Middle Distance Training Guide
In this guide, let’s get you ready to run faster at short races like the 800 meters to two miles. This guide works great for high school and college runners getting ready for track as well as older runners who like to compete in shorter races like road miles (or track races).
Factors for Success
It doesn’t matter if you’re naturally a speedster or you must work hard to develop your speed, the factors for success are similar. You’re going to need enough speed and stamina for 2-15 minutes of all out running. You’re going to need to tolerate a huge buildup of lactic acid and you must have the ability to sprint fast over the last part of the race.
But before we get to the training, let’s take a look at the factors that lead to fast middle distance racing.
Factor #1: VO2max
Middle distance races stress a key physiological variable called VO2max. VO2max is the maximum (that’s the “max” part) volume (that’s the “v” part) of oxygen (that’s the “O2” part) that you can utilize while running. A higher VO2max means you can take in and utilize more oxygen. Improving your VO2max nearly always results in a big improvement in your middle-distance times.
Note: Your VO2max is usually around your 8-10 minute race pace. (See the vVO2 pace in the Race Times of the McMillanRunning.com Calculator for an estimate of your VO2max pace.)
Workouts in the Speed Zone of the McMillan Calculator work to improve your VO2max. (You’ll see those in the Training Paces section of the calculator.) Experienced runners call these workouts Speed or VO2max workouts and they are tough because they challenge you to work at your maximum oxygen consumption. These are mentally tough workouts as well and that is extremely helpful in getting ready for a fast race.
Another great benefit to speed zone (aka VO2max) training is that most middle-distance goal paces lies within the zone. The speed zone extends from 5-minute to 25-minute race pace so no matter if you are really speedy at the mile or not, running at your goal pace will also provide a boost to your VO2max.
Like preparing for any race, the more you can practice and get comfortable at your goal pace, the better. My training plans include this goal pace running as well as the other speed workouts, so you arrive at your championship race(s) ready to perform your best.
Factor #2: Lactic Acid Tolerance
One reason that runners slow late in the race is because lactic acid is continually building up in the muscles. As a result, improving your ability to tolerate lactic acid is another key factor in middle distance success.
Luckily, lactic acid tolerance is easy to improve. You simply do workouts where you flood the body with lactic acid, then recover while the body removes it then you do it again (and again and again). These lactic acid tolerance sprint workouts are tough, but many runners also find them fun. I’ll go into more detail in the training section below.
Note: Since the sprint zone covers one to eight minutes of all out racing, 800-meter runners and most milers get goal pace training with lactic acid tolerance training as well.
Factor #3: Racing IQ
Because middle distance races don’t take very long, a high racing IQ is critical for success. When I say, “racing IQ,” I mean your ability to pace yourself correctly, be in the correct position against opponents (aka making moves) and know how to leverage your strengths for your best performance.
Watch successful middle-distance runners and you find that they seem to always be in the right place (either at the front, on the leaders shoulder or drafting off a front runner) at the right time to leverage their strengths (pushing from the front, sitting and kicking, etc.). They always seem to be in “striking distance” or their optimal position at the right time. They never seem to get boxed in by other runners on the track or stuck out of position when another runner makes a move. They just seem to always race smart.
As you train, I use time trials and goal pace workouts to help you learn your best strategy. With some experimentation, you’ll learn if you need to be at the front, in the middle or biding your time in the back of the pack. You’ll learn if your best times come from going out hard or taking it easy. Experiment. Experiment. Experiment. You’ll quickly learn what works for you.
Factor #4: Mental Toughness
I cannot say enough about this factor. While we love to talk about the physical training, a lot of middle-distance training is to condition your mind to the extreme mental suffering that occurs in the second half of a fast race. It’s just a really hard race when you are fatigued from the stress on the VO2max system and fatigued from lactic acid build-up as the body works hard to provide energy.
As a result, you need to be one tough runner to really nail a fast middle-distance race. I’ve seen it in the pros I coach as well as everyday runners like you and me. If you have a strong mind, particularly in the second half, you can battle the fatiguing feelings your brain is throwing at you instead of what many runners do and that is slow down later in the race.
Factor #5: Proper Pacing
The fifth factor is proper pacing. It’s tied to Racing IQ from above and what’s interesting is that proper pacing can vary from runner to runner more in the middle distances than in longer distances.
Even splits or even slightly positive splits (first half of the race is faster than the second half) seem to work best for middle-distance races. As with most things running, you’ll need to experiment in time trial and tune-up races to see what works best for you. I’ve coached runners who do best with an even split and others that needed to go out a little faster. There is just no one way.
In my plans, I include time trials/tune up races as well as the goal pace workout sequence to help you dial in your best pacing strategy.
While pace practice is key for dialing in pace. Another great racing tip is the Go Zone Method. This works very, very well for the middle-distance races. Make sure you get familiar with and practice Go Zone Racing (and here is my article on it).
Components of a Successful Middle-Distance Plan
Here are the components of the training plan I’ll have you do:
#1) Speed Zone workouts
I mentioned these above as well. Since the race occurs around your VO2max pace, you must improve your VO2max. Traditional speed workouts as they are called are designed to boost your maximum oxygen consumption (aka VO2max) but they also help with a few other performance enhancers. First, you improve your running economy. This will help race pace feel easier. Second, you get a lot for mental toughness training. Speed workouts really challenge your brain to keep going even when you are suffering. This, too, is great for improving your racing ability.
