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How Running Ladders Work

Your local track is an ideal spot to do ladders.
Your local track is an ideal spot to do ladders.

Elite runners to weekend warriors have used them them for decades to build strength and speed and keep their training interesting. They are ladders -- and with a little preparation and practice they can work for you, too.

Ladders are a form of interval training (workouts that are divided into segments of running and rest -- as opposed to a single, nonstop effort) traditionally used by runners of all distances. Ladder workouts are comprised of a series of increasing and/or decreasing intervals separated by periods of recovery. A sample workout might include running 400 meters (one time around a typical track), 800 meters, 1,200 meters, 800 meters, and 400 meters -- with each repetition separated by a 1-minute recovery jog. The name is derived from the ascending and descending lengths of each interval [source: Rodgers/Douglas].

While the basic structure of ladder workouts is the same, there are an almost limitless number of varieties. One school of thought prescribes ladder workouts with a constant, steady pace through each interval. Another recommends an inverse relationship between interval length and distance, with shorter intervals requiring a faster average pace than on the longer distances. Other ladders workouts measure the intervals solely by time rather than distance -- 1 minute, 2 minutes, 3 minutes, and so forth. If you have a heart-rate monitor, you can even target intervals to hit specific heart rates instead of a particular pace. Some ladder workouts only ascend or descend -- a workout could begin with a short interval and climax with a long interval, or vice versa.

The goal of ladders is to teach the body to become stronger, faster and more efficient. "Living organisms are necessarily frugal. They don't want to use any more energy than they have to," says Tom Derderian, a coach for the Greater Boston Track Club [source: Derderian]. Take, for example, a runner who has done 800 meter intervals until he can no longer maintain her goal pace. While another 800 meter interval may not be possible at that pace, perhaps a 400 meter interval followed by a 200 meter interval would be realistic. Over time, the body adapts to being pushed just a little bit further. On race day, that can mean the difference between a personal record and a dejected trot over the finish line.

There are a number of things to consider before beginning ladders. We get into that on the next page.