The Champion’s Workout


My favorite running book is John L. Parker’s Once a Runner. In one scene, Cassidy’s coach prescribes a seemingly impossible workout of 60 × 400m, performed in three sets of 20 repeats.

Parker does a marvelous job of taking the reader along for the mental and physical journey of this workout. It starts with the thrill of a hard training session, testing the body to keep the pace going despite increasing fatigue. But soon you realize that this workout is about more than what it will do physically for Cassidy. This drill is about resolve — not the normal resolve we all need near the end of a hard workout, but resolve that takes our hero deep into his soul, in the end reducing him to tears with only enough energy to crawl into bed and sleep for hours. By completing this session, however, he learns something special about himself — which was ultimately the goal, above any physical benefit (or not) that he would derive from driving himself so hard. I call this type of workout a Champion’s Workout, designed to tear you down to your core and teach you that you can do things you never thought possible.


Normally, I’m a strong proponent of control in training — the opposite of the Champion’s Workout concept. In nearly all workouts, you should work hard but not too hard. None of this “Give it the ol’ 110 percent” stuff. I say train at 90 percent of what you could do in workouts and you’ll find that your racing is better. But there’s a time and a place for going all-out in training, to remind yourself that when it gets tough in races, you can dig deeper. That said, I wouldn’t call Cassidy’s fictional workout the best example of a Champion’s Workout. His workout would likely be too extreme for most of us.

These workouts are extremely fatiguing — physically and mentally — so plan on several extra days of recovery after. I recommend adding two to five more recovery days after a Champion’s Workout than a regular workout. In fact, it’s best not to try to do another key workout till you feel 100 percent recovered.

Here are three examples of Champion’s Workouts I’ve used:


This run lasts 15-17 miles in total. Start at a comfortably fast pace (which is usually just a bit faster than your normal easy run pace), but slowly and gradually increase your pace across the run. For the last 4 miles, run as fast as you can. You completely “drain the tank.” This is definitely a Champion’s Workout and usually leaves even the world-class athletes lying on the ground at the finish line. It’s one of the best Champion’s Workouts you can do if you’re getting ready for a long race like a half marathon or marathon, because it closely simulates the fatigue you’ll feel at the end of the race.


Find a moderately sloped hill that will take around 45-60 seconds to ascend. Ascend at full speed, then recover by jogging down the hill. Do these until you can’t do them anymore. With this type of hill repeat workout, you’ll quicky get the desired effect (a deep mental challenge where your brain is screaming at you to stop but you continue to push on). It’s probably the most intense and efficient Champion’s Workout I use.


This can be structured a number of ways, but I typically start with mile repeats at around 30-minute race pace and take 2 to 3 minutes easy between each repeat. Do as many of these as you can (usually three to five for most runners), while getting 3 to 5 seconds faster on each successive repeat. When you can no longer run that pace for a full mile, you drop down to 1200m repeats. Then, when you can’t hold the pace for 1200m, drop to 800m, then finally to 400m. A typical scenario is 3 × 1600m, 2 × 1200m, 1-2 × 800m, then a final 400m. That usually does the trick. In the end, it really doesn’t matter what Champion’s Workout you do. It’s about challenging yourself to push beyond your normal workout fatigue. Done correctly (and sparingly), you’ll find that nothing you face in the race is “hard” anymore. You’ll find the champion inside you.


By definition, Champion’s Workouts require all you’ve got — so you can’t do too many of them in your race-specific training phase (the last six to 12 weeks before your race). I usually limit Champion’s Workouts to one per training cycle, but have sometimes done two with marathoners.

Next: The 5 principles of training the McMillan way

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Written By Greg McMillan
Called “one of the best and smartest distance running coaches in America” by Runner’s World’s Amby Burfoot, Greg McMillan is renowned for his ability to combine the science of endurance performance with the art of real-world coaching. While getting his graduate degree in Exercise Science he created the ever-popular McMillan Running Calculator – called “The Best Running Calculator” by Outside Magazine. A National Champion runner himself, Greg coaches runners from beginners to Boston Qualifiers (15,000+ and counting!) to Olympians.

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