Planning a Time Trial

by Dick Vincent

OnceaRunnerFinal.jpegIn John L. Parker's book Once A Runner, the main character Quenton Cassidy gets expelled from the college track team. Quenton goes into seclusion, training under the guidance of former gold medal winter Bruce Denton. Living and training alone in a cabin, he lives, runs and trains in obscurity, carving out the Trials of Miles, the Miles of Trials, by himself. On occasion he meets with his mentor Bruce for consultation or a run; the rest of the time he is alone.

To most of us who have read this cult-like book, the idea of training in solitude with nothing to focus on but our training seems romantic. The idea of having no interruptions or distractions is so appealing, of course, until it isn't.

Well, with the COVID-19 pandemic keeping us social distancing, most of us are living that reality now, albeit not in a cabin in northern Florida. I haven't met too many harriers that are thrilled with the circumstances. Sure, Quenton had a race to focus on, but that was months away. Still, if you miss your training group or running pals to knock off some miles, raise your hand. With nothing concrete to focus on as a goal, many of our workouts have been running back and forth to the refrigerator. If you are one of those athletes who isn't motivated by the multitude of virtual race options offered on social media or you have no goal that has you looking forward to your next intensity workout, you will need to be creative.

I have a number of athletes that were in this very conundrum. They had no interest in a virtual race and yet needed something to keep their motivational juices flowing. This is what a number of them did. Rather than try to run a virtual 5k or half marathon, what they did is pick a challenging hill or training course. Ann had a lake loop that she runs near Falmouth, Massachusetts. From her door the course is 5 miles in total but just the loop around the lake is 3.5 miles. Ann decided she would train to run her “Long Pond Loop” faster. The 3 ½ mile lake loop became her goal. The trail footing is good. It has many twists and turns, it rolls up and down, and has a few flat sections. The time it takes Ann to run the loop didn't relate to any other course or distance to compare it to. Suddenly, she was motivated. Sometimes Ann would run the loop breaking it into segments, making it an interval session. Sometimes she would run a steady state session and other times a fartlek session. There were workouts she concentrated running up the hills. Other workouts she ran down fast. Sometimes a tempo run on part of it. Every few weeks she would race a gut busting time trial. We would log the time, evaluate the performance, and then see what we could do to improve it.

Kevin does most of his training alone, often at night, but he loved going to races for both the social aspect and for motivation he drew from the other runners. He isn't the fastest bloke in his age group and the idea of a virtual race didn't set his britches on fire. Over coffee one day, Mallory Hill came into the conversation. It is a 1.4 mile uphill grind near Jewett, NY, an area he often goes to run on quiet roads. The course was his, not another soul to his knowledge runs the hill, or if they did, keeps track of the time. This hill was Kevin's! At first Kevin would go to Mallory and just run up the hill to get a baseline for time. He developed a feel of what the hill might be like for just the 1.4 mile segment. In the past the hill was just part of a longer run, so running just the hill intensely was a new experience. The first time trial was a learning experience and gave him an understanding of what the challenges of Mallory Hill were. We scheduled a variety of hillwork in preparation: shorter hill workouts, short intervals on similar grades, long, steady grinds on longer hills, flat, hard runs transitioning into the hills. Every few weeks we would bang out a time trial. He saw his times inch down little by little. One day he knocked off 45 seconds. His text to me was very fun to read.

Not everyone is motivated by the same type of runs. You might be someone who is perfectly okay training for a time trial on a flat 5k course. Some runners will work for a time trial of their own making but have no interest in the virtual race that everyone participating is running on different courses. It doesn't matter what you like, just as long as you find something that you will work for.

TimeTrialRunning.jpegThings look promising for a vaccine but realistically we may not have a lot of racing options that we can count on for 6-8 months. But that doesn't mean you don't have anything to train for. Pick something and then dedicate yourself to it. When you do pick a goal, here are some suggestions for maintaining your focus and giving yourself a good chance to succeed:

  • Put it on the calendar. Every 2-4 weeks mark down a Time Trial (T.T.) for that course.
  • Give it a name and spell it in capital letters, even if it is just called Time Trial.
  • Put workouts on the calendar that are specifically for that T.T. then DO THEM.
  • Don't run the course hard ever time you run on it. Learn the course or hill. Break it down into sections and know what times you can do on what sections. Keep track of the time it takes you to run on those different segments of the course and analyze what segments you can/should improve on.
  • Treat your T.T. as you would a race. Rest or taper for it.
  • Have a ritual to help you get ready to run. Think about what you are going to do to get your mind and body ready to succeed. Know what you are going to eat or what music you like to listen to. Know how you are going to warm up and where you can hang your sweats when you strip down to racing attire.
  • Warm up well, do prep drills, do some strides at race pace.
  • HAVE A PLAN!

Personally, I like to add a hill training cycle into a winter training plan so think about a time trial on a hill. Not everyone has a long hill that can serve as a goal T.T, but if a hill floats your boat, search around and find one. As for training, hills are great preparation for all kinds of terrain. Road crews usually salt and plow hills better than flat roads so that will give you an advantage for clear pavement. In the city of Kingston there is a challenging hill with a school located on top. Roads on both sides of the hill approaching the school are the best kept roads in town. But wherever you are choosing to run, know what to expect before the time comes. Don't get all psyched up to put in a race effort only to arrive at your course and realize the sidewalk isn't shoveled.

OncRunnerBookFinal.jpegI keep a copy of Once A Runner nearby. There are a few chapters that are highly exciting. When I lack motivation for an important workout, I whip out the book and read one of those chapters. It never fails to get my juices flowing. One of the most motivating chapters is Quenton's workout consisting of 3 sets of 20 x 400 meters. I have never actually done that workout (nor has any mere mortal), but

re-reading the chapter sure gives me enthusiasm.

This pandemic has taken a lot of things from us and thankfully one of the things it has taken away is distractions from running. Make the best of these upcoming months and find a way to look forward to your running, your training, your improvement. And while you are at it, read (or reread) Once A Runner.

                              Dick with Josh Merlis and Courtney Breiner celebrating


Coach Dick Vincent's Archive
Profile: Coach Mike Barnow
The USA Men's & Women's Olympic Marathon Trials
Will it Hurt to Miss the Workout
How to Make Winter Running Work For You
The Over Racing and Under Training Syndrome
Click here all Coach Vincent’s articles

Dick now holds a Level 3 USATF Coaching Certificate, the highest level of certification, which can be earned from USATF. Additionally, he holds a Level 5 certification from the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), passing the IAAF Academy Elite Coach Course in Endurance with distinction. In addition, he is the full time coach of the ARE Racing Team and offers private coaching sessions.


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