Variations on the Ladder Workout

By Lesley Hocking

(Editor’s Note: In a previous issue, Hocking gave us her take on the traditional ladder workout, now the Legion is ready for some advanced theory.)

The ladder workout is a stand-by for elite and recreational runners alike. In this format, the distance increases on each interval, traditionally run on the track in even lap distances (400m-800m- 1200m-1600m). Creative coaches will adjust the distances and paces to fit their athlete’s needs, so that a long sprinter might be doing a workout in 10m increments (70m-80m -90m-100m-110m-120m-130m-etc.) with only 20m recovery between efforts. In contrast, a long distance runner workout might consist of 500m-1000m- 1500m-2000m. The sprinter’s workout might continue until the athlete experiences failure to hit the desired race pace, while the distance runner’s ladder would likely have a clear-cut endpoint. The reason for such a difference is that the goal of the long sprinter is to maintain proper form and efficiency in a fatigued state, while the distance runner also needs to be able to dole out an effort over a known amount of time, requiring an acute sense of energy management. In other words, it’s a lesson in knowing where the finish line is and saving just the right amount of energy for the whole race.

This fall, I suggest turning your favorite ladder workout on its head. Instead of building in distance, start with your longest interval and work your way down the ladder. This can be particularly powerful in a fartlek format. Consider a rotation of 3 minutes, 2 minutes, 1 minute, all with 1 minute jogging intervals between them. The first set may feel easy, as the athlete naturally accelerates on each shorter timed interval. But starting with the second set, the longest interval is performed just one minute after the completion of the shortest, fastest interval. I find in this approach that the athlete has to have a renewed sense of pace management, so that the injection of speed in a 1-minute interval doesn’t leave him so anaerobically taxed that he cannot finish the following interval.

For those athletes ready for another twist to their traditional ladder workouts, consider doing a workout with even intervals ( for example, repeat 800s), but varying instead the length of recovery between each interval. One sample workout might go from 2 minutes rest to 90 seconds, 60 seconds, and then 30 seconds with all intervals run at the same pace. The second half of the workout, the athlete would lengthen the recovery time again, this time trying to cut down in pace by 5 seconds per mile for each interval. The complete workout for someone trying to run a 36 minute 10k would look like this:

800m @ 3:00; 120 sec jog recovery
800m @ 3:00; 90 sec recovery
800m @ 3:00; 60 sec recovery
800m @ 3:00; 30 sec recovery
800m @ 2:57; 60 sec recovery
800m @ 2:55; 90 sec recovery
800m @ 2:52; 120 sec recovery
800m @ 2:50

Lesley Hocking’s coaching services are available at This article originally appeared in Sep/Oct 2013 issue of Level Renner. Get your free subscription today (box in upper right portion of screen). Feature image courtesy of Krissy Kozlosky.

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