Goal-Paced Running, Intervals, Sprints and Timed Runs Training

Marines go through timed three-mile run.
Recruits of Company H, 2nd Recruit Training Battalion, push themselves through the last stretch of their timed three-mile run during the final physical fitness test aboard Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego (Photo by Bridget M. Keane)

Learning to run fast is easy, but maintaining the right pace for your goals takes work and time, especially if your timed run is more than three miles. You have to work at learning your goal pace, but do it in a progressive way so your miles per week do not add up too quickly. A 10%-15% miles-per-week progression is ideal.

Here is an email from a Marine candidate wanting to ace the USMC physical fitness test (PFT) with an 18-minute, three-mile timed run:

As you know, for the Marine Corps PFT, a perfect run score is 18:00. During my track workouts ([before] I injured myself) [with] repeats like 400m x 10 sprints, I found that I was able to push the limit and run at paces quicker than 6:00. Oftentimes, my pace was 85 seconds, and 400m pace around 80 seconds. This is a 5-minute mile pace, but I cannot run a 3-mile in under 20 minutes. What can I do to improve my run time to ace the PFT?

I don’t do a lot of full sprints to prepare for timed runs. Too many injuries occur (hamstrings, etc.), but I do fast-paced running that makes sense for a training goal. For you, the pace needs to be 1:30 for 400-meter intervals. Sure, that may sound easy, but do it with very little rest -- maybe a 100-meter  walk.

It is easy to run 400 meters in 70-75 seconds for a few sets, and it does work the heart and lungs well, but it also needs to be coupled with you knowing your goal pace. So one day -- maybe two days a week -- you can add in faster than goal pace runs (aka 80%-90% sprints), but the rest of your runs (3-4 a week) should be a focus on running at your goal pace, which is a six-minute mile (90 seconds for 400 meters, three minutes for 800 meters, six-minute mile intervals).

You also should run three miles nonstop and see where you fall off your pace; that is then how you adjust the distances to your intervals. You may fall off at 800-1,200 meters (half- to three-quarter-mile zone). Then do 800- to 1,200-meter intervals for at least the distance of your timed run event. If you can do 25% more, then do it.

Army: 2-mile timed runs

Coast Guard, Navy and Air Force: 1.5-mile timed runs

USMC: 3-mile timed runs (also Air Force Special Tactics Officer/Combat Rescue Officer)

BUD/S: 4-mile timed runs weekly

Ranger: 5 mile-timed runs

Goal pace running is ideal for conditioning you for timed runs. You need to feel what your pace feels like (breathing, stride, arm swing, heart rate) and know that you are running at a six-minute mile pace without even looking at your watch. You may not run this test on a track; it could be a road with no markers. You do not get to this level of training without practicing your pace many times.

Do you think it's important to train at a 6:00 pace sometimes in order to train the muscle memory for that speed, or should I just continue (when I return from injury) to do speed work at a quicker pace?

Yes; see above, but people typically do two things. They run slow 5-6 miles thinking it will help them run a faster three-mile run. That will build endurance but not speed. In fact, you get good at running slow. The other group runs faster but lacks the endurance to maintain a goal distance, especially in the three-plus-mile zone.

But to a certain extent, is faster really better? My goal is to be a complete athlete, so I wonder often if taking the running past a certain point is not worth the effort.

You have to be in the middle of the two. Do a few speed intervals just faster than your goal pace, but I would avoid all-out sprints, especially if you are susceptible to pulled muscles from sprinting. Stretch more; add a non-impact cardio/mobility day into your training. For general purposes, I would consider the sample weekly breakdown of your run training. You also can mix in calisthenics into these workouts on upper-body days and leg days as following:

Monday: Upper-body calisthenics. Mix in lifts, too, if you wish, but make your runs goal-pace intervals of 8-12 x 400 meters or 4-6 x 800m, with minimum rest of 100-200-meter walks/light stretches.

-- Do one-mile warmup run/light stretch

-- 2-4 miles of intervals, depending on your level of running (400-800m distances)

-- 1-mile cooldown run or 10-minute bike/elliptical if you need some non-impact options.

Tuesday: Lower-body day. Mix in leg PT, like squat 20 reps/10 lunges per leg, between faster-paced speed workouts.

-- Run one-mile warmup

-- Repeat 8-12 times

-- Run 200-400m fast pace

-- Odd sets, do 20 squats

-- Even sets, do 10 lunges/leg

-- Light stretch/walk 100m

-- Run one-mile cooldown or 10-minute non-impact cooldown (swim, bike, row, etc.)

Wednesday: Upper-body PT/lift workouts with load-bearing activities (rucking). Do your PT workout and mix in some auxiliary upper-body lifts (bench, pulldowns, rows, overhead presses, core work, etc.). Then run three miles and ruck three miles. See where you fall off your pace on the run; that will help you adjust your interval distances appropriately.

Thursday: Mobility day

-- Repeat five times:

-- Bike, elliptical, row five minutes (non-impact)

-- Stretch, foam roller, massage five minutes

Friday: Can be your choice of upper-body or lower-body days like above (Day 1 and 3 or 2)

Saturday: Whatever you did not do yesterday, do today, but add in a longer, 4-5 mile run. Try to make the middle three miles as close as possible to your goal pace. Longer rucks are good on this day, too.

Sunday: I personally like to rest, but you can make it a makeup day if you need more miles or do another mobility day if you are feeling the aches and pains of running.

Also, don’t jump into this week of workouts, ease into them. This is a total mileage week of 20-25 miles per week of running/rucking. Build up to that level of running logically. This may take a few months, depending on how many miles per week you are doing now.

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you’re looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to stew@stewsmith.com.

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