Time trial

Time trials are one of the most important, and one of the most misunderstood, components of your final preparations towards peak race day. They are not workouts to determine how fast you can run a given distance: their purpose is to combine and coordinate the speed and stamina you have attained in previous phases of training and determine weaknesses and strengths to indicate what further training and racing is needed to improve the former and capitalise on the latter.

If you give your body a certain exercise to do often enough, you will become efficient at it. The same can be said about running over certain distances. The idea is to run trials under or near the distance you are training for. For 800 meters, for instance, you should run 600- and 700-meter trials; for 1500 meters, you should run 1000- and 2000-meter trials. For these two events it is usually best to use under-distance trials because of the high speeds involved and the resulting oxygen debts. For 3000 and 5000 meters, time trials can be at the same distances but for the 10000 meters use mostly 5000 meters with the occasional 10000m. – Arthur Lydiard, Running the Lydiard Way


  • Sustained run over prescribed distance.
  • Do race warm-up.
  • Wear racing shoes.
  • Time your splits.
  • Do extra long cool-down

Important points: 

  • This workout is closest to race simulation than any other workout.
  • Run up to 95% effort as your schedule reads but be sure to save full effort for your races only.
  • Do not sprint to the finish. Keep an even effort throughout.

Rate of perceived effort:

7-9 (90-98% VO2Max)

Experienced competitors/elites: 

The last time trial should be run about ten days before the first important competition and should be run at your best effort. After this it is time to start freshening up and the only continuous fast workout you will do is the up-tempo workout.


  • Aerobic threshold to anaerobic


  • Pace
  • Sustained speed
  • Rhythm
  • Race-rehearsal

Biggest mistakes:

  • Starting out too hard and having to slow down
  • Tensing and fighting to sustain pace
  • Running at 100+% in training
  • Trying to do a PB every time
  • Sprinting to the finish

How to interpret

If you could run the early part of a time trial easily and were tired near the latter stages, it would be advisable to run in over-distance races or time trials the following week. On the other hand, if you found the pace a little difficult throughout the run even though you were running strongly near the end and not overly tired, then it would be wise for you to run under distance races or trials during the next few days. – Arthur Lydiard, Arthur Lydiard’s Athletic Training

Time trials will tell you whether your stamina or your speed currently constrains your performance the most. Finding the pace difficult early on but coming through strongly in the end means stamina is sufficiently developed but speed less so. Choosing an under distance time trial or race will help add the extra level of sharpness lacking ahead of your peak race day.

Example: you conduct a 5,000m time trial in preparation for your 5,000m peak race. You find the target pace strenuous in the early stages but finish strongly. To avoid a similar problem on race day, you could select a 3,000m time trial or race for your next scheduled time trial workout in the programme with the aim of accustoming to the faster pace.

The above advice applies in reverse. If during a 10,0000m time trial for your 5,000m race you find yourself fading towards the end despite being comfortable during the first kilometres, a 10 mile or half-marathon development race would help fortify your stamina.


The choice of terrain depends on what you wish to practice. In general a flat uniform course or track is the best choice as it will reduce the amount of variables you have to interpret afterwards. For mountain and off-road runners, however, an uphill time trial or similar exercise may give more specific clues to strengths and weaknesses specific to those disciplines.

Half-marathon, marathon and ultra-marathon time trials

Athletes focusing on half-marathon and marathon distances generally do not need over-distance time trials but will rather continue to do “out and back” workouts and long races up to two hours with occasional 5k and 10k races and time trials used to identify a lack of marathon-specific speed.

Experienced ultra-marathoners do not have to concern themselves with a lack of speed late in the programme and more commonly employ a shorter ultra-distance race. Bryan Powell suggests in the following preparatory races for differing ultra-distances in “Relentless Forward Progress – A Guide to Running Ultra-marathons”:

  • 50k: marathon race about nine weeks prior to peak race
  • 40 miles to 100k:  50k race 5 weeks prior to peak race
  • 100 miles: 50 miles to 100km race 5 weeks prior to peak race

Workout descriptions are adapted from BreakThrough Running with permission.


5 Responses to Time trial

  1. this is a great explanation for time trials. I have been faithfully following Lydiard’s principles for a couple of years. have had some ups and downs that once made me think if I understood them clearly. My current race distance is the half-marathon. Once I enter the anaerobic phase, I feel that my speed and stamina for ever shorter distances like 10 km become lower than in the base phase. I understand Lydiard once said you could not race well while training hard. What happened to me during and after the peak phase of the past 2 cycles was that I performed badly in the important races. Don’t know why. Could I have ruined my aerobic capacity built early on with the anaerobic trainings? (the duration of each phase, I follow it exactly as Lydiard suggested)

    • hi GB, what Lydiard programmes did you follow? While the principles never really changed, the programmes underwent some revision from book to book and what we found when we initially went out and did the programmes is that they can be difficult to interpret because they were written in a different time for athletes who grew up differently and with a different shared context.

      However, what you describe is a common problem I have seen both in myself and others who execute the programmes “by the book”. What I believe happens, more often than not, is that runners with superb endurance development (the fittest they have been) are unleashed into the 4-8 weeks of track work starting with intervals and finishing with primarily time trials and test races.

      Lydiard warned about the dangers of this phase in a talk available online that he did in 1963. Essentially, you need extreme discipline and avoid “smashing your times” as this constitutes spending the money you put in the bank rather than adding more to it. Avoiding this temptation get’s harder as you get closer to the race and especially once you use time trials and test races.

