With races around the world on hold, most of us have been left to solo time trialing to satisfy our competitive impulses. Although time trials don’t carry quite the weight of a “real” race, we still want to do our best whenever we line up against the clock. And there is something about a true “test” such as a race or time trial to reveal the best estimate of our actual fitness, rather than trying to guess based of workouts.
The first thing to determine is what is the purpose of the time trial? Is it just an extra hard tempo run or is it something more nuanced? In this Corona pandemic landscape, a time trial might be a literal substitute for a race. Basically, a race without all the fanfare and organization, but you’re still going all out as if it were a competition. In this case, you’re giving it everything you have and trying to run the absolute fastest possible time you can run on that given day. In the case of trail racers, this might not be much different than a typical race, as may events require runners to be self-supported and involve many solitary miles in the wilderness.
Just because there are no races doesn’t mean the time trial needs to be a literal race substitute. Although predicting race fitness from workouts is an inexact science, it doesn’t mean we need to run each and every time trial 100% effort to accurately gauge. There is still value in going CLOSE to 100%, making the time trial somewhere in between a workout and a race. On some level this is semantics, as what Lydiard referred to as “time trials” more likely resembled tempo runs in our current nomenclature, with the instructions to run approximately 3/4ths effort.
Not every PR needs to be measured by the fastest possible time. Some of my most memorable runs have been outside of formal races, where I ran a good time but what really stood out was how effortless the run was. Before setting my marathon PR at the Eugene Marathon, on Tuesday of the race I ran a 5k time trial on the track at 10k pace. My time wasn’t a 5k PR but for being only 40 seconds off my PR it was incredibly easy (and so memorable that I remember it more vividly than many races).
If the time trial is race substitute, you should go into the time trial the same way you would prepare for a race of similar importance. If the time trial substitutes for your goal race and you are targeting a best time, then do whatever taper you would do for the prior week(s). For a time trial of lesser importance, such as to take the place of a local, non-championship 5k, you might train through it as if it is a hard workout, or you might do a mini-taper if it is a little more important. An interesting phenomenon about time trials is you hear stories of runners posting PRs untapered during a normal training week, but come race day with a big taper they come up empty. Of course this will vary widely but it does remind us to keep an open mind about tapers and not ascribe to any dogma…
One nice thing about time trials is that you don’t have to contend with race day logistics. No parking adventures, strange bathrooms, a late playing of the national anthem or long-winded speech by the mayor. You get to plan the event how YOU want it…time, location and many other details. You can script exactly how you want things to flow and rehearse it ahead of time (unlike for many real races where you can rehearse your warm up all you want but you’ll likely have to change it on race day). Likewise, whereas races can’t be postponed according to the whims of mother nature, if the weather is really bad and not conducive to a fast time, you have much more liberty to reschedule.
As for the execution, this too will relate back to the intent of the time trial. If you’re planning on going just a bit slower than a race (but faster than a workout), you might set out at that pace to begin with. Alternatively you can run most of the time trial at race pace, minus an intense kick that you would have with competition around. Another variation is to run the first half at tempo-ish pace and then run race pace for the second half. You could even split it into intervals. One marathon workout that I’ve done is 2 x 4 miles (about 5-10 minutes rest) with the first four at marathon pace, then the second four around 10k pace, which is basically all out.
Hydration and nutrition are also considerations, depending on the event. For a shorter time trial such as a mile or 2 miles, this isn’t really an issue. But the longer the effort, the more important it becomes. In such cases, it definitely helps to have some company, whether someone on a bike or another runner. The benefit of the bike is that person is more readily able to support you with fluids and nutrition.
Someone running alongside you might be more effective at helping you settle into a rhythm. I remember one 2k time trial several years ago where I was at the track with a much faster training partner. His session for the day called for 800s. I was slated to do a 2 mile tempo off the track and then hit my 2k time trial. It just so worked out that my goal 2k pace and his repeat 800s were about the same pace, so he ran one 800 with me, then I ran lap 3 solo, and then he hopped back in as I did laps 4-5. I ended up running my fastest one mile en route to the full 2k distance.
In this age of “big data” time trials can also be valuable to gather objective information. Yes we can get a pretty good idea of our condition with workout times, but a time trial can also provide more precise information on max heart rate, critical velocity, heart rate and even measures of recovery and readiness (heart rate variability, resting heart rate). Like any piece of data, its not the single data point that we’re after, it’s the aggregation of data to recognize patterns. Running a time trial periodically allows us to track data over time and give meaning to the information that our computers on our wrists are tracking!
By now, I think most of us have accepted that time trials are the new reality for competition for the near (or not-so-near) future. If we understand the purpose of what we’re trying to accomplish with a time trial, we can extract much more benefit from the effort than just looking at the finish time. If we use time trials effectively, we can set ourselves up for when formal racing returns again!
Allan Phillips, PT, DPT is owner of Ventana Physiotherapy