David Lowes explains why you need to add new ingredients to your run training to improve your performance

No matter your distance and your goals, there are a few things that will never change. These include the need for hard work, adequate recovery, astute tactics, a strong mind-set and the acceptance to make the changes necessary to improve performances.

Nevertheless, there will be athletes and coaches who are not prepared to change anything. They will stick to what they have always done. They will argue that because it worked before there is no reason that it won’t work again.

If only it was as easy as doing the same sessions over and over again with success guaranteed, coaches would become a rare species and athletes would become automatons.

Some athletes will have a repertoire of key winter sessions, for example, such as 5x5min, 6x4min, 8x3min, 12x2min, plus specific hill workouts and tempo efforts, while not forgetting the long Sunday run. Looking at the variety of these options you might think they would ensure little boredom throughout the long British winter.

Improvements after all are made, initially at least, by a continuum of work which challenges the different energy systems required for the specific run distance and which create specific adaptation. Rest and recovery and the periodisation of training are of course a required backdrop.

There are however, some sessions that will test athletes in very different ways to the “traditional” sessions.

Before I enlighten you, I will remind you of the maxim “we train to race” and although most sessions get you fitter by raising VO2max, improving cardiovascular properties and extending lactate tolerance capabilities, for instance, many actually don’t specifically get you fit to race.

Although cross country and road races are usually one dimensional in terms of the way they are run (even pace all the way), track running tends to be very different in terms of pacing – with fast starts, fast finishes and also mid-race bursts, so to coin a phrase, “you never know what’s around the corner”.

Russian roulette

One little gem I like to use is a “Russian roulette” session philosophy. It tests the athletes by getting them to “expect the unexpected”. Let’s go back to those staple winter sessions, using 8x3min as our focus and applying Russian roulette.

You have three evenly matched athletes who tend to run side-by-side in a session (probably running within their comfort zones). You take them

individually to one side and out of ear-shot of the others give each a specific instruction.

For example, you tell them to try and drop the other two on the third rep. The other athletes may know something is going to happen in the session (indeed you may have given each an “instruction”, of which more later) but they don’t know exactly what. All three have to be prepared to respond to any breakaway and be ready on any rep to make a move.

Okay, sounds good and reasonable? Well, not exactly, because athletes become wise to repeated instructions from the coach and the hush-hush instructions have to be shuffled around to keep the impetus going in subsequent sessions.

So initially at least it can be left to the athletes to decide where they want to increase the pace – most tend to leave it to at least halfway. However, to keep it spicy, giving plans to make a move from the start, halfway, near the end, or even a double injection of pace can be a good way to keep the athletes alert and also instil some mental toughness and better focus.


• Best used for runners of equal ability
• Have a strategic plan
• Best used for a target race
• Encourages honesty in efforts
• Do make sure the next rep is done at a good pace
• Ensures good tactical nous
• Helps toughen mental capabilities and confidence
• Mix the delivery across reps and differing sessions
• Teaches runners to run outside of the box and to learn what their true capabilities are

As you can see, the element of surprise is a major player in these sessions. And to add some real competitiveness, you can give the athletes identical instructions. The athletes start the session thinking about their individual instructions but have no idea that the others have been given exactly the same directive. This makes the session extremely competitive and reflects exactly what happens frequently in races.

Most athletes will have a set tactical plan – or at least they should going into a race – and it’s inevitable that on occasions these plans will be broadly the same. Therefore, this type of same-instruction-workout will make the athletes think on their feet as they all respond at the same time. They will have to develop further in-race strategic and adopt potentially a plan B, even a plan C.

I recommend that this type of session is only used around every 7-10 days and not too regularly. Depending on the chosen group of runners they can become very competitive and it is therefore at the coach’s whim as to how they think the session can be best delivered with the maximum amount of benefit gained.

Do also note these types of workouts can be used on and off the track. With the latter you can be very definitive as to where to kick and for how long. Using 10x400m for instance – the instruction could be to increase the pace after 100m, 200m or 300m to re-enact track racing prowess.

Do note that if a short 60sec recovery is planned after each rep then the coach has to be careful as to what rep he provides the instructions for. So, if the planned 400m times are to average 66sec, and the increases in pace take that down to 62-64sec, then the “secret” reps certainly need spreading out – although two or even three together for the final reps may be okay.

In this instance the rep 8 instruction may be to increase pace after 100m; rep 9 from 200m; and the final rep 10 may be to go at 100% with 100m remaining. Other options lie in hard-paced longer efforts designed to create in effect “Kenyan Hill’ sessions where changes of pace are vital.

These mystery sessions are a little “outside the box”, but success very rarely happens for those who stay inside it. One-dimensional same pace sessions are the main menu of most runners’ plans, but if you want to be able to race and race instinctively and responsively then do add some spice to your workouts along the lines I’ve suggested. These sessions are tough and encourage runners to expect the unexpected.

» David Lowes is a freelance level 4 coach, athletics writer and photographer as well as BMC academy chair and event organiser