What is Better for Workouts, the Track or Roads?
However, you notice that other people you run with or look up to have a different plan. You start to wonder, do they have a better plan than me? Should I copy what they are doing?
This is often the case with runners, we are heavily influenced by what other runners are doing, especially if those other runners have been successful.
Sometimes you see those runners fly by you on the roads, looking strong in their workouts. Then you return home and check your Instagram account, lots of track photos.
You might be wondering:
Which is better for speed workouts?
We are going to make you mad now: Both.
But wait, bear with us, Coach Jeff will explain why.
Want to run faster?
In training theory, perhaps the two most agreed upon principles relate to training stimulus and specificity.
Simply speaking, to improve, you need to continually introduce or adapt the body to new stimuli or stress.
Here’s the deal:
To get better at a particular exercise, you must perform workouts that mimic the exact demands of that event.
I’ve discussed the principle of specific adaptation as it relates to workouts and formulating a long-term plan before. Likewise, many authors have written about the principle of stress and recovery as the basic backbone of training.
However, both of these approaches to the topic of specific adaptation and training stimuli have focused on straightforward or major aspects of training. Yet, these basic training principles can also be applied to the minute details of training, such as your workout surface and what time of day you exercise.
The benefits of workouts on the track
Working out on the track has many obvious benefits: it’s accurately measured, you don’t have to worry about traffic, and the footing is always perfect.
For runners who ran in high school and college, the track is second nature for speed workouts, especially intervals less than a mile. But, doing workouts on the track can help even if you’re not a speed demon or doing short repeats.
Improve your pacing
Pacing is one of the most critical skills a runner needs to learn and, unfortunately, it’s also one of the most difficult to master.
Even with a Garmin device, it’s hard to get an accurate reading of what your current pace is, which leads to lots of speeding up and slowing down.
Moreover, on hilly terrain, relating effort to pace is nearly impossible if you’re not experienced. Luckily, the track can be a great place to hone your pacing skills.
For marathon runners, staying on pace the first few miles of the race can be difficult. Each second you’re faster than goal pace the first few miles can be disastrous over the final 10k.
Try running a few of your marathon paced tempo runs on the track during your build-up.
Yes, it’s boring (I’ll cover this in more depth in a moment), but the flat and fast surface helps simulate that early race feeling that the pace is a walk in the park.
You’ll have to work hard to stay above your goal pace and practice restraint. This is perfect if you struggle with starting too fast during races.
Even better, if you’re a marathoner who struggles with taking in enough fluids or handling the cups during races, the track can be the perfect training ground.
Setup a makeshift water stop and practice taking a cup from the table and drinking while running. You can try every 400 or 800 meters, which gives you multiple opportunities to practice and can even help with learning to run on a full stomach.
Getting immediate and consistent feedback is critical to improving your ability to execute a specific skill. On the track, you can easily and accurately measure your pace every 100 meters.
Plus, once you start to develop a sense for the effort needed to run a certain pace, there are no hills or footing issues to distract you. You can hone in on relating your effort to the correct pace.
Stay more focused
Running countless laps around the track can be painfully boring.
However, so can running marathon, especially late in the race or when the crowds thin out. If you struggle with “zoning out” or staying focused during races, running on the track can help keep you in the present.
The improvements in your concentration will translate to race day and allow you to stay focused during those critical miles.
The benefits of doing workouts on the roads
While the track can is a familiar venue to do speed workouts, if you race predominantly on the roads, running workouts in the same environment can help you hone some of the specific skills needed to race well, both physically and mentally, on the roads.
Improve you fatigue management
Much of the recent sports science research has been focused on the role the brain plays in performance.
For well-read runners, this theory was made popular by Dr. Tim Noakes (did you listen to our podcast interview with him?) and his central governor model.
Here’s the deal:
His theory posits that the brain will regulate exercise intensity so that you don’t run hard enough to actually kill yourself. During a race, this theory manifests when you slow dramatically and feel terrible in the middle of a race, only to sum up a ferocious kick when the finish line is in site.
Once your brain realizes you’re almost done and that it won’t die, it stops limiting the recruitment of muscle fibers and let’s you kick it in.
On the track, the finish line is always an easily measurable and visible distance away. As such, it’s easier to push when you get tired because the brain knows exactly when it needs to stop and that your not going to die.
On the road, your brain is devoid of these visual cues (unless of course you run a well-marked, familiar course). Therefore, you’re also training your brain on how to overcome this central governor.
If you struggle with falling off pace during the middle of a race, only to have a lot left at the finish, running unmarked roads can help improve your ability to push when your brain tells you to stop.
Simulate the demands of your course
One of the most innovative training concepts I learned while running for the Hansons Distance Project was the importance of training to the specific demands of the course.
Coaches Keith and Kevin Hanson are fanatical about creating training loops that mimic the specific demands of the race. When training a large group for the Boston Marathon, Kevin went so far as to create the famous CITGO sign as a visual cue.
Whats the bottom line?
If you’re training for a course that has hills, off road sections or lots of turns, running your workouts on the road can help you simulate those conditions. You’ll be providing your body with a specific stress and stimulus and you’ll adapt.
Putting it together
Don’t confine yourself to one particular training environment for all your workouts.
Break your comfort with the track and try some 800’s on the bike path, or overcome your fear of the track and improve your pacing and focus.
Continue to add new and varying stimuli to your training to help take your personal best to the next level!