I’m not a huge fan of the treadmill. There’s no denying treadmill is a valuable training tool, especially in winter. I will use it if the conditions outside are too dangerous to run, but I don’t particularly enjoy it. Like many runners, I prefer moving forward instead of running in place. I prefer to pace based on my own perception of effort rather than dialing numbers into a machine. In previous winters (or conversely, wildfire summers in Seattle), I’d just stick it out on the treadmill. But when we moved back to Northwest Indiana, we joined the local YMCA and gained access to a 200-meter indoor track.
I am no expert about the indoor track but I do believe it is a valuable tool for runners. In winter, it provides an alternative to icy roads and the monotony of the treadmill. Unlike the treadmill, the biomechanics of the indoor track is very similar to outdoor running. If you have access to one, try these indoor track workouts.
Basic Indoor Track How-to
Indoor tracks are as simple as outdoor running, with a few things to note on etiquette and distance.
As with any track, proper etiquette is essential on the indoor track. Some tracks will list the direction based on the day of the week. If no direction is noted, simply stick to the flow of traffic. Some indoor tracks will note which lanes to use for running and it’s always worth checking – my own gym designates the outermost lane for running, while some will place runners in the innermost lane.
Most indoor tracks will list the distance of the track and how many tracks per mile. Unlike an outdoor track, there’s no typical distance – some are 12 laps per mile, others 8 laps per mile. If you have a Garmin, the accelerometer (indoor mode) may work on the track, but without a footpod, it is still prone to error. Instead of relying on the accelerometer or trying to count laps, I use the manual lap on a timer on my Garmin to record the number of laps and splits of each map.
The biggest difference you will notice with the indoor track is just how dry the air is. Chances are, you will need to hydrate more frequently than you do for outdoor runs (especially in winter).
Transitioning Your Training to the Indoor Track
In winter, the best use of the indoor track is for hard workouts. The injury risk of doing hard workouts in the snow and ice is high – you could slip on ice, your muscles are working differently in the snow, and your tendons and joints, which are already more stressed in a speed workout, bear more impact.
If you do a majority of your winter training on the indoor track, resist the temptation to do intervals every day. As with treadmill running or outdoor running, you want a majority of your mileage to at an easy, conversational effort.
You may find that you reduce your volume slightly on the indoor track. This is completely fine! It’s normal for runners to run less in winter – this is why we often think of winter as the off-season. Use the treadmill or outdoor running to supplement mileage in easy runs and long runs.
I do recommend cautious with a long run (90 minutes or more) on the indoor track. High volume equates to a high number of turns, and that may be too much repetitive stress on the body. For long runs, try to get outdoors or stick to the treadmill – or don’t stress too much if you miss one in winter.
Overuse Injuries and the Indoor Track
Do indoor track workouts increase injury risk? Yes, but not as much as you may think. The indoor track does feature tight turns that can stress one side of the body over the other. Many indoor tracks are cambered, which adds to the repetitive stress and imbalance. If you are running more than one mile, you will be making many, many turns on the track.
Overuse injuries come from repetitive stress: a combination of volume, intensity, and repetitive motion. But running is, by nature, repetitive motion and winter running poses unique risks. Running all winter on the treadmill or running out on icy sidewalks can increase the risk of injury. You want to minimize injury risks, but the only way to completely avoid injury is to not train all winter long.
For most runners, running even a few times on the indoor track per week in winter will not lead to injury – so long as you are smart about it. Runners with previous injuries such as IT band syndrome should be cautious about the indoor track since the turns could exacerbate existing issues.
Since the indoor track does present a new stimulus, give your body time to adapt to it. Doing too much too soon frequently leads to injury. Don’t start increasing your mileage or adding more intensity the same week you start running on the indoor track.
Many indoor tracks change directions on alternating days of the week to reduce overuse injury. Schedule your runs so that you are running on the track on different direction days. If your track does not have such guidelines, vary the direction yourself (while also practicing common courtesy to other users).
When you are frequently using the indoor track, spend extra time on injury prevention. (In general, you should do this in winter to account for the treadmill, snow, ice, etc!) Foam roll both before and after; before will loosen up any lingering tightness, and after will release any tightness caused from running in one direction for so long. Spend time doing hip, glute, and adductor strengthening exercises such as clamshells, side lying leg lifts, bridges, and banded walks.
Don’t skip your dynamic warm-up, either! As with any run, this will reduce the risk of injury and prepare you for the repetitive motion of running.
Indoor Track Workouts
The indoor track lends best to short intervals. Many long-distance runners favor longer intervals, so the track provides an opportunity to do work on a different aspect of fitness. Short intervals will improve oxygen uptake, neuromuscular coordination, and power output. Anything that pushes you outside of your comfort zone – like short intervals – will increase your pain tolerance and mental toughness.
All of these workouts are written for a 200m track. The exact precise distance isn’t what matters; rather, the intensity and volume of work matter. If you track is less than 200m, try scaling the workout to time intervals based on your normal paces. For example, if you usually run 200m in 55 seconds, scale the repeats to 55 to 60-second repeats.
As with any speed workout, include a warm-up and cool down of at least 10 minutes or 1 mile. Properly warming up improves performance and decreases the risk of injury. A cool down jumpstarts the recovery process. Both are as important as the workout itself
200-meter repeats are an obvious choice for the indoor track since 200 meters equals one lap on most tracks. Beginner runners can start with 8-10 intervals alternating 200 meters fast and 200 meters recovery; more advanced runners can do 15-20 intervals.
For a novel twist on this traditional workout, start slightly slower (about 8K pace) for the first interval and then run each interval faster, until the last few at are mile to 3K effort.
You can also alter the workout by shortening the recovery period and changing the effort level. Instead of 200m at mile to 3K pace with 200m recoveries, you can tax your VO2max by running 200m at 5K pace with a short 100m recovery jog in between.
If you struggle with pacing during the middle or end of a race, this workout will train you to sustain a fast pace on tired legs. After your warm-up, run a mile at a hard effort (5K-8K effort). Jog for about 5 minutes to recover. Then run 4 to 8 repeats (depending on your fitness level) of 200m hard, 200m easy. After another 5 minute recovery jog, finish up with another mile hard (beginners can modify to 800m hard). You’ll run a total of 2 to 3 miles at a hard effort by the end of this workout.
This is a truly effort-based workout, with a focus on maintaining good form and a quick cadence. After your warm-up, run 30 seconds fast, 30 seconds easy, 60 seconds fast, 60 seconds easy, 90 seconds fast, 90 seconds easy. For the fast intervals, focus on a quick turnover, tall posture, and strong arm swing. Repeat this circuit 5 to 8 times, depending on your fitness level.
Tempo with Surges
A continuous tempo run can be mind-numbing on the track. The addition of surges will break up the monotony, reduce repetitive stress, and improve your ability to surge later in a race. After your warm-up, run 20-25 minutes at tempo effort; every five minutes, throw in a 30-second surge at 5K effort or faster before settling back into tempo pace.
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