of these combos per workout; at 45 weekly miles, three 800-400-200-1000 combinations are possible. Benefit: Improves footspeed and fitness, enables you to run at 10k speed while tired, makes 10Ks feel easier
Workout No. 6: Warm up, and then run 10-minute intervals at your current 10k pace, recovering for five minutes between intervals. Benefit: Raises lactate threshold and makes current 10k pace feel easier, enabling you to step up to higher speeds in the race
Workout No. 7 (straight 800s): Warm up, and then run 800-metre intervals at current 5-K race pace, with recoveries lasting no longer than each work interval. Benefit: Lifts VO2max, makes 10k velocity feel more comfortable
Workout No. 8 (straight 400s): Warm up, and then run 400s at a pace about four seconds per 400 faster than current 5-K speed. Recover until you feel comfortable enough to do another 400 with good form. Benefit: Improves basic footspeed
Workout No. 9 (tempo runs): Please see descrip-tion in main article above. Benefit: Lifts lactate threshold and also VO2max slightly, teaches you to function for longer periods at tough paces
Workout No. 10 (traditional fartlek): Find a forest path or a place where you really enjoy running. After warming up, run at a tough intensity for about 30 minutes or so, alternating spontaneous bursts at about 10k race pace with shorter periods of easy cruising when you feel tired. Enjoy the workout, and focus on relaxing and running smoothly