Cruise Control
by Jack Daniels, PH.D.


    In all my years of coaching, and I've been at this game for almost 30 years, I've had only one goal: to develop a workout that would help runners achieve the greatest benefit from the least amount of training.  It wasn't easy, but now, at last, I've put the pieces together.

     All along, I knew such a workout would have to be built on equal parts of motivation, injury prevention and training effectiveness. Motivation, because you can't succeed at a discipline based sport like distance running unless you're consistent, and consistency is grandchild to motivation.  Injury prevention because you can't keep getting better if injuries are always forcing you to the sidelines.  Training effectiveness because it's not enough to stay hungry and healthy.  You've also got to do workouts that advance your fitness and racing potential.

     This last, training effectiveness, has always proven the biggest stumbling block.  After all, almost anyone can stay happy and injury free simply by jogging a couple of miles a day.   Fine.  But these same anyones would be even happier if they could run faster.   That's simply human nature.  We want to get better.  Which brings us face to face with the quintersential training question.

     How can you train hard enough to improve but not so hard that you get burned out and/or injured?

     Answer:  Keep reading.

     A successful training program has many parts from early season conditioning, to prerace sharpening, not all of which I can describe in this article.  In fact, I'll concentrate on just one part of the program.  But it's a part so essential, so productive, so mistake proof and so easy to do that I think you'll want to give it much more attention.  In your workout schedule I call it "threshold-pace" training.

     I'm particularly excited about a type of threshold-pace training I've called "cruise intervals."  Cruise intervals, I believe, represent the biggest breakthrough in training for running since the German coaches Woldemar Gerschler and Haus Reindell opened the door to modern-day distance running nearly 50 years ago with the development of classical interval training.

     Before I launch into a full description of threshold-pace training, let me tell you how and why I am such a strong believer in it.  The story begins in the mid-1950s when I was beginning to compete in the modern pentathlon ( a five-event competition that includes horseback riding, fencing, pistol shooting, swimming and running.  Eventually I became good enough to win two Olympic medals in the modern pentathlon, but at first my running was so bad that it held me back.  Since running frustrated me so much, I resolved to study it carefully.   Right away, I realized there had to be a better way to become a good runner than to duplicate the workouts of world-class athletes.  I decided to learn everything I could about the scientific principles behind good training programs and ultimately, behind racing success.

     First, I studied in Stockholm with some of the greatest  physiologists of our time.  From them I learned the results of their pioneering studies in exercise physiology, and how to apply laboratory research to real-life training and racing situations.

     In the 1960s and 1970s, I worked as an adviser to some of the United States' top runners - Olympians like Jim Ryun, George Young, Gerry Lindgren and Tom Von Ruden - particulary as they prepared to compete in the high-altitude Mexico City Olympic Games. From them I learned the importance of dedication and consistency in any training program.

     Later in the 1970s and the 1980s, I worked as a research physiologist for Nike's Athletics West teams, analyzing the performance of runners like Joan Samuelson, Alberto Salazar and Ken and Lisa Martin.  From them I learned that the right mind in the right body can accomplish unbelievable running feats.

     For the past four years, I've coached at the State University of New York at Cortland with nonscholarship runners not too different from many of you reading this article.  Cerainly, their previous accomplishments wouldn't project future greatness, yet they've made incredible progress in very little time.  In the last 12 months, 18 of my runners, male and female, gained Division III All-American status in distance events.

    From all of these coaching experiences, I've come to the conclusion that there are five crucial ingredients to any training program for distance runners:

1.  The program must be built around basic scientific principles.

2.  All runners can't be treated and trained the same.

3.  Positive results are a function of consistency in training.

4.  The way a training system is presented and the runner's confidence in the training system are as important as the system itself.

5.   No one has all the answers, and no system is foolproof.

     Threshold-pace training build upon all five ingredients. Most importantly, it holds true to a guideline I followed a few years ago when I developed a computer software running program:  It uses good training principles in a way that can satisfy the needs of any runner.   Threshold-pace training is individualized and adaptable to changes in fitness.   It won't cause you to overtrain.  It will build your confidence with each workout.  And it will produce results whether you're at the back of the pack, in the middle or way up front.

The Proper Pace

     The key to great workouts is knowing how to select the right pace.  At very slow speeds, you can run for quite a long time because your body is able to clear lactic acid as quickly as it is produced.  As you pick up the pace, however, your running muscles begin dumping more and more lactic acid into your blood.  When you run very fast, your body becomes overwhelmed by lactic acid, and you must stop.

