Speed work: The key to running faster!

How do you run fast?  The answer is very easy: Run faster. But seriously, if you want to run faster, then you need to do speed work. Speed work, AKA intervals, track repeats, or fartleks, as I have mentioned in another post (5 Keys to reaching your potential on your next race), is one of the five keys that you should be doing every week (speed run, tempo/pace run, long run, easy run, and don’t forget the last key which is just as important: rest).

What is speed work?  Speed work involves running a series of relatively short distances (100 meters to 3200 meters) at your maximal oxygen consumption (VO2max).  Between each short distance is a brief recovery, known as the recovery interval (RI).  Speed work increases your body’s ability to process oxygen and improves your run economy.  Speed work should be about 22.5% of your weekly miles.

A speed workout will consist of a number of repetitions, the distance or time to run fast, and the distance or time to rest.  For example, 4 x 800m (90 sec. RI).  In this example, 4 is the number of times you will run a distance of 800 meters (1/2 mile, normally two laps on a track).  After each time you run the 800 meters you would rest for 90 seconds.  You could rest with a slow jog or walk either way.  During the RI you want to recover enough so you will be ready for the next interval.  How fast you run each interval is based on you and your current training level.  There are some great speed work calculators on the web to help you find your correct pace.  One I like is http://www.mcmillanrunning.com/.

Once you have your interval time and the workout you’re going to do, there are some important guidelines you should follow.

  1. Start and end each speed workout with 5-10 minutes (around a mile) at easy pace to warm up and cool down.  Easy pace is conversational pace,  a pace where you could chat with a friend running alongside you. This is a rhythm that feels like you could maintain it all day long if you had to.
  2. To run fast and efficient, your cadence (steps per minute) should be 180.  Speed is a product of how many steps you take and how far you step.  Many runners try to slow their number of steps down and increase their step distance thinking this will save energy and be easier.  In fact just the opposite is true.  The slower your cadence and the longer your step distance, the harder it is and more energy you will use.  Over stepping (heel striking) produces a breaking effect, causing you to have to use more energy to continue to move.  Taking more steps at a shorter distance (keeping your foot behind your knee, mid-foot striking) uses less energy.  When you feel tired doing your speed work, focus on your cadence.  Make sure your arms are moving front to back.  Try to elbow the person behind you as you move your arms back and forth.  If your cadence drops, move your arms faster, as your arms move fast, your feet have to follow.
  3. Do your best to keep your slowest/fastest interval no more than 5 seconds in difference.  Don’t use all your energy in the first interval and not have anything left for the last one.
  4. Speed workouts are best performed at a track, where it is flat and easy to know how far you have run.
  5. A GPS watch makes speed workouts much easier.   You can also use your phone and one of many apps, such as Runkeeper or Endomondo.  Set up your watch or phone for your interval.

Garmin Training Center4x800(90secRI)
Here are a few examples of what a workout looks like.  Figure 1 is the Garmin training center, which can be used with most garmin GPS watches (I use the 910XT). Figure 2 is a screenshot from the phone app RunKeeper.  (Both are using the example 4X800m (90 sec RI).

Figure 1                             Figure 2

If you don’t have a GPS watch or a smart phone to help you know your pace, run your speed interval at a fast pace.  “Fast pace” means you should only be able to say one or two words, but if someone asked you a question, you wouldn’t want to expend the energy to answer them. Don’t sprint all-out or push to the point of pain, or where you feel you’re going to pull something. You should feel like “I’m okay, I just don’t want to do this for very long.”

The distance you do for each interval depends on what race you’re training for.  The shorter the race, the shorter the interval you should run.  So if you’re training for a 5k, run 100m and 200m; for a 10k, run 100m up to 800m; for a half marathon, run 200m up to 1600m; for a marathon, 400m up to 3200m.  Switch up your interval distance every week. Never let your body get “used to” a workout.  You are not improving if your “used to” a workout.  Plus running the same workout every week is boring.  Here are a few examples from my training plan for intervals.

  • 6 x (1 minute fast then 3 min. easy)
  • 4 x (3 minute fast then 3 min. easy)
  • 8 x 400m (90 sec. RI)
  • 4 x 800m (90 sec. RI)
  • 2 x 1600m (3 min. RI)
  • 4 x 1K (400m RI)
  • 2 x 800m (1:30 RI) 4 x 400 (1:30 RI)
  • 2 x (4 x 400) (1:30 RI) (2:30 between sets)
  • 1 mile (400m RI), 2 miles (800m RI), 2 x 800 (400m RI)
  • 1K, 2K, 1K, 1K (400m RI)

Now you’re ready to go to the track and run faster!  Have fun, but remember to be smart.  If you feel pain, stop running.  The #1 goal of every training plan should to be to stay injury free.   Because you can’t achieve any running goal if you’re injured, prevent injuries and run smart!

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About Coach Bill

I am a 48 year old runner. Three years ago I ran my first half marathon and have not looked back since. I am married, have two grown son's. I work at Toyota motor manufacturing Texas building Tundra's and Tacoma's as a skilled team leader in the press department.
This entry was posted in Advanced Runner, Beginner Runner, Half Marathon Training, Interval, Marathon Training, Running Coach and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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