Coach Jeff

Written by Coach Jeff


Running Workouts – Cutdown runs

As I discussed in one my earlier posts, I believe strongly that to improve your running, you need to train to the specific demands of the race. For example, if you’ve read my articles on marathon training, than you know that I spend a good portion of the marathon training segment teaching the body how to efficiently use fat as a fuel source since this is a large factor to marathon success. While each race distance has its own specific physiological demands, they all share one common element: As the race progresses, it becomes harder and harder to maintain goal race pace.

To exemplify this statement, let’s look at a typical 10k race. Assume your goal is to run 45 minutes for your next 10k, which averages out to around a 7:15 per mile pace. Assuming you’ve trained correctly, the first mile at 7:15 pace should feel relatively comfortable. Actually, in adrenaline-pumping, competitive race conditions, it will feel downright easy (which is the reason so many runners start out too fast and is another topic all together). As you ease into the race, 7:15 pace for mile 2 will still feel relatively comfortable. At mile 3, you’ll start to notice that your breathing is getting heavier and your legs growing increasingly tired. By mile 4, the comfortable 7:15 pace at mile 1 is now becoming a pretty tough pace to handle. Your arms are heavy, your legs don’t seem to be giving you as much power as they used to, and your breathing resembles that of a 75 year-old emphysema patient. Your pace begins to slip as you approach mile 5 and soon your dreams of a new personal best are out the window.

Well, that description of a 10k race sounded a little bleak. However, the point of the story is that, during a race, you need to constantly increase your effort just to maintain your goal pace. While mile 1 will feel calm and easy, by the last 1/3rd of the race, goal pace will feel like an all out effort. So, if you want to give yourself every opportunity to succeed on race day, you need to practice this physiologic demand during your training. You need to train to increase you effort over time; you need to train to be prepared for this increase in fatigue; finally, despite what RunnersWorld might tell you, you need to train to push through the pain (sounds scary, but it’s really not all that bad).

To simulate these conditions, I use what are called cutdown runs. The idea is to start the workout at 20-30 seconds slower than marathon pace and drop 10 seconds per mile until you are running just a bit faster than half marathon pace. By doing so, you’re teaching your body how to continually increase its effort as the workout continues and you become increasingly fatigued. That way, when you approach the mid-point in a race – when you start to feel the effect of the early miles – you instinctively learn to increase your effort and push harder to maintain your pace.

Furthermore, many runners are familiar with tempo runs and threshold runs that are designed to have you running at just below or at your threshold pace (the point at which you can no longer get rid of the lactic acid produced by your muscles). By running just under your lactate threshold you can begin to decrease (or improve, depending on how you look at it) the pace at which you begin to produce too much lactic acid. These workouts are a great way to train one physiologic piece of the race. However, during a race we never stop at our anaerobic threshold – we push through that threshold to keep running faster. Cutdown runs teach you to approach that threshold and then push through that point and test yourself. Combined with tempo runs during a training cycle, cutdown runs allow you to blend specific components of training into an overall strategy that addresses all aspects of the race.

Give me an example

An example cutdown workout for someone attempting to break 2 hours in the half marathon would look something like this:

1 mile warm-up, 6 mile cutdown run (9:45, 9:35, 9:25, 9:15, 9:05, 8:55), 1 mile cool down.

Modifying cutdown runs

Just like any workout, sometimes it’s important to mix things up in the training to ensure that the body is always experiencing a new stimulus; therefore always adapting and never getting stale. Sometimes, instead of controlling the pace over the last 1 or 2 miles of a cutdown run, I will have athletes run the last mile “as fast as they can”. This can add a fun challenge to the workout and really teach your body how to dig deep. I’ve also found that this “fast as you can” last mile helps develops confidence in closing speed and ability. Most cutdown runs are 5-8 miles in distance, but you can make them longer, say 8-10 miles, by slowing down the early miles. These longer cutdowns can be a great medium effort workout for marathon runners.

What is the difference between a cutdown run and a progression run?

This is one of the questions I get most often. Progression runs have been a hot training concept over the last few years, especially in the context of a long run. The main difference between a progression run and a cutdown run is the structure. A cutdown run requires you to run at a specific pace, which is also teaching your body how to pace itself – another skill that is vital to race day success. Progression runs tend to be more free-form and a little longer. A progression run might start at easy pace for a few miles and then asks you to slowly creep your pace up and finish at marathon pace or maybe a little faster by the end, but without a specific pace drop-down for each mile. It’s a little more “run as you feel” type of workout. These progression runs are great during long runs when you want to do something other than run long and slow, but aren’t a specific workout like the cutdown runs.

By developing the skill during your training to increase you effort and push harder as you get tired, you approach race day with the tools necessary to address the specific demands of the race. Too often, runners enter races with no specific training for what they will encounter during the race. As with all my articles, please feel free to comment (scroll to the bottom), share, and email me with any questions. I love hearing your thoughts.

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8 Responses on “Running Workouts – Cutdown runs

  1. Will the same concept apply to those wanting to achieve a sub 4 hour marathon? How do you know at what pace to begin your cutdown? Thanks.

    • Yep! The concept can be applied to any runner, the article explains how to begin the pace “The idea is to start the workout at 20-30 seconds slower than marathon pace and drop 10 seconds per mile until you are running just a bit faster than half marathon pace. ” Hopefully this helps, best of luck with your training!

  2. Nicely written article as usual, but as a 68-years-old runner I did not appreciate the joke about the 75-year-old emphysema patient. I hope to still run when I am 75, not to speak of being emphysema-free, and I don’t find this kind of stereotyping funny – no hard feelings and thanks for considering my point!

    • Your response is almost a year old, so mine may not be seen, but Jeff should know that not all older runners take offense at a comment made for effect. I happen to be a 74 year old runner. I will say, though, that occasionally during my runs (currently training for Chicago Marathon), Jeff’s comment feels a bit more apropos than I would like. Still, it’s hardly offensive. And may we all be spared from physical afflictions, emphysema among them.

      • Agreed. No disrespect meant towards anyone, but I I totally understand Jeff’s intentions and in no way was offended. 74 and still running? You are an inspiration in more ways than you may know. You go! -60 and inspired

  3. Today was the first time I tried this workout. It was really difficult to pace each interval. At the end when I analyzed the data it turned out I ran way faster that it was prescribed in the training program (using personalized training plan to get ready for half marathon). Any advise on that?

    • What’s the problem to run faster then the proscribed pace? I think it’s more important to listen to your body then to abide by numbers on training plan. However, I like to do cutdown runs on treadmill that forces me to run at a specific pace. But when running outside, it is indeed tricky to pace very precisely. I guess it just takes time to practice.

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