Don’t Race Your Training: Middle Distance Running Repeats

Interval training will dial in your pace so you have plenty left in the tank on race day.

“Don’t race your training.”

It’s solid advice for any athlete at any level. The all-out, seeing-stars, can’t-remember-your-name efforts should always be reserved for competition, no matter what your 20-something CrossFit coach may scream at you on Tuesday nights.

Competition, as the culmination of many weeks or months of training, somewhat justifies the risks of over-exertion. But in training, there’s just no reason to go that deep. There are diminishing returns to training at 100% intensity when compared with consistent submaximal programming. Injuries in training are stupid and almost entirely avoidable.

Time spent on the track isn’t glamorous, but a healthy body and solid race results make every lap worthwhile.

How Hard Is Hard Enough?

This conundrum is especially problematic for runners. By the time you realize you’ve gone out too fast in a race, it’s already too late. When the alarm bells start ringing, it’s because you’re about to blow up. You can dial the pace back and recover to finish, but you’ve already burned those matches, and your hopes of a PR might have just gone up with them.

But there is a secret weapon you can seamlessly incorporate in your training: middle distance repeats. Interval training has been a part of all solid training plans for decades. It’s a proven way to increase your running efficiency and VO2 max, with performance benefits far surpassing long slow distance (LSD) and lactate threshold (LT) running.1 Moderately long efforts (4-10 minutes) at high intensity are also a great way to explore your upper velocities without the risk of your form falling apart, and the attendant wear and tear.

These benefits alone are enough to make middle distance repeats a must in any running program, but there’s an important side benefit for newer runners and racers. Today I’m going to discuss how middle distance repeats can help you cheat the “no racing in training” rule, just a little, so you’ll have a good idea of what you may be capable of come race day.

Middle Distance Repeats as Truth Serum

The reason you see so many new runners (and not a few experienced ones) going out too hard and blowing up early has to do with the gap between their expectations and their physical ability. Maybe they’ve been running by feel all through training, so when race morning comes, the adrenaline makes a 6-minute mile feel great, at least for the first mile. Or maybe they reason that since they did an easy 8-minute pace on a 10-mile training run, cracking under 7 minutes should be no problem for a measly 10 kilometers.

Middle distance repeats bring a heavy dose of reality to your training. Paired with a stopwatch or GPS running watch, you find out in a single afternoon what pace you are actually capable of, without the risks and expense of going all-out on a race. You’ll run that first mile repeat fast and feel great, but halfway through the third, your body’s going to give you a big old spoonful of truth serum. By the fourth repeat interval, you’ll have settled down into something much closer to your race-day pace. Once you’ve found that pace, it’s much easier to plan a strategy that will get you the fastest possible time at your next big event.

How Far Is Far Enough?

The term “middle distance” can be used to describe a range of lengths, from 800 meters to 2 miles. These distances are ideal for training repeats, particularly 800 or 1600 meters. Two-to-four laps on a track won’t exhaust newer runners, but it’s long enough to force most to adopt a sustainable pace. Interspersing middle distance repeats with adequate recovery intervals allows you to maintain good posture and form, and your muscles to relax and clear lactate. This lessens the potential for damage to the joints and muscles compared to a similar volume of lactate threshold running, which may take days or weeks to fully recover from.

Middle distance repeats work to help you find a race pace because the total volume of the workout is close to that of the intended race distance, but the recovery intervals keep you from going too deep into the pain cave. Your form remains intact, lowering the risks of a true all-out effort. This is where you are able to cheat the rule, but still get a taste of what you’ll feel like late in the race.

The easiest way to accomplish interval repeat work is on a track. Standard running tracks are almost perfectly flat, so your pace won’t be altered by elevation. Tracks are also a convenient 400 meters or 440 yards (less common) around. Many high schools and colleges allow public use of their tracks outside of scheduled events, so make a few phone calls until you find one to use near you.

