Variety is an essential supplement that strengthens my running practice. I need to mix up my routes and surfaces, alternating between pavement and trail. Beyond that, I have found extreme value in running at least twice a month on the track. I am lucky to have access to a pretty swanky indoor track, so I make good use of it in the fall and winter months, especially during long stretches of ice, rain, and wind. Running on the track, especially an indoor temperature controlled track, is slightly disorienting. All conditions are stable. There is no headwind to negotiate, no slant to the street, no tree roots on the trail. Running track is one of the only times I could probably run with my eyes closed and survive. All these things acknowledged, do not let the vanilla exterior bore you. A track is a great tool for the runner.
Not a sprinter? No problem. Neither am I (couldn’t jump a hurdle to save my life). Here are some ways I use track workouts as a middle-distance runner:
The track is a great opportunity to audit your form. Unlike a naturally uneven surface, there is very little uncertainty to negotiate. Therefore, the body and the brain are both able to relax into running. I often use my track time as a prolonged visualization of being stretched, floor to ceiling, while I run, rather than being pulled or pushed forward, which is what a road or trail run might conjure. Running on a flat even surface with no interruptions is a wonderful opportunity to check in with form and flow, to stack the vertebrae in a healthy posture, and to make adjustments to cadence. Every mile, I like to check in with the parts of my body that I tend to ignore on road or trail runs, like my shoulders, neck, and jaw. I am always amazed by the tension I hold in these areas, and how my legs and feet feel liberated when I simply find those pockets of strain and let go.
Guess your race time:
At any pace/intensity, add 1 minute per track mile for a relatively accurate time. The track is a great place to create those muscle memories of what it “feels” like to run a 7:30 mile, etc. I have found this to be much more useful than wearing a GPS watch, because I think when I am running on the track, I am much more observant of, and engaged with, what my body feels like.
Set a goal ahead of time:
Generally speaking, I think it’s great to go in with a goal distance or time. We don’t need to manufacture that as much with a road or trail run because, well, you’re stuck getting back home one way or another. However, with a track, there is a perpetual temptation to walk off at the first start of a side stitch. This is why I really believe setting a goal ahead of time and sticking to it is essential. The nice thing about a track is that you can decide to run for 30 minutes, and run exactly that amount of time before hitting the showers. Once again, the lack of unknown variables really helps here.
Dynamic warm-up, generous cool-down:
I am terrible about warming up and cooling down. Truly, it is my weakness. I walk a lot these days, which I believe helps with running recovery, but I don’t tend to walk as a cool-down directly after a run. For me, however, the oval shape of the track, the redundancy of the exercise, invites me to warm up slowly and also to cool down after the peak segment of my workout. If you are running on a standard track, two laps of walking flies by in no time, and it’s a half mile cool-down that I probably wouldn’t otherwise incorporate.
An acquaintance of mine shared that her therapist prescribed her 30 minutes a day of doing something only for herself. As humorous as that may sound, a busy life is no joke! Many of us, especially career professionals with children or partners, feel like every scrap of our time is claimed by either doing or worrying about doing. I will continue to extol running as the antidote for the disease of stress. Running on the track takes it one step further, inviting your brain to enter sleep mode, if you choose (like a computer ceasing its nonessential functions). You have nowhere to go but around—perpetually—as long as you like! Might as well turn up some good tunes (lately I am all about the Gilberto Gil Pandora station) and enjoy your prescribed 30 minutes of blank head space. Go on, you’ve earned it.