Track Tuning: How Coaches and Athletes can Most Benefit from an Hour at the Track

By Todd Parker, M.A., M.S.

track tuning

Many athletes and coaches head to the track for speed work; however, for triathletes and distance runners, there is a more important workout, called a pacing session. Pacing for distance runs and triathlons is one of the most critical components of successful racing, and yet most never spend a concerted effort “dialing it in”. Why is that? Well, with most athletes glued to their Heart Rate Monitor (HRM) devices, the majority use this feedback as the primary means to pacing their runs. It is critical to “learn the body through the mind”, and use your personal biofeedback techniques to stay within an intensity level appropriate to the race distance, course, and conditions. By raising awareness of and learning your Perceived Exertion (PE), as well as your onset and sweat rates for various conditions and hydration levels, and how they alter within the eight training zones (but especially Sub-Lactate Threshold through VO2max), the athlete can dial-in the optimal sustainable pacing. We must remember – especially when relying on Heart Rate as a performance indicator, that HR is affected by many things.

In most cases, HR is elevated by inadequate recovery, hydration, or glycogen storage levels, as well as, overall physical, psychological, and emotional stress load, ambient temperature, humidity, wind, altitude, terrain, and caffeine. When I am with an athlete at the track, I prefer that they not focus on their HR, and only refer to it at specific times. By having them focus on PE, they can learn to gauge pacing more reliably. This is an important skill to learn across the spectrum of conditions and intensities. Once learned, it makes sustainable pacing performance much easier to identify – whether you use a HRM or not. The pacing session I often do with my athletes at the track for the first time is listed below:

Warm-up (WU) Mile, Recording 400 Times and Overall Mile Time

Normally, I ask the athlete what they think their endurance pace is, and then instruct them to just relax and WU for a mile at a comfortable endurance pace (not looking at their watch or HRM). Quite often, the athlete is shocked at how hard or fast they went, and soon discover that it was a pace not sustainable for an Ironman marathon (for example).

Stretch Session

Following the stretch session I’ll go over the training focus area(s) for the session. Prior to the actual 400 repeats, I’ll have them take another lap easy to re-warm the joints and musculature.

400 Repeats

Depending upon the athlete and time available (usually an hour), I’ll have them perform 6-10 400 repeats with approximately 2 minutes recovery between each. Whether we are searching for a sustainable Ironman marathon pace or a sprint triathlon LT pace, I’ll orient the intensity levels to zero in on what we’re trying to learn. Pacing is subsequently adjusted as applicable. Ideally, we will try to learn 2-3 pacing levels during the first session. As part of the initial briefing, and reminded throughout the session, I tell the athlete to really focus their attention to their PE and how they’re feeling during the various paces. As fatigue starts to surface in their form and technique (i.e. shoulders raise/tense, “sitting back”…), it is addressed during the session, as well as during the workout recap and documentation for both coach and athlete.

Cool-down (CD) for a Mile and Shoot for a Particular Pace

Stretching/Refueling/Rehydration Session

In my experience, these pacing sessions are invaluable to both coach and athlete. Much information is obtained during both WU and CD, and not just during repeats. The coach is able to correct biomechanical inefficiencies and learn much about the athlete’s abilities (i.e. running, ability to suffer, ability to learn and replicate their PE and pacing…), and subsequently prescribe a more focused training plan. The athlete always learns a lot about themselves in terms of current pacing, sustainable pacing, as well as running strengths and weaknesses. Followed by a thorough training recap and documentation, both can move successfully forward on improving performance, as well as re-visit reports from previous training periods. Within the training reports, I believe it’s important to not only provide biomechanical assessments and times, but also what those times translate into for a per mile pace as well as current and goal per mile pacing for a marathon, 10k, 5k…etc. So, if your coach isn’t providing this kind of feedback, ask for it. So go forth to the track, and rather than just running eight 400s hard and calling it a productive session, dial-in your pacing for various distances and you’ll optimize future performances.


Todd ParkerTodd Parker is a World-Renowned Cycling & Triathlon Coach, Influencer within the Sports & Fitness Industries, and Corporate Wellness Consultant – consulted by Coaches, Athletes, Corporations, Governing Bodies, and Sports Supplement, Gear, and Apparel Companies Worldwide. Todd is one of the most sought after Coaches, Trainers, and Authors to train with, test products, and to have guest lecture or author within the United States and Europe.

Todd is former Professional Triathlete, Elite Cyclist, Cycling & Triathlon Coach, Personal Trainer, Strength & Conditioning Specialist, Exercise Physiologist, Author, Public Speaker, Guest Lecturer, and Professor with a Masters Degree in Exercise Physiology & Human Performance. You can reach Todd at TP2Coaching@gmail.com or via his website at www.toddparkertrainingprograms.com.