What is a running time trial and can it help me race faster?

Here’s why and how to occasionally go all-out in training.

man running on track

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The benefits of time trials are available to all runners with competitive goals, but what exactly are they? Here’s what you need to know about time trials – and how they can help you to race faster.

What are time trials, and why should you do them?

A time trial is a planned all-out effort that prepares you physically and mentally for a near-future important race. Time trials are almost always a fraction of the distance of your goal race.

If you’re thinking that sounds like a warm-up race, you’re right. But time trials have some key aspects that can make them the better option. ‘Time trials give you the opportunity to test yourself like you would in a warm-up race, but without having to worry about things like travel and logistics,’ says Jenna Wrieden, assistant coach for the NAZ Elite team in Flagstaff, Arizona.

You can do time trials whenever is best for you, at whatever distance makes the most sense in the overall scope of your training. ‘They can be more like a lab experiment, where you control the variables,’ says Mark Coogan, coach to Olympic runner and New Balance athlete Elle St. Pierre, as well as the rest of New Balance Boston. You’re also less likely to get caught up in the excitement and overextend yourself than in an official race. Oh, and time trials are free and don’t eat up half a precious weekend day.

In addition to all of these reasons to do time trials, they simultaneously improve your fitness and provide feedback on your fitness. ‘Time trials give you a chance to see where you’re at in a low-stress setting,’ Wrieden says. ‘If it goes great, you get a confidence boost. If you don’t quite get the result you want, remind yourself that there’s still time before your key race to get fitter.’

How should you incorporate time trials into your training?

Time trials are best run from one to five weeks before a goal race. As a general rule, the longer your goal race, the more time you should allow between it and a time trial.

Wrieden and Coogan agree that, for distance runners, time trials should be shorter than your goal race. ‘Don’t try to exactly duplicate what you’ll do on race day,’ Wrieden says. ‘Give yourself room to improve.’

Here are some sample time trial distances relative to popular race distances:

Race distanceTime trial distanceWhen before race
2K800–1,000 meters1-2 weeks
5K2K-3K1.5-2.5 weeks
10K5K2-3 weeks
Half marathon8K-10K2-4 weeks
Marathon16 kilometres-half marathon3-5 weeks

How fast you should aim to run your time trial? ‘As fast as you can on that day, with the understanding that you might not run as fast as you think you “should” because it’s ultimately just a workout,’ Wrieden says. Coogan adds that being able to cover more than half of your goal race distance at goal race pace, such as hitting 5K pace in a 3K time trial, is a good result.

For time trials that are 5K or shorter, a running track is the best setting. If that’s not possible, find a flat, low-traffic stretch of road or bike path where you can concentrate on running fast. For longer time trials, roads or bike paths are preferable unless you’re okay with the mental fatigue of dozens of laps of a track.

The longer your time trial, the more you’ll want to err on the side of caution. If you’re doing a 10K time trial three weeks before a half marathon, running at or a little slower than half marathon pace is plenty fast enough. For marathoners, time trials are best thought of as dress rehearsals for race day. ‘If you warm up a few kilometres, run 16 or 20 kilometres at marathon pace, and cool down a few kilometres, that’s a huge confidence booster and a heck of a workout,’ Coogan says.

It’s also important to remember you do time trials during some of your hardest training, so you’ll carry some residual fatigue into it. Wrieden and Coogan don’t advise significantly interrupting your build=up for the sake of a time trial. Instead, they say to treat the day before as you would the day before a race – a short jog or a complete rest day, some stretching, good nutrition and sleep. Going through that routine before a time trial will help you on race day, especially if you haven’t raced in a while.

Afterward, remember Wrieden’s take on interpreting results. If you run what you want to, fantastic – tell yourself you just did that by yourself in the middle of a build-up, so race day should go even better. If you run a little slower than you want to, don’t get distraught. You’ll almost certainly run faster on race day.

‘Time trials are about testing the waters,’ Wrieden says. ‘But nothing is quite the same as putting on a number and standing on a start line.’

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