It’s no secret that I think speed work for distance runners is critical to an runner’s training plan. There are so many benefits — increased pace and endurance, improved anaerobic threshold, feeling like you have more “gears” or speeds to play with.
Many endurance athletes are wary of speed work because they feel like they can’t waste time on anything that’s not long slow distance work. But speed work of interval training has some surprise benefits for increased endurance as well.
So the next question is how to go about it. This can be intimidating when you’ve never done interval work, and especially when your focus is on marathons, or long distance triathlons.
So where to start?
Go to the track?
In just about every workshop I give someone says, what about hill training or stairs? I think this must be a default in people’s brains from their high school or college days. I know I had to run a lot of stairs in basketball conditioning.
Hill training and stairs can be useful tools for building strength and endurance, but when the goal is to build speed and efficiency they don’t quite scratch the itch.
The Speedy Brain
Getting faster and building speed is as much a neurological process as it is a muscular one. The central nervous system needs to learn how to recruit more muscle fibers, to do it quickly, and to repetitively do it at a cadence that’s higher than our usual pace. Think of it this way: The right side of the brain controls the left side of the body and vice versa. Running, like many of the things we do, is a reciprocal motion where the right and left sides of the body are working opposite each other. One leg is moving forward while the other is moving back, and the arms are moving opposite to that, so that the left arm and right leg are forward at the same time while the right arm and left leg are back at the same time. So a lot is going on all at once. If we look at what signaling is occurring in the brain we see the left and right sides lighting up in opposite areas over and over.
This signaling happens normally when we walk or run at our comfortable pace and the brain handles this just fine. When we speed up the signaling has to occur much faster and this requires effort on the part of the central nervous system (CNS). The CNS will actually get fatigued from firing in this new, faster pattern. And since the specificity of pace and cadence is important because that’s what drives the motor recruitment, when “CNS fatigue” occurs then the brain/CNS will no longer recruit all those muscle fibers to do that work, and we’re forced to slow down.
So if we want to get the utmost potential out of our speed training we need to remove the barriers to achieving the highest speeds. A flat level surface, like a track is good place to start.
Those really paying attention might ask, what about running downhill? That makes you go fast. True and this is a very good point. Downhill running is a great way to work on increasing cadence and getting used to running fast. But it also has a high injury rate, so it’s a bit dangerous to start out with.
Risk vs Benefit
This is a perfect time to talk about the risks of speed work. It has all these great benefits, why not do it all the time? The short answer is that running faster comes with greater forces through the body and exposes the muscles and other soft tissues to more stress and strain. All of this comes with an increased possibility for injury.
That’s why speed work needs to be approached intelligently and worked it into a running routine in a way that the body can easily absorb while giving the stressed tissues enough rest to perform their magic and recover from the effort.
The Nuts & Bolts of Starting Speed Training
Here’s a simple weekly progression you can use to get yourself into a safe habit of speed work for your training and it only requires two days each week dedicated to it.
- Only work on speed two runs each week — the rest of your workouts need to be easy aerobic pace. This is really important to get the most out of the speed we do.
- There should be at least a day or two between speed workouts. Something like Monday and Thursday or whatever works into your schedule.
- Try not to have a long run the day before or after a speed workout.
- Speed work is best done in the afternoon. Research shows that our bodies are generally best at putting out the highest efforts in the afternoon and not nearly as good at it in the morning. You can read more about that in my article about Early AM workouts.
- Whenever possible try to do speed work on soft surfaces, like grass or dirt trails, a nice track, or a nice treadmill might even work in a pinch.
The goals of these first few weeks of speed training are simple:
- Of course, to get your soft tissues used to the increases in force required to run faster. –Soft Tissue Accommodation
- To train your brain to recruit more muscle fibers and to do it quickly and repetitively. –Central Nervous System Accommodation
- To get familiar with working it into your week. If you can start doing it consistently then it can become a habit. Many runners know that working in some speed is beneficial, but lack the inertia to take the simple step to work it into their week. –Habit
Week 1 of Speed Training
It doesn’t matter if you run three days a week or six, you can easily work this small amount in. Strides are an easy place to start. Simply pick up your pace (up to around 5K effort — not sure what that is? Don’t worry. Just run faster than your normal easy pace) for around 10-30 seconds. Focus on increasing your cadence or turnover and not as much on how long your stride is. You should finish the effort breathing heavy, but not completely gassed. You should easily be able to continue jogging at your normal easy pace immediately following the interval.
