The ethos of the out and back is simple. You run out for a specific time, turn around and run back to where you started. Your run needs to be traffic-free which is why a canal path or trail would be ideal.
During the current pandemic, be careful to respect government guidelines in exercising near to home and keeping your social distancing and this of course applies while you are running.
While coached by his older brother John, Rod Dixon was heavily influenced by the legendary Arthur Lydiard and now has a pivotal role with the Lydiard Foundation. Lydiard himself has explained: “So first, you have to find your own basic capability. The best way to do this is to run an out and back course, for say 30 minutes.
“Run out for 15 minutes at a steady pace, then turn and run back again, trying to maintain that pace and not trying to force yourself. If it takes you 20 minutes to get back, it shows you’ve run the outward leg too fast for your condition. If you’re back inside 15 minutes without apparently increasing your effort, you haven’t run fast enough to begin with.” (Taken from The Lydiard Way, 1978).
Here Lydiard was using the out and back to teach his athletes pace judgement at their ‘best aerobic effort’. Today we would say this is a 30 minute sub-threshold run. Lydiard has also said: “We call the limit the maximum steady state; the level at which you are working to the limit of your ability to breathe in, transport and use oxygen.”
If you want to use it in this way, warm up and then run an out and back course of similar difficulty both ways, preferable a flat route. An experienced athlete, with good pace judgement, running comfortably at their sub-threshold pace, should be able to complete the return journey within 30 seconds either side of the 30 minutes.
As your training progresses and condition improves, you should be able to cover more distance in the 30 minutes, with the same level of effort. So in essence it’s a good mode of benchmarking your training.
The two-time world cross country bronze medallist explains: “During my training and preparation the ‘out and back’ was an important segment/component after the foundation/aerobic training.
“Sometimes as much as 5 mile out and back or 3 mile out and back. Most often a mile out and back.”
Dixon is an advocate of abandoning a fixation on the stopwatch for these sessions, adding that it was “a learning experience for pace judgement and about developing instinct”.
Evidence suggests that following Lydiard’s method, out and back runs would be practiced at least once every three weeks. This is dependent on the point you are at within your periodisation cycle and allows you the opportunity to engage in other modes of training which will be functional for your development, such as hill work for strength endurance and repetition work for speed endurance or fartlek, which of course works all three energy systems.
While the out and back has been traditionally associated with even-paced running, you need to think about progressing your work because athletes that train the same, tend to stay the same. Consider both (a) negative split sessions and (b) progression runs.
In terms of negative split sessions, some of Dixon’s own progressions included the following:
1/4 effort out 3/4 effort back
1/2 effort out 3/4 effort back
1/2 effort out 7/8 effort back
The three progressions above get harder to effect so are a way of progressively overloading the system over several months or years.
Additionally, another way of effecting a negative split session less in terms of a binary and more incrementally is through progression runs. This means that you increase your pace throughout your workout until you are running beyond your maximal steady state at the end.
Typically Dixon would start out at 1/4 effort then up his pace to 1/2 effort. At halfway he would turn and begin to come back at 3/4 effort with his final half mile at 7/8 effort.
While the out and back run traditionally involves a strong aerobic energy system component, it can be adapted to work both the alactic and lactate energy systems. This may be especially useful during the pandemic when tracks are out of bounds.
Short out and backs of less than 40 metres long could be used for a sparkly 10-second effort with a jog recovery of a couple of minutes, which will use the alactic (stop-start) system.
A hard out and back with a return journey of between a minute and three minutes would definitely be training the lactate (linking) system.