Every 4th year the world becomes a buzz as the best athletes in the world converge to compete in the Olympics, with the most prestigious events being those hard-fought on track. Undoubtedly the fastest form of running its speed in its purest sense, there’s no obstructions, no uneven footing and no hills, simply 8 lanes and nowhere to hide.
With OCR events priding themselves on the most disgusting of bogs, athletes fighting for every second on hills and your brain never sure of footing it seems strange to consider the prospect of training on the track, but it has a number of benefits.
Hitting the track offers a new stimulus for the muscles to adapt too. The smooth constant surface allows your legs to run freely without too many conscious hesitations from processing centres within the brain. This translates simply to an increase in leg speed which paired with the reduced distances you’re likely to be running mean an increase in speed throughout the workout. An increase in leg speed will allow more repetitions of leg motions, this is termed cadence.
Track workouts vary drastically but most will have core element of effort repeats, I.E 3 x 400m max efforts. Here the goal is to complete the distance as fast as you can, before resting and repeating. The lower distances while increasing speed also alter form because without the input of dramatic fatigue the body is able to maintain its correct postural gait throughout the exercise for longer. Better form on the track will lead to better form on the trails reducing the expectancy of injuries.
That said, while its only 400m, this sprinting will in most individuals burn through 2 of our 3 muscle fibre types. Our Fast Twitch Glycotic fibres (Type 2B) are used for maximal strength and speed and will likely be fatigued within 10-15 seconds of activation for the average runner, here a change in energy systems takes place as we recruit our intermediate fibre, Fast Twitch Oxidative (Type 2A). To keep things simple these fibres use Oxygen in anaerobic respiration to produce energy whereas the Type 2B are unable to. Powerful fibres they are used in distances up too 800 meters for the average athlete, beyond this point the muscle fibre is unable to convert oxygen quick enough and athletes develop the dreaded heavy legs, oxygen debt and cramps may take hold. Our 3rd fibre is the Slow twitch (Type 1a), used in distances from 800m beyond it breaks down oxygen to help a complicated chemical cascade and produce energy. It’s considerably weaker than the other two fibre types but can complete the same motions and contractions over and over for hours on end.
Continuous track training with varying distance efforts (I.E 3 x 400m 2 x 800m 1 x 1200m) will train each of these fibres individually to become more efficient in their energy production and contractile rhythms. A more efficient muscle is one that can be pushed harder, faster for longer and that’s before you look into athlete form. They recover quicker and are less likely to injure through overuse.
It may seem counter-intuitive but track sessions are a great way to increase both strength and muscle recruitment. The quickfire recruitment of muscle fibres used in explosive exercises including sprinting off the line damage muscle fibres in a similar way to squatting heavy in the gym. Repeated trauma to the muscle in this way changes its biochemistry, releasing hormones that stimulate the growth of new blood supplies and neural inputs. Completing workouts of this type will cause the body to recruit more fibres, ones that hide away within the tissue being unused even in the most intense exercise. A greater recruitment of muscle fibres will increase energy expenditure but will reduce the workload throughout the muscle and increase energy stores.
Muscular contractions are complex and with varying energy systems and fibre types, there’s a huge list of chemical interactions that occur, each of these produces varying waste products called metabolites.
Lactate is one of the most common metabolites. Its formation occurs as part of aerobic respiration when the tissue is unable to fulfil its needs of oxygen so instead breaks down pyruvate into lactate allowing glucose metabolism. A vital tool in biochemistry within the muscle the body can only continue this process for around 3-5 minutes before the lactate accumulates changing the acidity within muscle fibres and slowing the contractile force until the oxygen debt is repaid and the lactate can be recycled.
Track workouts are intense, relentless sessions that deprive bodily tissues of oxygen for extended periods of time inducing a lactic state. The body has a lactic threshold at which the effects can start to be detrimental but spending time training at this level can improve the body’s response to this chemical inhibitor, allowing the muscles to again be worked harder, faster and longer.
The chemical response to this type of high-intensity training has also been shown to increase metabolic rates within the body. As such Track Training can be a key tool in weight loss as well as improving speed.
A final word of warning, Track training isn’t fun. Pushing your body to its absolute limit will leaving you to want to vomit, you’ll be dizzy and there will become a stage where you simply can not pick your legs up. The change in running surface and pace will help you find and develop muscles you didn’t know existed, so be careful not to injure them by going too hard too soon into your track career. It’s a horrific ordeal, but once you’ve trained your body to cope the benefits will soon become clear and the mental gains are invaluable.