Alternation Workouts

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by Kristin Barry

For my last Level Renner column I asked several New England athletes about their favorite workout and what they liked about that particular workout. Nate Jenkins talked at length about the benefits of alternation workouts and how these workouts propelled him to a new level. He credits alternation workouts with taking him from a 1:07 to 1:04 half marathon and with running a 29:59 10k shortly after returning from back surgery.

Nate Jenkins. Photo by Krissy Kozlosky.

Since college cross country, when my team would tackle The Michigan workout (more about that below) once each season, I have enjoyed these types of workouts. After hearing Jenkins rave about alternations I wanted to take a closer look at why they provide such a fitness boost and learn more about how and why they can be used to help an athlete accomplish his or her race goals.

What Is An Alternation Workout?

As the name suggests, an alternation workout consists of alternating faster and slower running intervals with no rest in between. The key part of this workout is that the slower interval—the recovery portion—is not a slow jog, but instead a steady effort that allows only enough recovery that the fast interval effort can be sustained. An athlete must remain focused and maintain intensity to hit the target pace during the slower interval. Italian coach Renato Canova popularized this workout but variations have been utilized by runners for years. As explained in greater detail below, the alternation workout is extremely versatile and can be tailored to prepare for any racing distance by manipulating the length and pace of the alternating intervals.

Why Alternation Workouts Are So Effective

Alternation workouts provide a fantastic stimulus because the slower segment is still fast enough that it does not allow for a full recovery before the next fast segment. Lactate levels remain elevated for the entire workout, as the body is not given time to recover during the float interval and accordingly must adapt. This results in a progressive shift where the body learns to work at higher steady lactate levels. Furthermore, alternation workouts help the body learn to clear lactate from the blood more efficiently because the faster interval spikes lactate and the minimal recovery helps the body figure out how to remove lactate more effectively and convert it into energy.

In addition to the physical benefits, these workouts are challenging and provide excellent mental preparation for racing. The recovery interval is demanding enough that the athlete must remain focused to hit the pace and also consciously practice pace shifts. Jenkins points out that, “A workout like this makes the effort and stress of intervals more specific to the challenges you face in races. Your body figures out the new demands and you will learn to recover at the faster pace and see monster improvements.”

How to Execute an Alternation Workout

Alternations workouts are extremely versatile and can be used to prepare for any race. The options and variations are endless. However, when beginning alternation workouts it is wise to keep the faster interval on the shorter side and the recovery interval a bit longer. As fitness increases you can bring both the length of the intervals and the paces of the intervals closer together.  Below are just a few examples of classic, tried and true alternations.

For 5k: Aussie quarters are a great alternation workout for 5k.  This workout is three miles of alternating 400 meters between 3k and 5k pace and 200 meters at a quick jog. Another example of a strong 5k workout: in and out quarters for two to four miles. Specifically, you alternate a 400 at slightly faster than 5k pace with a 400 15-20 seconds slower.

For Marathon: One of my favorite marathon preparation workouts is 20 kilometers of on and off 1000s where the faster 1000 is run at marathon pace and the slower interval is about 20-30 seconds slower than marathon pace.

Pre’s Famous 30/40 workout: This legendary workout entails running 200 meter repeats at 30 seconds and the rest interval 200 at 40 seconds. Oregon athletes reportedly would run this workout until they could no longer hit the appropriate paces. This fun day at the track can be adapted for any level by running the faster 200s at approximately mile pace and the slower 200s about 10-12 seconds slower (per 200).

Michigan Workout: I have heard of many variations of The Michigan, but the basic premise is that hard intervals (typically run on the track) are alternated with mile tempo efforts (typically run on the road). This is an extremely challenging workout that leaves you feeling ready to run a great race when it’s completed. An example of The Michigan workout:

-hard 3200 on the track

-tempo mile on the road

-hard 1600 on the track

-tempo mile on the road

-hard 800 on the track

-tempo mile on the road

Incorporate a few alternation workouts into your training to prepare for any race distance. You will enjoy the new challenge and accelerate your fitness, too.

Official article song: “Squeeze Box” by The Who

 Kristin Barry is an Olympic marathon trialist and coach out of the great state of Maine.  This article originally appeared in the Jul/Aug 2014 issue of Level Renner.


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