As with any higher effort, these should be done after plenty of warm up — I like to do them in the middle-third of a run.
Take plenty of rest between each Stride — a couple minutes is fine and begin with 3-5 of these efforts. As mentioned before, you’re only focusing on speed two days a week and the rest of the runs that week should be at an easy aerobic pace.
Use Strides on two runs your first week — this will be an easy way for your body to start.
Week 2 of Speed Training
Continue with Strides for one day this week. On a second day, you’re going to do Bounding or Diagonal Bounding. These are plyometric exercises and numerous studies have shown that plyometrics improve running economy. (Saunders, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 2006 among others).
Bounding is like jumping and running at the same time. Each stride should be a leap of sorts. Aim for around 50% longer than your normal stride length. Do 10-15 Bounds and then return to jogging normally. Begin with just 3 or 4 sets of 10-15, which should be a safe number of contacts In plyometrics, anytime you land after a jump is referred to as contact. Since there’s more force through the body during a contact we have to be careful to not do too many — beginning with 30-50 light contacts in Bounding is a safe amount.
Alternatively, you might use Diagonal Bounding, which I think are preferable. These are the same as regular Bounding except you jump forward and to the left or right depending on what leg you’re landing on. Pretend like you’re jumping from stone to stone in a creek as you run. Stay light on your feet and bound side to side as you move forward. I prefer the Diagonal Bounding because running is almost always very linear. We’re always moving straight ahead and all the movement is in one plane. Doing some Diagonal Bounding is a great opportunity to focus on muscles that work outside of this pattern, like the hip abductors, the peroneal muscles in the calves, and numerous back and abdominal muscles that work in lateral motions and rotation.
Week 3 of Speed Training
Workout #1 should be 3-5 Strides with appropriate rest between each of course, and a few minutes after that go through 2-4 sets of Bounding or Diagonal Bounding.
Workout #2 is going to be your first Fartlek run. What’s a fartlek? As you can read in a thousand places online, it’s a Swedish term for “speed play.” These are very flexible runs that can be either very structured or very relaxed. When starting out, it’s best to keep them structured so that you can keep close track of how much time you spend running fast. I like to begin with 2 minutes fast and at least 3 minutes of recovery, but you might opt for 4 or even 8 minutes of rest between each 2 minute interval. Setting a watch timer to go off every two minutes can be helpful to keeping you on task and let you focus on just running rather than keeping track of your time. These can be done on any terrain, but I especially like to do them on the local trails. The effort level of a fartlek is similar to the Strides, but longer. Just pick up your pace for the 2 minutes and try to hold as steady a pace as you can. You should finish the interval out of breath and walk about 10 steps, and then begin an easy jog again. Jog easy for 3-8 minutes — a good rule of thumb is when you feel recovered and ready to run fast again, still rest one more minute after that. You should begin with 3-5 of these 2-minute efforts on your first fartlek.
Week 4 of Speed Training
Workout #1 can be similar to the first workout last week with the Strides and the Bounding, but extend one or two of the Strides to 90 seconds or two minutes so that they’re similar to a Fartlek effort. Make sure you give yourself enough rest between them before continuing.
Workout #2 is going to be another fartlek but try to do 4-6 of the 2-minute efforts this time. Don’t be afraid of resting a bit more than 3 or 4 minutes if you need to.
Now that you have 4 weeks of these progressive efforts under your belt, you’re ready to start advancing your speed workouts. You can continue to do longer versions of Fartleks, Strides, and Bounding exercises or you can venture off into new things like track work. If you’re going to go to the track, begin with longer intervals, like 800s (2 laps around most tracks) and keep the efforts at your fartlek effort or slightly faster until your legs get used to the track’s surface.
From here there are a number of ways for you to proceed with your speed work. And what the best course is will depend on what your focus is going to be. Marathons, 5Ks, 70.3 triathlons….these will each require a different training intensity, different recovery times, and different training volume of speed work, so I’ll cover some of these intermediate plans in the coming weeks.
For now, focus on getting through these four weeks. They’re progressive enough that almost anyone that’s already running a few days a week should be able to safely implement and begin a new diet of speed.
He lives with his wife and two kids and runs multiple businesses in Grand Junction, Colorado.