Sure, the cold season is traditionally considered the time for base-building, but these days not even the most hardened of coaches would advocate nothing but slow plodding through the freeze. On balance, quality seems to be just edging the age-old battle with quantity amongst those in the know. So why not try something a bit different to inject some heat into your winter training schedule – the time trial.
The first thing to understand about the time trial is that it’s not a race, or doesn’t have to be, and that really is the beauty of it. Essentially, time trials are simply a chance to measure your current level of performance against the clock. Just choose a distance, measure it out on the roads, then run it as fast as you can. Once you’ve finished, check your watch – your time is your benchmark. After two weeks of solid training, try the same run again and see how much you’ve improved. Suddenly you’re not just plodding or base-building; you’re progressing, and the evidence is right in front of you.
Sound good? Well, it just got even better, because time trials are a growing phenomenon, with more and more events popping up all over the country. The Bushy Park Time Trial (BPTT) – the first weekly time trial in the UK – had just 13 entrants when it started back in October 2004, but now regularly attracts over 300 people. Buoyed by that success, BPTT organisers have exported the formula to five other UK sites – and they’re planning even more. The trials take place on measured courses every week. Once you’ve registered, there’s no entry form to fill in and little or no fee because they’re all run by a very generous group of volunteers. You can just turn up and run.
"We wanted to create something that had a different atmosphere both from your average club run and from paid-for events," says BPTT organiser Chris Wright. "We feel that anyone should be able to get up on a Saturday morning and go and run a 5K time trial wherever they are."
Regardless of whether you run alone or as part of an organised event, time trials can play a vital part in your winter training. These days it is more or less accepted by sports physiologists and coaches that simply running long, slow miles is not the best path for maximum improvement. A recent study at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology tested different types of training to see which brought the best results over eight weeks. Long, slow running did poorly when compared with faster running, and particularly with faster intervals (four minutes of effort, followed by four minutes of easier running). Both of the latter are compatible with time-trial runs.
"It’s not just about how many kilometres you run, it’s about the intensity," says lead researcher Professor Jan Helgerud. "You don’t need to feel totally exhausted at the end of a faster session, but you do need to run faster than you normally would."
As we all know, it’s far easier to run fast when you’re up against the clock and there are lots of people around you. So attending an organised time trial, or even setting up your own, is a great way to ensure you don’t go stale over the winter when there are fewer races to train for. As Helgerud suggests, you don’t need to run time trials flat-out all the time. Instead, limit that to once per month and on the other weeks try Helgerud’s four-minute interval session or run the trial as a tempo run – i.e. run it at half-marathon pace and see how much easier it becomes as the weeks go by. You could even do several miles beforehand and use it to pick up the pace at the end of a long run – a session that many top coaches swear by. Indeed, elite runners such as Craig Mottram and Sonia O’Sullivan have seen fit to build time trials into their schedules (they both hold the course records for the BPTT).
Physically then, the time trial makes a lot of sense, but mentally it’s indispensable. Studies show that 50 per cent of people give up on exercise programmes within six months, yet this figure is drastically reduced if you monitor your results and can see an improvement at every stage of the process.
"There’s no doubt that seeing yourself improve week by week is a huge boost," says BPTT veteran David Rowe. "It’s made me into a real runner – something I’d never thought I’d be saying a year or two ago."
But more than that, running a series of time trials, rather than a couple of races, is more likely to build your confidence for the summer. Races are difficult to gauge: the wind can get up or the course could be tricky, and one poor time could leave you wondering whether you’re actually improving at all. But with the weekly time trials, it’s the same course every week and, yes, conditions may be poor one week, but if you do them regularly you’re going to be able to plot the benefits of your training in a way that should give you a real boost.
Plus, people who have taken part in time trials report that the events have a very different ‘feel’ from races; they are more sociable, less pressurised and they give you the comfort of knowing that if you have a bad day at the office, a second chance is only a week away.
"The time trials are great to do as training even if you don’t want to race that particular week," says David Rowe. "Sometimes I’ll have another race the following day and will just treat the time trial as a training run – though I admit it’s sometimes difficult to hold myself back when the competitive juices start flowing!"
Of course, if you’re doing your time trial alone it’s an even less pressurised environment. If you’re someone who suffers from nerves, a solo time trial can help build confidence, allowing you to see your potential when the pressure’s off. And if you’re not used to running in races, then the organised time trials give you a chance to get used to the feeling of running and competing with other people without shelling out a fee.
Finally, the organisers have taken good care to ensure there’s always a coffee shop near the finish for runners to meet up and chat about how it’s gone. Runners who attend regularly have found that this social element is as vital as any other factor in keeping them returning every week, and hence keeping their training on track.