Top five running workouts

top 5 running workouts

by Trail Running staff |

European indoor 3000m bronze medallist Verity Ockenden outlines the sessions she swears by to get her into top shape

All runners will be at least broadly familiar with most of the staple ingredients of the perfect training schedule, such as the long run, tempo and interval session. They're all prominent phrases in a distance athlete's vocabulary.

After all, it's not just the volume of miles you run that make you fast – it's how you run them.

For most top runners, the main types of workouts will be similar but every coach and athlete is different and may have their own particular mindset when it comes to training.

Trail Running magazine's resident professional athlete, Verity Ockenden, here picks out her top five types of sessions which, along with the easy recovery run, are what she believes have helped her to reach international level.

Verity says: "The mastermind behind all of these is my coach, Tony Houchin, who, alongside coaching myself, has also coached many a successful marathoner including occasional mountain-runner Natasha Cockram, who won the 2021 Los Angeles Marathon.

"These are all workouts that work for me, but it’s worth noting that they do need to be adapted to the individual athlete and their specific targets. You shouldn’t attempt to change every aspect of your training at once or to do more than your body can handle in a week."

Coach Tony adds: “At the end of the day, it is still training, and basic human physiology doesn’t change. You need to stress the body and various energy systems but also allow time for adequate recovery.”

The Fartlek

What: A Fartlek run is essentially a workout that includes running intervals at a hard pace – whether over a set time or distance (you can even choose your own arbitrary markers, such as trees or gate posts) – with jogged recovery between.

When: Great as a beginner session to ease back into things after any kind of hiatus or upheaval, we always use a fartlek to get back into the swing of things after a race or a break, with no pressure to hit specific times or distances.

Where: This type of workout is also perfect for occasions when you are outside of your usual surroundings because it is so adaptable to whatever you have at your disposal. You can make use of varied, undulating terrain to give the workout a realistic trail race feel without feeling like the goal of your workout is compromised.

Why: Our classic Fartlek workout is a sequence of timed effort in minutes with one minute recovery jog between each effort: 1-2-3-4-5-4-3-2-1. This simulates the kind of shifts in pace you might experience in race situations and lets you practice the mental discipline of choosing how hard you make the efforts, requiring you to listen to sensations rather than prescribed paces.

The tempo run

What: A tempo run is a session that sees you running at a pace slightly below what you’d call your ‘race pace’.

When: All year round. This is one of our staple, bread and butter workouts that maintains strength and endurance both physically and mentally. To be honest, like the Snickers advert, I don’t quite feel myself when I don’t do them!

Where: Depending on what kind of races you have in your calendar for 2022, you’ll want to use the tempo run to imitate some of the terrain you’ll be presented with, as well as the length of the race.  It’s good to find a long, secluded loop or a straight out-and-back stretch that won’t interrupt your flow too much.

Why: Tony always says the point of this workout is to “get comfortable being uncomfortable”. You have to sustain a moderately high pace for a long time with no breaks, teaching you to manage a number of things at once – as you would have to in a race. You’ll have to focus on the technical aspect of trail running, while on fatigued legs, with compromised focus.

The long run

What: Exactly as it sounds. A run over a long distance at an easy pace. And we mean ‘easy’ pace – don’t fall into the temptation to up the pace, this is all about endurance and adaptation, and sometimes even fun!

When: Every Sunday, obviously! Understandably there are those with work and life schedules that don’t allow for it, but it’s hallowed running tradition to attend the Church of the Sunday Long Run as religiously as possible, followed by a bottomless brunch and bed for the rest of the day if you can.

Where: I always try to make this an opportunity to explore, so plan the most picturesque route you know. You’ll be out there for a long time, so you want to enjoy it and have things to think about. That’s also a good reason to make it a workout you do with friends who will help keep you going when the monotony sets in. There’s so many Sunday run clubs around that you’ll be spoilt for choice if you ask around.

Why: Training for endurance events is quite simple at the end of the day. Much of it amounts to time spent on your feet just running. You’re creating a hardened ‘callous’ that isn’t phased by long distances. We don’t tend to run our long runs quickly at all, preferring to focus solely on the distance covered.

The interval set

What: A strict session of hard, maximum effort intervals over a measurable distance. Sometimes accompanied by heaving…

When: We always do one set of interval training every week as a little bit of faster work to counterbalance the long tempo effort.

Where: Somewhere measurable and traffic-free! You need to be able to focus free of distractions here and be able to compare reps easily without too many external variables. I tend to go to my local athletics track for easy measurements here, but you can use sports pitches or mark out your own segments elsewhere with a GPS watch.

Why: As Tony says, having to hit a specific distance in a specific time forces you to push harder than you might otherwise and this is where gains are made. You never know what you are capable of unless you try, and measuring them in this way can be really rewarding.

The sprint double

What: An advanced, extra session on a day when you’ve done a tempo run in the morning. A ‘sprint double’ helps you to focus on form and being fast when you’re tired.

When: If (and only if), you are already training at a high volume and incorporating regular strength work such as interval sessions and tempos into your weekly schedule, then you might want to consider adding this spiky little number into your repertoire to garner that finishing edge over your competitors. We always place this workout six hours following a tempo run.

Where: Choose somewhere flat and quiet that you can measure for this one; you’ll want to be able to concentrate fully on your technique without worrying about obstacles and injury risks. Roads or playing fields are fine, but an athletics track is ideal.

Why: Our go-to sprint double is a set of 8 x 300m with three minutes break, in the afternoon following an 8-10 mile tempo in the morning. It’s the perfect way to practice holding on to good form when you’re already tired which can make all the difference at the end of a long race when it’s so easy to let your technique falter and slow you down.

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