If you live in Timbuktu and can’t find a running track nearby, find a looping, flat, residential street, a long stretch of bike path, or even an abandoned parking lot and measure out a course. As long as it’s flat, safe, and measurable, you can use it for repeats.

Train smart for peak race-day performance.

Forget about chasing that rabbit from the start. Know how to hold back and leave some in the tank for a strong kick to the finish.

Middle Distance Repeat Workouts

Here are two sample workouts to build speed and find a realistic target pace during a training cycle. Note that because of the intensity and duration of these workouts, they shouldn’t be done too close to your intended event. You want to be fully recovered and give the body enough time to fully realize the training benefits of the workouts before you toe the line on race day.

“Repeats” means just that. You ideally want to run each middle distance interval at exactly the same pace. None of these intervals are meant to be run all out. This is self-correcting to a certain point, but you’ll want to run your first one at a level of effort you think you can maintain for your last one. Try to keep your speed even throughout all of your laps, rather than surging and sagging. You’re looking for a cruise control setting, not a top speed.

Between workout sets, take enough time for your heart rate and respiration to settle down close to normal. Stay moving enough to not get cold. You can even throw in an easy jog around the track, if the extra distance won’t bother you, and you can let your heart rate come down while you’re doing it.

At the end of your last repeat, you should be just about cooked. You should feel like you could keep running, but there’s almost no way you could repeat the interval again at the same pace. This is easy to see coming if you’re running with a heart rate monitor because your BPM will be decidedly higher, even if you are running at the same pace as previous intervals. That’s your body’s way of saying, “No mas.”

Here is a sample middle distance repeat workout for a runner wishing to find his or her 5k pace.


  • Easy 800m jog
  • Dynamic mobility
  • 10 x 100m, gradually increasing to 75% of top speed.


  • Set 1: 5 x 200m, conversational pace, 50m walking recovery
  • Set 2: 6 x 800m repeats, 100m walking recovery

Cool Down:

  • Easy 400m jog
  • 10 minutes of yoga or other mobility work

For a runner preparing for a 10k race, 1 mile or 1600 meter repeats will give them a good feel for what to try on race morning.


  • Easy 800m jog
  • Dynamic mobility
  • 10 x 100m, gradually increasing speed to 75% of top speed.


  • Set 1: 5 x 200m, conversational pace, 50m walking recovery
  • Set 2: 4 x 1600m repeats, 100m walking recovery

Cool Down:

  • Easy 400m jog
  • 10 minutes of yoga or other mobility work

I generally don’t recommend repeats any longer than a mile. Repeats of this length will extend your total workout well past six miles, which is when you generally either need to slow down or refuel. Finding your half marathon pace can be somewhat more nebulous, since many runners will take in calories during a race of that distance.

Practice Patience and Race Smart

It may take one or two tries to get into a groove on your half-mile or mile repeats. The biggest thing to remember is to not get too aggressive. Once you know you can crank out all of the repeats at close to the same pace, try using that pace at your next race. It should get you in the ballpark of your best effort, and it may even set you up for a great kick to the finish.

Save the racing for race day. Reckless sprints are for kids and adults who don’t mind getting injured. Incorporating middle distance repeats into your regular running program every couple weeks will pay big dividends in increased aerobic performance, experience working at faster paces, and a realistic expectation of what you can accomplish in your next race.

More Running Advice:


1. Helgerud, Jan, Kjetill Høydal, Eivind Wang, Trine Karlsen, P. Berg, Marius Bjerkaas, Thomas Simonsen, Cecilies Helgesen, Ninal Hjorth, Ragnhild Bach, and Jan Hoff. “Aerobic High-Intensity Intervals Improve VO2max More Than Moderate Training.” Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 39, no. 4 (2007): 665-71. doi:10.1249/mss.0b013e3180304570.

Photo 1 courtesy of See-ming Lee via Flickr CC BY 2.0.

Photo 2 courtesy ofPeter Mooney via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0.

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