      Time trials are particularly difficult to deal with because not only do you need to stay to plan (if a 17:30 5k runner is assigned an 18:06 time trial, then he needs to avoid the temptation to go out and rung 17:10). After 10 weeks plus of training he may be capable of setting a PB (especially if the time trial is done in a race as is oft the case now) but sticking to plan is important especially in the early time trials. When training for 5k and 10ks, running several bests or close-bests during the final phase and off the peak is feasible, but the marathon requires more discipline.

      There is a competition between the parasympethetic/sympathetic and anaerobic/aerobic (high intensity/low intensity training) and the body overall needs a balance of both. In the 1963 talk Lydiard explains very simply that it is “hard maximum intensity” effort that pulls your condition down quicker than anything – this means especially road and track performances at your maximum. You need an absolute minimum.

      Perhaps you can forward me an example of some of your Anaerobic/Coordination weeks and give me a bit more background so we can continue the conversation a bit more specific?

      • Thank you, Rene for your reply. The most difficult thing for me to do is to find the right pace for the right purpose. Here is one of the 3 week anaerobic phase I just completed.

        Monday 4x3x400m @ 1.27-1.30 min. with 100 m floating (23 sec.)

        Tuesday 90 min. (2 km at maximum steady state (4 min/km), 2 km at steady state (4.20 min/km))

        Wednesday 60 min. fartlek

        Thursday 3x6x200 m (hill repetitions) (with 100m floating between reps and 3 min easy run between sets)

        Friday easy run for 30 min followed by 100 m x 10 @ 1500 m effort, walk back to the start

        Saturday 10 km road race

        Sunday 90 min long run ((2 km at maximum steady state (4 min/km), 2 km at steady state (4.20 min/km))
        I recently ran a half marathon in 1.24 hours a month ago after a base training of 2 months.
        My next important race is a 10 km road race over a month. I hope to run well there. So I have started the coordination trainings, planning to do some 5 km time trials.
        By the way, I have read different books/texts/articles about Lydiard’s way of middle and distance trainings. and indeed were all differently interpreted which has been keeping me looking for some practical tips.

        • hi Gb, sorry for the tardy response, went away on holidays and did not get much internet access. Looking at your week I can see where the schedules are coming from and I think it just needs a few tweaks. Overall my concern with the weak above is that if I calculated the average perceived effort (from 1 to 10) and multiplied it by the time of the workout, then I would get some fairly high numbers and there is no true respite in the schedule given there is steady state included in all long runs and even the Wednesday run is a fartlek. As supremely fit runner could potentially cope with this but personally I’d focus all the energy into 2-3 key sessions with the rest being easier and more supplementary:

          – You seem to be doing a total of 12 x 400m repeats with 100m float. That volume is generally ok (~5k) as long as the pace is kept at 3k-5k intensity (the pace is equal to an 18:07 5k). What is your personal best? My concern here is that the recovery is too quick for an interval session if you are running at 3k-5k pace (you’d need about equal recovery the first week and then you can whittle it down a bit, but you need to get your heart rate almost back into the aerobic zone each time). There is a stamina building workout devised by Ron Daws which called for 20×400/100m float at 10k pace. That is a very tough session that he only used once and he used it as the first interval session of the Stamina phase (not coordination).
          – The hill repetition session is very tough if run at full intensity (200m is quite a long repetition) and with 100m float you don’t get much respite
          – The strides in the easy runs are probably a bit too long and too hard given the overall volume of speed in the week. Something like 4-6 x 70m stride-outs at 5000m pace would be enough.

          If I compare to our schedules in the Coordination phase the week would look like this:

          – Monday: Fartlek (this needs to be easy and not as intense as earlier in the year. “play” is the operative word and we substitute this with a recovery run if we see any sign of athletes being fatigued)
          – Tuesday: Time trial (under-distance)
          – Wednesday: Medium long run (this is used for recovery and only run steadily when the legs are fresh)
          – Thursday: Windsprints: 12 x 100m/100m (these reps don’t have to be run faster than 5k pace. If training for short distance do them hard enough to get into heavy acidosis in the legs within 10-12 min. For longer distances get in 2-3 miles instead and focus on the constant change of pace. I.e. for a marathon I might do 2-3 miles of 100m @ 5k pace and 100m @ marathon pace)
          – Friday: Easy strides of Cut-Downs (3x 3 x 100m at descending speeds such as 18/17/16 secs) depending on recovery
          – Saturday: Overdistance time trial or test race (for marathon and half-marathon overdistance is not done, but a shorter may be done Tue – i.e. 5000m and a longer in the weekend 10000m. It’s important to change the time trials every week as your recognise the need. If your 10000m shows you that you are short on speed then it might be appropriate to change a scheduled 5000m time trial to 1500m and so on)
          – Sunday: Long recovery run (100-129 min)

          bear in mind this is just an example but you can see that your training programme above has a significantly higher anaerobic load and less recovery than this (which is based tightly on the latest Lydiard Foundation interpretation) so it might explain why you feel your endurance lacking – it’s being spend getting you through and recovering your body from the very tightly packed workout schedule.

          The basic premise of the coordination phase is to have at least two weekly sessions where you can coordinate stamina and speed (time trials or, sometimes, interval workouts). The other workouts need to maintain overall volume (endurance) and sharpness (easy strides etc.). Everyone recovers differently. Personally I see many runners who cannot tolerate a programme like that above. For them I focus on getting them through the two time trials and the long recovery run. for the other days we keep it as easy as we need to get them to those workouts intact.

          I like to think of a week as a “microcycle” in itself. The Saturday is the day that counts. So everything you do in the week leading into the race is preparation for Saturday and need to make a call each day whether the workout is tearing you down for that.

Leave a reply