Oregon Circuit Workouts: Big Bang for Your Training Buck!

Apr 27, 2014   //   by James Dunne   //   Injury & Rehab Information  //  15 Comments  //  Affiliate Disclosure  

There’s a small group of us up here in Norwich who venture out very early on a Monday morning to undergo a certain type of torturous run-strength session, colloquially known as Oregon Circuits.

There’s no sugar-coating it, these sessions hurt! However we’ve all been pleased to quickly see the clear performance benefits in our run splits as race season gets into full swing. As an example of this type of session, here’s a video from my friend Urban Bettag (@RunUrban) putting his group of athletes through their paces with his own variation of Oregon Circuits at Battersea Park Track in London.

What & How…?

Taking their name from the University of Oregon where they were apparently first conceived, these sessions entail a measured balance of tempo running combined with targeted strength exercises. The benefits are multiple, as I will discuss shortly. Not least in that you quickly begin to replicate the ‘heavy legs’ feeling we’re all familiar with that normally hits late-on in a race.

Essentially the sessions take a format similar to an interval session. Our Monday morning variation entails 300m reps at race pace with strength and core exercises interspersed in what would normally be ‘rest time’ (run pace will of course depend on athlete’s specific goals).

The most important coaching point in terms of pace and effort is that while the runs should be at ‘race pace’, these should feel like the recovery in terms of effort from the challenging nature of the exercises.

If the exercises feel restful compared to the running, you’re doing it wrong!

N.B. We have sprint triathletes through to ultramarathoners in our Monday morning group, so ‘race pace’ is a very individual concept… this isn’t a session to compare yourself against others around you – pacing is important!

Example Session:

4 x 8min blocks of work (2mins recovery)

  • Warm-Up
  • Block 1 (8mins no-rest):
    – Sumo Squats x 20
    – Run 300m @ race pace
    – Plank Jacks x 20
    – Run 300m @ race pace
    – Repeat…
  • 2min Walking Recovery
  • Block 2 (8mins no-rest):
    – Lateral Lunge x 15 each leg
    – Run 300m @ race pace
    – Mountain Climber Press-Up x 12 each leg
    – Run 300m @ race pace
    – Repeat…
  • 2min Walking Recovery
  • Block 3 (8mins no-rest):
    – High Step-Up x 15 each leg
    – Run 300m @ race pace
    – Single Leg Deadlift x 15 each leg
    – Run 300m @ race pace
    – Repeat…
  • 2min Walking Recovery
  • Block 4 (8mins no-rest):
    – Single Leg Glute Bridge x 15 each leg
    – Run 300m @ race pace
    – 4-point Donkey Kicks x 15 each leg
    – Run 300m @ race pace
    – Repeat…
  • Cool Down

Why…?

As I alluded to earlier, there is method to the madness.

Running Strength-Endurance

These sessions are intense and should be performed once a week at most, but I’m yet to find another running workout that builds strength-endurance and resilience as effectively, not even hill reps, another favourite workout of mine.

As with all sessions, the outcome will depend on the reasoning used to structure the session. If we set out just to smash ourselves with the hardest combination of exercises we can think of, then we won’t get the most from the session! Instead we choose specific exercises to target key running muscle groups, prime movers, stabilisers and core muscles all included. As fatigue kicks-in don’t compromise technique.

Running Technique – Fatigued

This for me is the biggest benefit of these sessions, with the correct cues in mind (see our online course – 50% discount), every run rep can be very focused on technique. Not only this, but with well chosen strength exercises, you get a degree of transfer of muscle activation between the exercise and the run rep.

For example: If we know we have a runner with poor Glute Med function during running gait, we can set an exercise such as resistance band crab walks in between run reps, to achieve a pre-activation in Glute Med then immediately run a short technique focused rep to help fine-tune the firing pattern within running gait.