Lastly, speed workouts are fun – often because runners get together to do speed workouts and the camaraderie really helps these tough workouts go by faster. Plus, there is a big sense of accomplishment when you finish a speed workout.
Again, after entering your information into the McMillanRunning.com calculator, you’ll see the Recommended Workouts section where you can see examples of the types of workouts I recommend you include in your training plan if you aren’t using one of my plans.
#2) Sprint Zone Workouts
I mentioned that tolerating lactic acid is a big part of racing fast and sprint zone workouts are perfect for improving this. You’ll do a few (it’s doesn’t take many) sprint workouts where you run fast, take a long recovery jog then run fast again to help flood your system with lactic acid then allow the body to remove it during the recovery jog.
Now, if you get a hamstring twitch when you hear the word “sprint,” don’t worry. I’ll ease you into faster running with leg speed workouts and form drills so you’re more than ready for these short, fast workouts. And as mentioned, it doesn’t take much lactic acid tolerance training to really improve the system.
As with Speed Zone workouts, if you aren’t using one of my plans, just enter your information into the McMillanRunning.com calculator. You’ll see the Race Pace Workouts section where you can see examples of the types of goal workouts I recommend you include in your training plan
#3) Pace practice
A great training plan includes goal pace workouts. Grooving your goal pace keeps you from going too fast too early in the race. Plus, goal pace workouts make you more economical at race pace. Plus, your brain learns what goal pace feels like when you are fresh at the start of a run as well as when you are fatigued later in a run.
My plans include a sequence of goal pace workouts that start with short, easily accomplishable goal pace workouts and build and build across the training so that by the time you get to the race, you really have goal pace dialed in and know with confidence that you can achieve your goal. (And if your goal pace workouts aren’t going well, you’ll know to adjust your expectations so you can still have a positive race.)
If you aren’t using one of my plans, just enter your information into the McMillanRunning.com calculator. You’ll see the Race Pace Workouts section where you can see examples of the types of goal workouts I recommend you include in your training plan
#5) Hills & Variety
Of course, building middle-distance racing fitness isn’t just done by the workouts above alone. A smart plan builds leg strength and lactic acid tolerance with hill workouts. It builds stamina with tempo runs and other stamina zone workouts. I just find that a variety in workouts helps keep training fun and rounds out your fitness, so the race-specific workouts are of higher quality. That’s why your new plan will include a variety workouts as you get race ready.
#6) Plyometric/Dynamic Training and Running Form
Because you must sprint for middle-distance success, I recommend some dynamic/plyometric training as well as lots of form work. The more “bouncy” you can become, the faster you can sprint. It’s all about energy return and the sprint/form drills I have you do in the plan are designed to develop this dynamic ability. And as you advance, you can incorporate even more advanced plyometric work.
#7) Basic Sprint Speed Training (aka CP training)
Another key to sprinting fast is to work on your basic sprint speed. This is often called “CP Training” or creatine phosphate training because it challenges the CP energy system. This system provides energy for all out sprinting for a few seconds. That’s why, again, in the form drills I have you do, I include some very short (30 meter) sprints with long recoveries. I want you to develop that energy system and the muscular strength to really tap into your top speed.
Don’t get hurt. I’m going to say it again. Don’t get hurt. A few years ago, I made it my mission to reduce running injuries. If you’ve seen any of the research, it shows that 50-80% of runners get injured every training cycle to the point that it interrupts their training. That’s unacceptable.
As a result, I not only created plans that better fit into runner’s lives and how they are feeling, but my plans include your prehab (core, strength and mobility) routines. The combination of these smarter, more flexible training plans -plus the prehab routines- resulted in a reduction in the injury rate for athletes using McMillan plans by 80%!
I’m really proud of that as there is nothing worse than a runner who can’t run. I never want you to be the fittest spectator at your goal race. With my plans, you’ll get to the starting line healthy and the finish line faster.
Start your New McMillan Plan
Enough talking. Let’s start training!
I have them for different runner levels (novice, intermediate and advanced) and for different runner types (speedster, combo and endurance monsters) so you can find the perfect plan for you.
If you want to add coaching access to your training plan, I’m here to help. I created my online training called Run Team. In Run Team, you get your training plan, all of your prehab routines, a weekly check-in email from me and the opportunity to ask any questions you have as you train. You can try Run Team for free here.
Bonus Feature: Better Prep Improves Your Chances
If you have more than three months until your race, you can add preparatory training to help you get even more prepared to excel in the race-specific training. My prep plans help you build a bigger aerobic base (including more long runs), get faster so 5K pace feels easier, build your durability so you don’t get hurt in the training plan and allow you to enter your race plan excited to really nail the workouts and the race.
Here is an article on how I like to sequence the plans to build a longer training cycle. And here is my article on the preparatory plans.
I know you can run faster. It just takes a smart plan that allows flexibility along with prehab training, so you stay healthy. My plans provide both along with a fun dose of variety and just the right amount of brain training to keep the training exciting and build a brain that helps you get the most from yourself on race day. I look forward to working with you!
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