The “Michigan” Workout May Kill You, But You Should Run It Anyway

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Few structured workouts strike terror into the hearts of runners like the Michigan, a mixture of tempo and interval training developed by University of Michigan track coach Ron Warhurst.

“There is no other workout that I have ever done in my life that fills me with such nervous fear and anxiety,” wrote mpokora on reddit. “I hate that workout,” Rondell Ruff told The Michigan Daily student paper in 2005. And even coach Warhurst said that getting to the end is an achievement in itself: “Anybody that finishes the workout is the star of the workout.”

On paper, the Michigan is certainly daunting. It’s designed to mix several types of running, as you would in a race. After a two- to three-mile warm-up, you hit the track, running four laps (1600 meters) at your 10K race pace. Then you jog off the track a bit, and commence a one-mile run at tempo pace, ideally following a long loop through woods and hills, or an out-and-back along a road. Finish that mile, jog back to the track, then hit three more laps at 10K pace, followed by another tempo mile in your sylvan glade or post-industrial wasteland (as the case may be). Another jog to the track, then two laps even faster, at your 5K pace. One last tempo mile, then a final, blistering sprint around the track. Cool down with another two or three miles of jogging, and you’ve done a Michigan.

On paper, it’s confusing. What am I supposed to run next? How fast? Does the workout come with a coach?

When I decided to give the Michigan a shot, I decided to break it down like this: Laps go 4-3-2-1 — the first half at 10K pace, the second at 5K — all interspersed with those tempo miles. To figure out my paces, I used this pace calculator from Runner’s World UK, basing everything on my recent finish time at the Brooklyn Half-Marathon, and factored in my recent times at a biweekly 5K series I love. (Also: 10K paces are said to be 20 seconds per mile slower than 5K paces.) I even made this shareable Google Doc to plan everything out, then printed it and completely forgot to bring it with me on training day.

On Saturday morning, the temperature was in the mid-60s, the clouds threatened rain, and I was jogging two miles to Red Hook, Brooklyn, which offered the two essential elements for the Michigan: a track, and a nearly traffic-free stretch of Columbia Street that extended around Erie Basin. Along for the torture session was my friend Zach Vine, an ultrarunner who would probably be doing another 20 miles when this was over, but who sometimes worries he doesn’t have much kick.

And so we began! We killed the first four laps in 6:38 — a far cry from the four minutes and change that a University of Michigan athlete would train at, but definitely speedier than my recent 5Ks. Were we pushing it too hard right out of the gate?

The tempo mile that followed flashed by in a clean 7:20 — a cluster of fishermen marked our halfway point — and we slow-jogged to the track to see if the previous four laps had been a fluke. They weren’t: We ran the next 1,200 meters at maybe one second slower per lap. (Sorry, coach!) Tempo mile No. 2 was even easier; I ran 7:12, with Zach several seconds behind me.

Now it was time to up the pace: two laps at 5K pace, except that if my 10K pace had exceeded my actual 5K pace, what was I supposed to run now? Too confusing, I decided: Just sprint. The laps went by, painfully and under a light rain, but at a 6:19 pace. Tempo mile No. 3, while tiring, wasn’t much harder than the others had been, and put us at the very end. One last lap at top speed, which turned out to be 6:15 pace.

Done. Damn.

As we slow-jogged back toward home, Zach remarked that his legs felt the way they normally did well into a long run (which for him is 20–30 miles). Me, I felt fine. Tired, sure, but not obliterated, as I’d been led to believe. In fact, I felt awesome: After all, I’d just clocked one of my fastest laps ever nine miles into a grueling workout.

But I was also trying to figure out: Had this workout gone really, really well, or had it gone wrong? On the one hand, maybe the Michigan was showing me that I should be running my races a lot harder, my 10Ks at what I thought was 5K pace, and my 5Ks, well, even faster than that. Which is a good reason for any ambitious runner to do the Michigan — it helps you recalibrate your expectations. What are you capable of? What could, or should, you be running? The Michigan may tell you.

On the other, maybe I just hadn’t pushed it hard enough, and so hadn’t really discovered anything about my abilities. Maybe this was truly meant for the four-minute milers at Michigan, while for the rest of us mere mortals it was just a game. Maybe my GPS watch was misfiring the entire time. (Zach’s, too.) Maybe the Michigan was just so complicated that I’d screwed up the planning entirely, and none of this meant anything at all.

The only way to know for sure, I realized, was to do it all over again, and again, and again. See you on Saturday in Red Hook?