I often explain this to the athletes as “firstly getting the muscle working effectively, then show it the running movement pattern… and repeat”. Ask me to show you the science and I’ll struggle, but it certainly seems to consistently work really well :)

There is also the benefit of running at race pace, pre-fatigued by the exercises in bursts short enough to focus on form. This makes for a great session to practice maintaining form on heavy legs. Triathletes will understand what I mean when I call these workouts “brick sessions without the bike”!

Race Preparation

A number of the athletes in our group, myself included have commented on the similarity in feeling to the heavy legs experienced towards the end of some races. These sessions are very effective in replicating this type of situation, and building strength to maintain form into such fatigue.

Integrating strength work into a training program has well documented benefits both in terms of injury prevention and performance. I often refer back to a case study of an athlete I worked in 2011-12. Our work  really cemented in my mind the benefit of this type of session.

Case Study

Matt is a experienced marathon runner in his late 30s who came to me with a PB of 3:15:00. He wanted to initially overcome a pattern of reoccurring running injuries (knee and calf), then train to run a sub 3hr marathon. The injuries were no problem, with a few changes to running form and key rehab / prehab exercises.

Having unsuccessfully tried to prepare on his own for a sub 3hr marathon more than once using his preferred 16-week marathon schedule, we examined his pattern of almost always getting sick or injured just before going into taper. This always seemed to have an understandably detrimental effect on his race-day performance. We tried a new approach…

Ahead of Liverpool Marathon in October 2012,  I put Matt on a 12-week program, with an additional 4 week ‘more relaxed’ preparatory-block. This preparatory block entailed:

  • 1 x Oregon Circuits session
  • 1 x Gym session
  • 1 x 30-45min Fartlek session
  • 1 x longer steady run
    (building his long runs up from the beginning of the prep block)

In Matt’s own words, this preparatory block left him feeling “the strongest he has ever felt going into a marathon training block”.

So, we still increased Matt’s long runs over 16 weeks, and added appropriate training volume during the 12 week focussed training block. The cumulative training load on his body in the last few weeks pre-taper was less likely to see him get sick or injured, compared to before. This worked well in Matt’s case. We maintained weekly Oregon Circuits workouts throughout. I firmly believe that this loosely structured 4 week preparatory block, and the Oregon Circuits held within played a big part in Matt’s success…

Liverpool Marathon 2012: 2:58:59.

Happy Coach. Even happier Athlete!

About The Author

James has an academic background in Sport Rehabilitation and a special interest in Applied Biomechanics. He currently coaches a large number of Runners and Triathletes across all levels of ability and performance. He's grown a strong reputation for enabling athletes to improve their running performance and overcome running injuries through improving their Running Technique and developing Running Specific Strength.

 

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15 Comments

  • So you do each of these segments 4x then walk 2 minutes between each?

    • you just repeat 1 block for 8 mins then have a 2 minute rest and move on to the next 8 minute block. total time 32 mins (excluding rest periods after block 1 2 and 3 which would total 6 mins).

      • Thanks Dave! That’s exactly right. For the duration of each block you alternate between exercise A and B between runs until the 8mins is up. This is my adaptation of the method… There are no-doubt many others!

        • How long would it take if you changed it to be 4 rounds of the 3 blocks no matter what the time… or is that overkill

          • Possibly overkill, but no harm in giving it a go!

            To be honest – I believe it’s the basic combination of strength and tempo running that provides the benefit, not the specifics in terms of sets and reps. I think we often look to make training more complicated than it needs to be :)

  • This video clip was taken a few years ago. Those athletes doing the Oregon Session (during the off season) are very good runners. Compared to their overall volume of running (per week) they spend (little)/less time on general strength. The Oregon Circuits are a good session for combining both – running and general strength.

    Initially, Oregon circuits have been introduced by Bill Bowerman (co-founder of Nike) when coaching Joaquim Cruz (BRA) at the University of Oregon. Cruz was injured and needed to find a way to get quickly back to fitness for the Olympics. Later on Cruz won the 800m gold medal in 1984 Olympics. Cruz is among few men who have run sub 1:42 (1:41.77).

