Speedwork… On a Track!

Brandeis Track

I never realized I live so close to a track. It’s a mere mile and half away, so I run there. I get there early, so I keep warming up. I run laps and sprinkle in some sprints. It’s sunny, but also windy and a bit chilly. There are tons of kids on and around the field doing… track stuff. I look for other runners. I fumble with my Garmin, trying to remember if I need to stop or restart, or wait, this thing’s on auto resume… wait. Dammit, I hate this thing! The high school kids slowly filter off the field and 5:30 arrives.

The group materializes and is ready to roll. We begin with the 4 lap warmup. I trail at the back, antisocial. Being on a track again is strange. The last time I found myself on a track was several years ago in Portland. I was running alone and had no idea what I was “supposed to do”. For my first workout, I still have no idea what I am doing, but at least I’m not alone.

The 4 lap warm-up completed, the plan is this: once around the track at your goal pace, rest for a minute thirty, and then repeat for 8 laps total. I have no idea what my goal pace is. I figure I’ll just try and keep up with the group leader, Christian. We find the starting line. Looking at his watch, Christian counts us down. “On your marks….. get set…..GO!” And we all blast off.

Instantly, I feel like a kid again, and I love this. It’s competition at its simplest: who’s fastest? To be fair, I don’t know if the other guys were racing or not, but I sure was. I wanted to be the fastest guy out there. I mean, isn’t that the ultimate speed work, trying to outrun a bunch of other guys? What’s the point of hitting a goal pace if not to be faster than your competitor?

Each lap is fairly identical: Out of the gate, I am at or near the front. Legs churning, I feel strong. I am going to take this all the way. Rounding the first corner, I feel okay. Heading into the second straightaway, I feel like I’m holding my breath and my heart is going to explode; I am definitely not relaxed. My energy flags and my confidence plummets; I cannot sustain the pace. I try to try, but making the final turn into the finish is a real struggle. The finish line can’t come soon enough.

One by one, we all finish. We walk it off, hands on hips or clasped upon our heads, panting. My breathing resumes fairly quickly, but my heart rate continues to race. And before you know it, the minute thirty is up and we go again.

The best part of the workout for me is a competitive moment. I am in the lead (I guess everyone is tired by now) and easing up into the final turn. Out of the corner of my eye, I see/hear Christian pushing to steal the finish. As tired as I am, the split second I realize this, my brain reverts to reptile survival mode and jams on the gas. “Go faster! NOW!” I go Usain, and bolt to the finish.

We high-five afterwards, and I mentally thank him for the challenge.

With each lap, I constantly make adjustments and take mental notes. It was not a terrible first outing, but there is plenty to work on.

Some laps, I have no energy and it is hard keeping up with everyone, including myself. Doing more sprints to become familiar with the distance will help me gauge how much I can exert myself, and still have gas for the next lap. I need to develop a muscle memory of 400 meters. This is probably the main obstacle in speed work.

Occasionally my stride feels crazy long, so I try shortening it up to promote rapid turnover, but that seems even harder. So I go with whatever felt right, which seems to be crazy long strides. My mantra of rapid turnover may not apply to speed work, so I have to be mentally flexible and remember there is a time and place for everything.

During the sprints, I am consistently mouth breathing, though not too heavily. It shouldn’t surprise me; sprints require a ton of oxygen. What does surprise me is that I don’t hear anyone else mouth breathing. Maybe they are, but I can’t tell. I definitely need to work on breathing technique, part of which is feeling a more relaxed. Tension does not promote proper breathing, breath from the belly. That sounds right, right?

All told, we run 4 miles, 2 of them very hard miles. I am surprised how tiring sprints are. The tiredness builds with each lap. But when the last lap arrives, I joke “Aw, last one? Can’t we do another?”

Overall, it was a good outing because it was a new learning experience. It was difficult, but not the good-kind-of-difficult, not yet. After a couple more workouts, I should have a better feel for track speed work and it will become the good-kind-of-difficult. Now that I know how close the track is and how much “fun” sprints can be, I will definitely be adding this to my routine.

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