How to Use Time Trials in Your Run Training

The running time trial: Those words can strike fear in even the most seasoned runner. In running, the concept of a time trial is simple. You run a hard effort for a given distance, time, or route to get a sense of your current fitness. Time trials, when repeated several times over the course of a training block, will also help you gauge how your fitness is progressing. Coach Ian Torrence previously explained the detailed nuts and bolts of time trials in his article “The Emboldening Time Trial.”

As we see, the information a time trial provides can be useful for shaping future training plans and workouts. And when repeated over time, they can increase our confidence by demonstrating our fitness improvements. That is, their benefits are well established. But many runners I have coached would rather take a swift kick in the butt over stepping up to a hard solo effort. A time trial run can be incredibly difficult to muster the courage to even attempt, let alone incorporate into training once every few weeks. In this article, we offer a few strategies to help overcome the mental block of these workouts and reframe what the time trial really is to help us achieve great fitness results.

Running a Time Trial on Goal-Specific Terrain

Specificity of training and racing should always be on our minds when designing our training plan. The same is true for time trials. When I was training for the Limone Extreme Skyrace, a short race in Italy that features a 3,500-foot climb in just two miles, my go-to time trial was a hard effort on the Manitou Springs Incline near where I live in Colorado, which climbs about 2,000 feet in a mile. I knew that the key to doing well at Limone was my ability to hike quickly and efficiently, so I sought out a time-trial option that mimicked that feature. The data from these efforts did not help me plan my training paces, but it gave me a better sense of how my steep climbing ability was progressing. This same method can be applied to any kind of race surface or distance. Figure out the key attributes you need to succeed in your planned race and make those a part of your running time trial.

Photo: iRunFar

Effort-Based Time Trials

If you are someone who struggles to test yourself against the clock, an effort-based evaluation might be the way to go instead. The qualitative data of how you felt on a specific climb or long run can be just as helpful as time-based data. Once again, find goal-specific terrain like a steep climb and simply pay attention to how you feel. What was your perceived effort on the climb, how was your breathing, what did your legs feel like, and how did it compare to the last time you did it? You can leave the watch at home and take the pressure of comparison away from your run. We can learn a lot from our bodies if we take the time to pay attention to the feedback they offer us. Listening and tracking that feedback in a training log or journal can provide just as much valuable information as a stopwatch.

The Everyday Time Trial

Similar to the effort-based time trial, we can also learn from our everyday easy runs. I have a few standard routes, 30- or 60-minute loops, that I use on my easy run days. Though I don’t perform time trials on them in the traditional sense of running them hard, my time progression on these routes tells me a lot about my training. If an easy-day loop is starting to take a little less time with the same, easy effort, then I know I am progressing in my fitness.

When to Ignore Time-Trial Results

Although these different types of training metrics can be helpful to track, it is important to realize that one run doesn’t tell the whole picture. Sometimes we just have a bad day. Other times, outside factors like weather, life stress, or even sleep patterns can drastically change our workout results. We don’t live life in a laboratory and sometimes progress doesn’t manifest itself in obvious ways. Take a look back at qualitative or quantitative data from a number of time trials over the last couple of months to see how one time trial sits within the general arc of your progress. If the results of a single time trial don’t match recent patterns in your fitness, then consider what else besides running affected your time trial.

Time trials are a great way of creating some low-pressure goals to pursue during a training block. Seeing progress from one effort to the next can build confidence and make us more excited to keep training. However, there needs to be flexibility built into the plan. Without that flexibility, confidence can erode after a single bad day. Progress is full of ups and downs. Understanding and accepting that one time trial doesn’t show the whole picture is far more important than any single workout result.

Call for Comments

  • Do you run time trials?
  • If so, can you describe the set-up of one of your regular time trials?
Alex Nichols

coaches at Colorado College as well as at Trails and Tarmac. He has a Master of Arts in Sport Coaching and a USATF Level 2 Endurance coaching certification. On the trails, Alex has finished second at the Western States 100 Mile and won the Pikes Peak Marathon, Mont Blanc 80km, and Run Rabbit Run 100 Mile. He's supported by SCOTT Running.