    I do this session frequently especially when I am working with a new athlete. The Oregon Circuit session has pretty much everything. It helps me to assess the athlete’s running form while running in between the exercises and I can see how well the athlete does the general strength exercises. Often there is a connection between both, for example how well coordinated is the athlete. Are there any imbalances or muscular weaknesses? If there are they will definitely be highlighted towards the end of the session, when the athlete feels more tired and starts to get fatigued.

    Through “empirical” studies I have seen the opposite trend as well. I have had many runners performing the general strength exercises in a static setting very well and to a very high standard. However, when it comes to running they have not (yet) embedded their coordination/strength into their running.

    It was the late coach Dave Sunderland who introduced me to the Oregon Circuits.

  • I’m very interested in the 4-week “preparatory block” you used as I was thinking of including something similar early in my next training block. One question…other than the 4 days you’ve outlined, do you include easy runs on the other days?

  • After trying the Oregon circuits today ( which were fantastic!) I had a question. I found that if I stuck to the 8 minute time frame that I would not always be able to start the second set of the second exercise. I was wondering if I would be better off to reduce the number of reps from 20 to 15 in order to complete 2 sets of each exercise or skip the last run between exercises in order to be able to fit it all in? Or perhaps another strategy. Also, I was curious about your on line run course, I have an “A” race coming up at the end of May which I have been training for, if I was to consider starting a program such as yours in an attempt to improve my stride would you recommend waiting until after this race or is there potential that I could master the new skill in time to show some improvement for my next race. I enjoy your posts – keep up the great work!

  • […] feel like your heart is about to beat out of your chest. Tonight’s session was focusing on Oregon Circuits. We ran around the track, and sprinted between two sets of cones (about 100m) before returning to […]

  • Great Post! As a physical therapist who works with alot of runner’s how to you ensure that your pre-activation exercises do not function as a pre-fatigue exercise? If training crab walks to fatigue in a circuit with tempo running I feel as though the crab walks would temporaily decrease the ability of the glute medius to produce force therefor decreasing it’s effectivenss as a stabilizer rather than “activating it”. To what intensity to you have people work with these pre-activation exercises?

    Please email me back with any information!

    Mike

    • Hi Mike,

      Really great question! The reality is that there’s probably a fine line between pre-activation and pre-fatigue for a muscle like G.Med (as an example). No doubt a line that is often crossed with this session, which is why close exercise supervision and cueing is important.

      When doing this type of circuit with a view to rehab and improving movement patterning, it’s important to get the runner to ‘feel the muscle working’ in a chosen isolation exercise, but not to the point of failure or compromised form. Focus is on quality of movement, not just completing x reps. For this I work less on a VAS scale of intensity, more a focus on maintaining form, then stopping well before failure – just as you can feel the targeted area effectively engaged.

      If performing these circuits as a basic strength-endurance session, then we do aim for a degree of pre-fatigue in the bigger muscle groups, with a view to then running with good technique ‘with heavy legs’.

      The session structure is a work in progress, and I do always need to progress/regress most athletes with particular exercises. That’s where it’s important to know who you’re working with!! It works though :)

      I hope this helps.

      Cheers,

      James

  • Coach Dunne! Instead of our Thursday hill run, I took my running group out on the grass at our local golf course to do your variation of the Oregon Circuits. Our group includes a under-20yr old fast 800m runner to an over 55yr old who recovering from a serious illness. They all loved it! Can you give some more variations for the strength exercises?

  • Gave it a try this past weekend… ignored the 8 minute time limit and did 2 rounds of each block… it took me about 9-12 minutes depending on the block cuz I added some to make it 20 step ups etc… tough but nice… I liked the way it broke up the 300s… not sure of my time for the 300s but guessing in the 6:00-6:15 range….

  • […] – I filmed Andy and James spontaneously during the last quarter of our Monday morning Oregon Circuits session – a tough workout to say the […]

  • […] Oregon Circuit Workouts: Big Bang for Your Training Buck! […]

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