Anatomy of a Step-Up Run (part 2)

Anatomy of a Step-Up Run (part 2)

I’ve been getting into the second phase of my training for Boston.  This means higher quality workouts and more intensity.

My coach love step-up runs.  What’s a step-up run?  It’s a race specific form of tempo training.  You warm up, then ‘step-up’ to increasing levels of difficulty through the course the run.

You can do these by pace or by effort level.  I do both, although I find effort level, as measured by heart rate zone, is a more accurate predictor for me.  But, there is an obvious correlation between effort level and pace.  You can get the same quality workout either way.

Let’s look at some of the tactical execution points for one of these runs.

For this example I’ll use an 1:20 step-up that consists of a 20 minute warm up, 20 minutes in high zone 2, 20 minutes in zone 3, 10 minutes in zone 4 and a 10 minute warm down.

This is a hard workout.  You need to have a good base to execute this type of run.  It’s not really a ‘beginner’ workout.  You could do the same thing with a shorter run.  You could chunk up a, say, 30 minute run the same way and get some benefit out of it.

For me, training for a marathon, this is a good ‘race specific’ tempo run.  It forces you to run at specific paces or effort levels that you may use in your target race.  It forces you to back-load the effort and close hard, like you want to in a race.

The trick to a step-up is spreading the effort out over the course of the workout so that you don’t have to bail out before you finish.  You want to be able to finish hard.  When you finish that last hard step you should be out of gas going into the cool down.

Let’s take this example one chunk at a time.

First, the warm up.  I usually like a 20-minute warm up.  At this point in my life my HR takes around 15 minutes to settle.  I don’t even look at my heart rate in the warm up.  I just run super easy with good form, letting my legs warm up.

As you enter the first step, in my example a high zone 2 effort, you want to ease into.  Make sure your form is tight and just increase your turnover a bit.  Short, quick, light strides.  The common mistake is to jump into the first step and over-shoot the effort.  Don’t jump into it.  Ease into it. Slowly bring your cadence up until the heart rate is where you want it.

A high zone 2 for me is going to be 5-10 seconds slower than my marathon race pace.  It’s not that hard of an effort.  It takes discipline to keep your form clean as you ratchet up the effort.  Your tendency is to lose focus and let your form slip.  You can’t do that in a step-up because it wastes energy.  You keep a tight, clean form and conserve energy for the steps that are coming.

Now as you ease into the second step it starts to get a bit hard.  For me a mid-zone 3 is 5-10 seconds faster than my marathon race pace.  Again, you ease into the step by increasing your turnover.  Don’t stretch out your stride.  Churn your legs faster and keep the form tight.

You have to hold this effort level, for 20 minutes in this case, and you have another step coming so you don’t want to jump into it and overshoot.  If you go at it too hard you’ll go anaerobic and have to take a break to recover.  Trust me, I know this from experience.

It’s really an exercise in controlled effort.  You’re working hard but you’re right on the edge of racing.  It’s takes discipline to hold your effort on this edge.  You control your effort with your turnover.

Around my house it’s all rolling hills.  The way you manage the hills is by maintaining the turnover.  Keep churning those legs at the same rate and your speed will adjust itself on the hills.  It’s ok.  You’re not supposed to have the same pace up the hill and down the hill and on the flats.  Hold the effort level steady and the pace will average out.

Now the fun part.  You’re an hour into this run.  You’ve been maintaining a fairly hard effort level for 40 minutes.  Now you’re going to ask your body to close in Zone 4.  This is about 15-20 seconds faster than my marathon pace.

Again, you ease into it by picking up that turn over, but to get this pace I find I have to stretch out my stride a bit too.  Maintain that good form but there is a bit more foot-plant and drive in the turnover and maybe a bit more hang time in the stride.  This is close to a 10k pace for me.  It’s work.

Surprisingly I find this part of the step-up the easiest because I can smell the finish line.  Honestly my form starts to get a bit ragged at times, but when it does I just reel it in and focus on turnover.  Breathing is super important in that last step as well.  Forcing a couple of big deep breaths and blowing them out can help you relax.

That’s it.  Then you just hold on until you hit that cool down.  Feel free to collapse and stagger a bit.  Then jog home.

You can see how this is excellent race specific training.  It teaches you pace and effort discipline.  It forces you to close hard on tired legs.  It lets you practice being race-type-focused for a good chunk of time.  All good things that you need in a race.


  • Ease into the steps
  • Keep your form discipline
  • Increase effort and pace with turnover

Good luck.  Enjoy your step-ups.

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