Workout of the Week: Descend the Ladder


While half marathons and marathons are a matter of resisting fatigue during the later miles, 5K and 10K racing is like fighting off a firestorm for the final third of the race. No matter how comfortable the early pace may feel to you, about two thirds of the way into a fast 5K or 10K a spark suddenly catches fire and starts to spread rapidly as your legs begin to lock up and your stride shortens ever so slightly. Your quads are screaming at you to stop and your upper body tenses up as you seemingly start going backward while you struggle to maintain pace or stick with the runner in front of you. There’s nothing wrong with any of this at the end of a hard race, of course; it simply means that you’re doing it right. While your muscles are inevitably going to catch fire toward the end of a competitive 5K or 10K effort, you can train your body to slow down the burn and better handle the demands of the race in training. One of my favorite ways to do this is with the descending ladder workout. Here are the details:

What: A 10-minute tempo run at half-marathon pace, followed by a descending ladder of pickups, starting with 6 minutes at your goal 10K pace and finishing with 1 minute at your 1-mile pace. Begin the workout by running 10 minutes at your half marathon pace (~15 seconds/mile slower than 10K pace) followed 5 minutes of easy running for recovery. The idea behind starting with this short tempo run is to inject some fatigue into your legs without totally wiping you out. Once those five minutes are up, begin a descending ladder of pickups, starting with 6 minutes at your goal 10K pace—no faster. Upon completion of the 6-minute pickup, jog for 3 minutes as recovery. Continue to step down the ladder with faster pickups of 5 minutes at 10K race pace, 4 minutes at 5K race pace, 3 minutes @ 5K race pace, 2 minutes at 3K race pace (~15 seconds/mile faster than your 5K pace) and, finally, 1 minute at 1-mile race pace. The recovery between each pickup is an easy jog for half the duration of the preceding interval, so 2:30 after the 5-minute pickup and so forth.

Why: This session is tough, but then again 5K/10K racing is too, and this workout is a great way to simulate the shift in gears and increase in effort that you experience in the final third of such a race.

Warmup/Cooldown: Warm up before the workout with 15-30 minutes of easy running followed by a set of drills and 4-6 x 20-second strides (i.e., accelerate for 5 seconds, spend the next 10 seconds at near-top speed, and then gradually decelerate to a jog over the final 5 seconds. Catch your breath for 40-60 seconds and then repeat 3-5 more times). Cool down after the workout with 5-15 minutes of easy running.

Where: Road, trail, track, or treadmill, this one can be done just about anywhere.

When: There’s never a bad time to use this workout after you’ve built a solid foundation of fitness but I would avoid doing it within a week of a key race just to be safe.

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