Whether you are looking to get faster or just feel more comfortable on your next five-miler, speedwork is the name of the game when it comes to improving your running. By hitting the gas pedal harder on one or two runs each week, you stand to improve your race times, better your overall fitness, and have an easier time keeping up with your running partners.
While speedwork promises many benefits, it remains an area of confusion for most runners. And with concepts like VO2 max and aerobic and anaerobic threshold, it’s no wonder. Read on for the 411 on the fundamentals of speedwork, and which training strategies — from fartleks to tempo runs — will work best for you. Before you know it, you’ll be leaving the competition in your dust.
The Speed Drill
All runners can benefit from some faster paced running and there are two main types that everyone should focus on, according to Runners Connect head coach Jeff Gaudette. “Speed development works the structural side of your running,” he says, “while speedwork works the metabolic side.”
Which kind is for you? Both, says Gaudette. “Speed development will improve your ability to generate more powerful strides and become a more efficient runner. Speedwork is more specific and will help you reach defined goals.”
Speed development work should be included year round and often takes the form of short sprints with full recovery added to the end of an easy run. A typical speed development set might include six 20-second sprints with two to three minutes of walking in between, performed three to four times each week.
Speedwork, on the other hand, will often make up the majority of one specific workout, usually performed once or twice each week. “There are so many different levels of speedwork,” says coach Phil Lang of Bullseye Running. “But quite simply, you are trying to push your body to a point where it breaks down a bit, and then recover to build it up stronger.”
Many runners make the mistake, however, of going too fast too soon, which can lead to injury or discouragement, says Race Ready coach and former Olympic triathlete Joanna Zeiger. “Instead, you should know your end goal and have a plan in place when you set out,” she explains. “Otherwise it’s too easy to deviate.”
With that in mind, here’s a guide to speedwork for any runner looking to up the ante on performance:
Swedish for speedplay, this is unstructured speedwork in its simplest form. The technique, which has runners alternate between about 80 percent to 90 percent max effort and easy recovery jogging has been shown to improve strength and stamina. It is often a good starting point for runners new to going faster. “You might pick a target, like a telephone pole and run hard until you reach it, then recover until the next one,” Zeiger suggests. “Then repeat the process several times over.”
Speedwork Rx: To start, Zeiger suggests incorporating about 10 to 15 minutes worth of fartlek training once per week, working your way up to 20 to 30 minutes per session.
“Each workout is designed with a purpose. If you run faster than the prescribed pace, you’re defeating that purpose and risking injury.”
This is often a gray area of speedwork, but when done correctly, can offer up numerous benefits. In fact, tempo runs can lead to an overall improvement in running efficiency of up to 10 percent, according to a Dutch study documented in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. “This is quality work,” says Gaudette. “You want to target a portion of your run to a specific pace for an extended period of time.”
Tempo runs will teach your body to run at your aerobic or anaerobic threshold. In longer races (10K or more), you’ll depend heavily on your aerobic threshold for energy. Whereas the anaerobic threshold — or the point where your body is building up lactic acid faster than it can clear it — is more important in shorter races. By training these two systems via tempo running, you’ll get comfortable at a specific goal pace.
Speedwork Rx: How long should you tempo? It depends on what your goal race distance is, but Gaudette recommends starting with about 20 minutes worth of tempo running and building from there. “So if you are getting ready for a half-marathon, for example, you might want to work up to running four or five miles at your goal pace,” he says.
These are faster-paced workouts, often completed on the track. They might include intervals of 400 meters to a mile at a 3K to 5K race pace, with the same amount of rest. “These workouts are great for working on your top end speed, which is the first thing to go as we get older,” says Zeiger.
The benefit of faster interval work is that it will improve your body’s ability to utilize oxygen, also known as VO2 max. By alternating bouts of high intensity with recovery, athletes have been shown to increase their VO2 max, thus allowing the body to access more oxygen for working muscles. Bonus: Runners might even continue to burn calories long after they’ve left the track, a phenomenon called EPOC, or excess post-exercise oxygen consumption.
Speedwork Rx: Ready to get burning? Runners can begin their foray into intervals with a set of eight 400s (one lap) at a 5K race pace with an easy 400 in between each to recover, says Gaudette. Gradually build the amount of overall track work until you hit about three miles worth of speedwork in a session.
A Few Rules
No matter which type of speedwork you choose, there are a few rules that apply to all. The first is to make sure you have a good aerobic base before attempting faster running. This means spending several months running at an easy, comfortable pace while gradually increasing mileage. “I like to see newer runners spending a good amount of time just learning to run and build distance before they attempt speed,” says Lang. “Otherwise they are likely to get injured.”
A sufficient warm-up and cool down is also in order. Your body needs a mile or two at the start of a run to slowly ramp the heart rate up before hitting the faster paces. The same is true in reverse at the end.
Also, keep the total amount of speedwork to no more than 10 to 15 percent of your overall volume. “That’s not necessarily all in one specific day either,” cautions Gaudette. “It can be spread out over a couple of workouts.”
Finally, obey your speed limits. “Each workout is designed with a purpose,” says Gaudette. “If you run faster than the prescribed pace, you’re defeating that purpose and risking injury.”
If you are unsure what pace you should be running for any of these workouts, there are plenty of online pace calculators such as McMillan to help you figure it out. A reliable sports watch or any number of apps can also help you stay on top of your training game.
All set? Now go smash that PR!