The Switch Flipper: Finding That Benchmark Workout

Thoughts about mid-season, fitness-indicating workouts.

By on May 2, 2014 | Comments

AJWs TaproomBack when I lived in Idaho, I spent quite a bit of time with the legendary cross-country skiing coach Rick Kapala. Like many cross-country ski coaches, Rick is a student of the Norwegian skiers and pays particular attention to their uncanny ability to peak at just the right time. In our conversations and in our work with younger athletes, Rick and I often shared the notion of the ‘breakthrough’ workout–that one training session that occurs a couple months before peaking that tells an athlete he or she is ready to load on the training and move aggressively toward their peak.

[Editor’s Note: AJW revisited this column up a week later with followups to comments.]

The Norwegian skiers, Rick shared with me, often seek this benchmark workout in the midst of a standard training cycle and they acknowledge that the switch can be flipped for different people at different times. And, perhaps most remarkably, one cannot plan for the switch to be flipped. Rather, the athlete must patiently wait for the workout to come to him. When it comes, the athlete must be ready but in the meantime patience reigns supreme. It’s an art and a science!

Ever since learning of this unique approach, I have attempted to gauge my own personal training with this concept in mind and since 2009 (with the exception of 2012 when I was injured), I have experienced this benchmark workout sometime between three and two months out from my target race, which, in these years, has been Western States.

In that context, I was thrilled last Sunday when my switch was flipped. It started innocently enough at about 8 a.m. on the flanks of Carter’s Mountain here in Charlottesville, Virginia. The plan for the day was to run four identical 6.3-mile loops on the singletrack trails surrounding the mountain. Each loop has about 1,400 feet of vertical gain and the terrain is very similar to what I’ll encounter at Western States.

I started conservatively and finished the first loop in a relaxed 1:03. On the second loop I pushed the climbs a bit more and finished in 1:04. The third loop was my downhill-focus loop and I cruised to a 1:05. Then, I was off on Loop 4. A funny thing happened on the first 400-foot steep-ish climb to the top of the mountain. I suddenly had a surge of energy. For inexplicable reasons, after over three hours on my feet and only two gels, I had spring in my step and I felt decidedly lighter on the climbs. The descents seemed to flow and the flats remained steady. By the time I got back to my car and punched my watch I had done the loop in 1:02, seemingly without trying.

My switch had been flipped!

It was driving home from that run that I outlined my next eight weeks of training. You see, I have come to learn from experience that once I’ve had my benchmark workout it is imperative for me to have a plan and stick to it so that I do not peak too early and overtrain or lollygag too much and arrive in Squaw undertrained. From the baseline of the ‘Switch Flipper,’ I can build out the rest of my training cycle and have faith in the program. It is, quite frankly, one of the great gifts of long-distance training.

So, to all of you out there, here’s hoping your switch gets flipped this spring. There is nothing better!

Bottoms up!

Freetail Brewing CompanyBrew’s Beer of the Month

Freetail Brewing Company in San Antonio, Texas is an awesome sports bar with killer pizza and solid brews. My favorite beer was the Half-Notch IPA, named after an assistant brewer who’s nickname is ‘Half Nacho,’ which is just awesome and kind of perfect in San Antonio. Freetail is the local watering hole for the Rockhoppers, San Antonio’s trail running crew who hits the brewery after training runs at Eisenhower Park, Government Canyon, and Bandera. (Thanks to Rockhoppers Jason Crockett and Scott Rabb for introducing me to Freetail and Eiserhower Park!)

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Do you know the ‘Switch Flipper’ workout concept about which AJW writes? Do you have them, too?
  • Have you had a switch-flipping workout yet this year? If so, when was it and what was the workout?
Andy Jones-Wilkins

Andy Jones-Wilkins is an educator by day and has been the author of AJW’s Taproom at iRunFar for over 11 years. A veteran of over 190 ultramarathons, including 38 100-mile races, Andy has run some of the most well-known ultras in the United States. Of particular note are his 10 finishes at the Western States 100, which included 7 times finishing in the top 10. Andy lives with his wife, Shelly, and Josey, the dog, and is the proud parent of three sons, Carson, Logan, and Tully.