Should road-runners and triathletes avoid track-training and why?

Posted on


Almost every road-runner gets to a point in their running career where they realize that if they want to improve their times, they will need to start doing speed training.

If you ask a road-runner what speed -training means, they will come up with words like interval-training, fartlek, tempo runs, speed sessions on a treadmill, or the most famous of them all, speed training on the track. This means doing specific sets of 1000m, 800m, 400m, 200m or 100m intervals on the track with specific rest periods in between in order to improve your PB on the 10km, 21km etc..

Before you start your speed-training there are 2 important aspects to consider:

What would you like to achieve?


How can I make sure that I can avoid injury in the process?

Why do many road runners do their speed training on the track?

Athletes all associate the track with speed. It is easy to mark the distances on the track and most running coaches recommend it.

But what is the difference between doing speed work around the track and doing it on a straight road? And how does it affect your body?

First of all, let me ask you this. Does it make sense to swim intervals in the pool in order to improve your running-speed, or to do interval sessions on your bicycle if you want to improve your running speed? Or is it important to use the exact muscles in the exact patterns in order to improve your running speed?

Or let me ask you this: If you want to run fast in a straight line, should you not be doing your speed training in a straight line? What happens to the body when you run in a straight line? The left and right leg works equally. But, when running around a track, different patterns kick in, which includes rotation of the upper body towards one side as well as side-bending of the upper body towards the same side.

In the following 2 papers, the authors made videos of athletes running around the curve on the track, and it clearly showed that their body positions and therefor the range at which the muscles contract, is very different to when they are running straight.

The facts about the track

When measuring the IAAF standard 400m oval track, about 229m of the track is curved and 168m is straight. This means that if a road runner does his/her speedwork on the track, almost 60% of the time, the body is in a rotated position and only about 30% in the neutral position.



Now try the following test with me.

Stand up straight and then rotate your upper body towards the left while bending sideways towards the left, just enough to simulate what will happen if you run anti-clockwise around the track. Notice that your left knee turns slightly inwards while your right knee turns slightly outwards. As you rotate your upper body more, these rotations become more obvious. Notice that your feet also work differently. The left big toe tends to lift up while the right big toe points downwards.

On this picture, all the highlighted muscle patterns will tend to shorten when an athlete repeatedly runs anti-clockwise around a track.


When you do your speed sessions on the track, which means that you are running hard and fast, these rotations become more obvious and the muscles strengthen in this spiral pattern towards the left. Which means that if you have done all your speedwork on the track, running anti-clockwise, you have in fact strengthened your body mainly to curve towards the left, one third of the time in a straight direction and not at all towards the right. Which means that when it gets to race day, your muscles are conditioned to run fast on a curve towards the left, but not necessarily in a straight direction and definitely not towards the right.

If you were to alternate your track training you will spend equal time running towards the left, the right and in a straight direction. The question is: Why do you waste so much time conditioning your body to run fast on a bend, if running on the road will require mainly straight forward running and that the sprints would most probably always be on the straight?

Could this result in injuries?

Absolutely! And let me explain how. Each muscle in our body is surrounded by a bag of connective tissue or fascia, almost like a balloon, which holds the muscle in a specific position. In between the muscle and this deep fascia layer (the balloon) is a lubricating substance which allows the muscle to contracts and lengthens inside this fascia bag.

We find this lubricating substance everywhere in the body where layers are meant to slide upon each other in order to allow the body to move. When we start using a muscle more, the muscle-volume increases and the muscle is able to work harder. If, however, we increase the load on the muscle too rapidly, the brain responds to this overload by ‘glueing’ these fascia layers together in order to support the muscle, which results in bulking up and shortening of the muscle.


When we contract any muscle in the body, there is always an opposing muscle that lengthens as a result. If we contract a series of muscles in a specific pattern, like rotating the upper body towards the left, there is an opposing set of muscles that lengthens in reaction to the contraction. If this new repetitive pattern is performed gradually over time, the muscles adapt and the brain does not have to overreact by glueing up the fascia as a support.

However, if the new repetitive pattern, in this case running around the track in one direction, is performed too progressively, the brain will respond to support the overloaded muscles and the fascia surrounding the muscles in this specific pattern, will lock the upper body in a spiral pattern towards the left, the left leg towards internal rotation and the right leg towards external rotation. This also means that the opposite pattern ends up being locked in the lengthened position, which weakens the pattern as the muscles are not able to contract through the full range.


All this is perfectly fine for a track athlete, as this is the pattern in which they will be running all the time. But the road runner will most probably very seldom sprint on a curve towards the left, more often in a straight line and then sometimes in a curve towards the right.

How do we know this?

Because in LYNO® we have tested it over and over again!

When we do the full body assessment and test the length of each major muscle involved in running  around the track, and I have done numerous of these assessments in the past 22 years, there is always a distinct difference in range of movement in the spiral patterns of the arms, upper body and legs. Muscles involved in curving the body towards the left, are more locked in a short position, whereas the opposite pattern is normally longer and the muscles weaker. This results in non-alignment and could result in injury, depending on the intensity of training.

Is it then acceptable for a road-runner to do track training as long as they keep changing their direction on the track?

Yes, if you take my argument above, then most certainly it is, as long as you do not progress your track training too quickly and allow the body to strengthen gradually. But then the following question arises: Why would you want to improve your strength in spiral patterns if the end goal is to run straight?

In my sport practice in Stellenbosch where I focused on track and road runners I saw so many locked spiral patterns due to unnecessary track training. I eventually managed to convince my triathlete and road runners to do their speed training on a straight road and the injuries became remarkably less.

Finally, is it a good idea to do your speed training on a treadmill?

 © Andor Bujdoso
© Andor Bujdoso

This is always an interesting question. Many athletes love doing their speed intervals on the treadmill as it is easier to measure and to pace yourself on a treadmill.

But let’s again look at the functional anatomy. When you run on solid ground; the moment you place your foot on the ground, the Gluteii, hamstrings and calf muscles have to contract strongly in order to project the full body weight forward. While doing that, the opposite muscles on the other leg, lift the leg up and moves  the leg forward in a non-weight bearing action, so much easier and less effort.

This means that in speed training the posterior line (muscles at the back of the leg) does all the hard work and if you progress your training carefully, these muscles will become well conditioned for speed running.

So what happens when you run on the treadmill?

When you put your foot down on the treadmill, the band moves your foot backwards, which means that the effort necessary to propel the body forward, is distinctively less! At the same time the opposite leg operates in the same non-weightbearing way as with running on solid ground. Therefor the pattern that gains the most momentum and conditioning on the treadmill, would be the anterior line, the muscles that brings the opposite leg forward.

So what happens if you have done all your ‘speed-training’ on the treadmill and you suddenly hit solid ground to test the conditioning? Your anterior lines are well conditioned to bring your legs forward, but the posterior lines have not had any conditioning. The brain ‘thinks’ that you are conditioned to run fast, but as soon as you set off on solid ground, you injure your hamstring or calf due to the sudden and unexpected overload.

To conclude

Coaching has become so scientific that it just makes no sense that an athlete would look for trouble if it could be avoided. Strengthen muscles in the range and pattern that they will be expected to perform and your results will show.