woman having speed training workout

New Workout: Billat’s Analog Windup

Like many other endurance athletes, I’m adapting to the COVID-19 era by the seat of my pants, seeking ways to maintain my normal level of enthusiasm for training without races to look forward to and without a playbook. The pattern I seem to have fallen into—which has been working better than I would have imagined—is one of gamifying my training by injecting elements of the racing experience into some of my workouts.

Within the past few weeks alone I’ve done four ass-kicking workouts I had never done previously in my 30-plus years of running. Most recently, I completed a workout that I call Billat’s Analog Wind-Up. It’s named after French exercise physiologist Veronique Billat, who created the workout and whose book The Science of the Marathon I reviewed in last week’s post. More accurately, I completed a modified version of the workout Billat describes, which is unconventional to the point of being impractical. The original version is structured as follows:

11:00 acceleration from jog to full sprint

30:00 rest

6:00 acceleration from jog to full sprint

30:00 rest

3:00 acceleration from jog to full sprint

Billat makes no mention of a warm-up or cooldown, but presumably these are intended. In any case, I didn’t want to spend 60 minutes of an 80-minute workout just sitting around, and I also didn’t want to overwhelm myself with my first taste of this type of training, so I chose to do this instead:

15:00 warm-up

11:00 acceleration from jog to full sprint

15:00 jog

3:00 acceleration from jog to full sprint

15:00 cool-down

You’re probably wondering about the rationale for this unusual format. Billat offers several. The most obvious one is that, unlike traditional, “quantum” interval workouts, which expose the body to just two discrete intensities, Billat’s analog accelerations expose the body to every intensity of running from the very lowest to the very highest. It’s a type of challenge that a runner never experiences in the course of executing a conventional training program, and as such it simply must trigger some adaptive benefit. I can’t say whether incorporating this type of session into your training will make you fitter, but I can say for certain that it will change your physiology.

Another, and even greater, benefit of this workout is that it’s terrific pacing practice. The vastly underappreciated art of pacing is all about calibrating subjective perceptions (effort, pace) against objective performance metrics (time, distance, velocity). As you can probably imagine, executing a smooth, gradual acceleration from a jog to a full sprint over the course of 3, 6, or 11 minutes is extremely challenging, requiring intensive engagement of the mind in reading subjective perceptions and calibrating them to the objective metric of time. Pacing competence comes through experience and intentionality (actively trying to get better at pacing). I have a lot of both, and I therefore consider myself to be pretty good at pacing, but my first crack at Billat’s Analog Windup would be a real test.

The most likely way to screw it up would be to accelerate too quickly and redline prematurely. That’s because the relationship between running velocity and the duration that a given velocity can be sustained isn’t linear. On fresh legs, I can sustain a pace of 7:30 per mile for about 5 hours, a pace of 6:30 per mile for about 3.5 hours, and a pace of 5:30 per mile for just 30 minutes or so. Hence, effective execution of the workout would require that I backload the windups, accelerating very gradually, so I didn’t paint myself into a corner.

Even with this awareness, I painted myself into a corner in the first, 11:00 acceleration—not too badly though. With a minute to go I was suffering mightily and had very little room to speed up any further. I pinned the needle around the 10:40 mark and was probably losing momentum when I hit the end of my cul-de-sac at 10:54 and was forced to stop a few ticks early. I felt completely wrecked and feared the 3:00 acceleration would be truly ugly, but it actually turned out to be somewhat easier, which, in retrospect, I should have anticipated. Normally, a 3:00 maximum effort would be more painful than an 11:00 maximum effort, but the acceleration format flips normal on its head. Even in my fatigued state, I didn’t start to taste blood (metaphorically speaking) until around the 2:15 mark of the second acceleration.

It’s fascinating how quickly the learning process can unfold in a test of this sort. I did a much better job of pacing the 3:00 windup than the 11:00 windup, and not only because it was shorter. It was mainly because I was able to apply the bit of experience I’d gained to avoid painting myself into a corner a second time.

In addition to confirming that Billat’s Analog Windup is an effective tool for developing pacing skill, this initial experiment convinced me that the workout is also a solid fitness builder. There’s just no way a workout that causes so much suffering could not be beneficial. It’s not a very race-specific workout, however, so I think it’s best used in the late base or early specific phase of training, when you’re at least eight weeks out from racing. I will definitely do it again when the timing is right, and when I do, I’ll take the full plunge and so all three accelerations.