     Imagine a car speeding along a heavily policed highway at just under 55 mph.  At this speed, the car can go forever.   But if the car exceeds 55, it will be forced to pull over by the police.

     Threshold pace is the pace beyond which your blood begins to accumulate lactic acid at an accelerated rate.  In the car analogy, threshold pace is 55 mph.  Luckily for you, your body is more flexible than the speeding laws.  Find a way to raise your lactate threshold, and you can run longer at a faster speed.  You can set a PR.  It's as if the speed limit were suddenly raised to 60 mph.  This is exactly what happens when you follow my threshold-pace training plan.

     Some runners have a good feel for pace, but most need some help. That's why I created the "Threshold Pace" chart which lets you look up a recent time for 5-K or 10-K and then find your equivalent threshold pace.  A little less conservative way to estimate threshold intensity is to add about 15 seconds per mile to your current 10-K race pace.

Fitness Level                         Threshold Pace Per:    
5-K            10-K                      880      1320       Mile
27:00 56:03   4:41 7:02 9:22 Threshold-Pace Chart
By running tempo runs and cruise intervals at your threshold pace, you can raise your lactate threshold. This will enable you to race faster and farther before fatigue sets in.  Find your current fitness level in the columns marked "5-K' and "10-K."  The three columns to the right show your equivalent threshold pace for 880 yards, 1320 yards and 1-mile.  Run your threshold-pace workouts at this speed, as described in the body of the accompanying article.
25:12 52:17   4:23 6:35 8:46
24:08 50:03   4:13 6:20 8:26
23:09 48:01   4:03 6:04 8:06
22:15 46:09   3:53 5:50 7:47
21:25 44:25   3:45 5:38 7:30
20:39 42:50   3:37 5:26 7:15
19:57 41:21   3:30 5:15 7:00
19:17 39:59   3:24 5:06 6:48
18:40 38:42   3:18 4:57 6:36
18:05 37:31   3:12 4:48 6:24
17:33 36:24   3:07 4:40 6:13
17:03 35:22   3:01 4:32 6:03
16:34 34:23   2:56 4:25 5:53
16:07 33:28   2:52 4:18 5:44
15:42 32:35   2:48 4:12 5:36
15:18 31:46   2:44 4:06 5:28
14:55 31:00   2:40 4:00 5:20
14:33 30:16   2:37 3:55 5:14
14:13 29:34   2:33 3:50 5:07
13:54 28:55   2:30 3:45 5:00
13:35 28:17   2:27 3:40 4:53
13:18 27:41   2:24 3:36 4:48
13:01 27:07   2:21 3:32 4:42

     Don't turn your threshold-pace workouts into competetive efforts.  Some runners do this in an attempt to convince themselves that they're getting better.  Instead, try to become aware of the fact that you're running the same speed with less effort.  Threshold-pace should feel "comfortably hard." 

     Use the chart to adjust your training intensity as your performance dictates, but don't change threshold pace more than once every three weeks.  If you don't have any races to use in monitoring your progress, it's okay to increase your threshold pace 4 seconds  per mile every third week as long as you're feeling strong.  If you use a pulse monitor or like to check your pulse while you're running, threshold-pace should push your pulse to about 90 percent of maximum.

     There are three kinds of threshold-pace workouts:  tempo runs, cruise intervals and cruise repetitions.

Tempo Running

     A tempo run is a steady, controlled run that should last about 20 minutes at threshold pace.  A steady intensity of effort is important.  Going too fast on a tempo run is no better than going too slow, and neither is as beneficial as running the proper pace.  You could perform a longer-than-20-minute tempo run, but 20 minutes has been shown to produce positive results, and it will leave you relatively fresh for the next day's training.  

     Here's a typical workout:   After a 1- or 2-mile warmmup, run for 20 minutes at your threshold pace, then do a 2-mile warmdown.  Simple enough.  However, a few warnings are in order.

     First, it's almost never a good idea to do tempo runs with a partner or group of runners.  To run a tempo run correctly, you must complete it at a very specific pace, and it's rare that a partner or group of different runners would need to run the exact same pace as you.  In addition, when several runners get together, they all too often trun the workout into a race.  This destroys the value of the run.

     You must also resist the temptation to run each tempo run harder than the previous one.  This is a trap many runners fall into.   It's easy to understand why.  Since a tempo run is hard but controlled, you could put alittle more effort into the next one and do it faster.  While this might make your training diary look impressive, it won't add to your fitness, and it might detract from your next race.

     When you run faster than threshold pace, you enter into "no man's training land," somewhere between threshold- and interval-training pace.  This in-between pace serves no real purpose.  So stay cool and keep your tempo runs under control.

