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5 tips for doing time trials

By Henry Howard

No races, no problem.

Amid the return to normalcy in the United States, larger races are starting to return once again. While smaller races were held in the latter half of 2020, most athletes participated in far fewer in-person races than in typical years.

For most runners, virtual races and FKTs (fastest known times) filled the gap. During 2020, I substituted both virtual races and FKTs for traditional in-person races. I had a blast in my first virtual event, claimed an FKT on my favorite local trail and had an epic failure in an attempt elsewhere.

As a coach, I faced the challenge of keeping my athletes engaged and motivated when dates on the racing calendar were crossed off. Virtual races appeased some athletes but others wanted to test themselves and see how their fitness had progressed.

That’s where time trials came into play.

A useful tool

Time trials are a terrific training tool, whether during a pandemic or not. They help you gauge your fitness and see how you’re progressing. As a coach, I use them to track my athlete’s fitness and provide them with a challenge to keep them motivated.

Here are some tips on doing time trials.

1. View them as an experiment: Don’t even think of it as a race. Instead approach it as an experiment to analyze whether your training is working. Review the results. Then plan to test again to gauge improvement. I’d also recommend creating a baseline metric, from which to judge progress. Ideally at the beginning of a training cycle.

2. Space them out: It’s not necessary to do them weekly, or even more than once a month. After all, we are using them to judge improvement and our bodies need time to adjust to the training. Monthly time trials are a good approach.

3. Correlate them to your goal race or goals: Training for a flat 5K? aim for a time trial that focus on short distance speed over a flat surface. Conversely, if your goal race is a 50K on trails, then do your time trials on trails. The distance itself should not be too long. The purpose here is to gauge improvement in speed. If you can, run the time trial on a trail that is as similar as possible to the race course.

4. Limit the variables: It’s important to be able to compare the results as much as possible. For these time trials, aim to do them on the same track, part of the trail or other area. Also aim to do them at the same time of day. A Tuesday track workout would be good for a short track time trial. For a mile or so time trial on trails, you could incorporate that into your longer run on a weekend.

5. Favor process over results: One disappointing run or workout doesn’t mean your fitness plan isn’t working. We’ve all had bad runs. If that happens during a time trial, shake it off, evaluate changes you can make, smile deep and move on. And, when you nail a time trial, feel proud about the result, ponder any changes to your plan, smile deep and keep moving forward.


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