     Here's another warning about tempo runs:   It's important to run at the right intensity;  speed will vary under different conditions.  When you encounter the wind, hills, even temperature extremes, maintain a steady effort and don't worry to much if your splits vary from mile to mile.  On occasion, it's a good idea to run your tempo run on a track because you can measure your intensity exactly.

     You might think the ultimate tempo run would be on a treadmill, where everything can be kept perfect.  However, this environment reduces the concentration required to keep the proper pace, and therefore I don't recommend it.  Learning how to concentrate on  your pace, though not a physiological benefit, may be one of the most important things you can learn from tempo runs.

Cruise Intervals

     Plenty of scientific evidence, not to mention common sense, tells you that you can run longer at a certainn pace if you take short rests than you can by running that pace nonstop, as in tempo running.  This type of intermittent run/rest approach also reduces the stress level of training.  No wonder the concept many years ago gave rise to interval training - probably the world's most popular form of high-level athletic training.

     Now the same idea brings us a newer, more effective form of training - cruise intervals. Simply put, cruise intevals are a type of threshold-pace running in which you divide the workout into several segments that are separated by recovery periods. As a result, the lactic acid level in your blood remains quite constant, the same as in a steady tempo run.  (I have actually tested this with my runners, and found it to be true even when they were running 6 miles of cruise intervals.)

     A typical crusie-interval session should include a warmup, the cruise intervals and a warmdown.  I generally recommend the 1-mile distance for cruise intervals but believe that any distance from 1/2 mile to 2 miles (3 minutes to 10 minutes of hard running per interval) would prove equally effective.  The short rest between intervals is essential to the workout;  it should last only 30 to 60 seconds.

     How many cruise intervals can you do on each hard day?  The general rule of thumb is that your cruise intervals should total no moare than 8 percent of your total weekly mileage.  If you run 20 miles a week, do about 1 1/2 miles of cruise intervals;  if you run 50 miles, do about 4 miles.   Generally my athletes run just one cruise interval session per week.

     Don't let a low or moderate weekly mileage total hold you back.  Cruise  intervals can prove particularly effective for runners in the 15- to 30- miles-per-week range.  For example, a 20-mile-per-week runner might do 3 x 880 yards at threshold pace with 60-second recovery jogs between the 880s.  Cruise intervals also make an excellent transition from a steady-running program to one that includes more demanding workouts.

Cruisin' For A PR
A successful cruise-interval workout must meet your pace needs onlyBelow you'll find workouts for three runners of very different abilities and training levels.

As different as these runners are, all three will find that they'll feel better if they do four to five strides (not sprints) of 100 to 220 yards after the last cruise interval.  Strides should be run just a little faster than cruise-interval pace, with complete recovery between them.

Runner A
Current 10-K time: 46:00
Current training: 20 miles/week
Cruise-interval pace (from Chart): 7:45 /mile
Workout: Warm up, then run 3 x 880 in 3:52, with 30 to 60 second recovery jogs.
Warm down

Runner B
Current 10-K time: 40:00
Current training: 40 mile/week
Cruise-interval pace: 6:48/mile
wORKOUT: Warm up, then run 4 x 1320 yards in 5:06, with 60 second recovery jogs.
Warm down

Runner C
Current 10-K time: 34:00
Current training: 60 mile/week
Cruise-interval pace: 5:50 mile
Workout: Warm up, then run 5 x 1 mile in 5:50, with 60 second recovery jogs.
Warm down.

Cruise Repetitions

     I also use threshold-pace training for a third kind of workout I call "cruise repetitions."  These are threshold-pace runs of 880 yards, 1320 yards or 1 mile with full recovery after each, rather than the short rest used in cruise intervals.  Cruise repetitions are for those weeks when you've got an important race coming up in a few days.  You want to do a little quality training, but you don't want to overstress yourself.  When you do cruise repetitions, you know you did a real workout, but you feel better after it than you did before.  On cruise-repetition days, stop after just three or four repetitions.

     Threshold-pace training has worked for my runners, and I'm certain it can work for you.  If you give it a try for several weeks, I think you'll find more spring in your stride and an increased enthusiasm for your training.  Threshold-pace running delivers significant training benefits but still leaves you fresh from day to day.  In running, there's little to match the good feeling and great results of "cruisin'" through a workout.

Jack Daniels, Ph.D., says that his Cortland runners last year achieved "the best performances ever by a group of undertrained runners....though I don't know that they would agree with the 'undertrained' part.