For a distance runner, the most important element of running faster is endurance. All the miles you log, including the easy miles of the long run, are the endurance base you need. But once that cake is baked, it becomes the time to put the icing on the cake. That entails training for the element of strength and the element of speed. Improving these two, require specific workouts that are referred to as speed work.
The overall goal of doing speed work is to get stronger and faster. The main difference between the two types is the amount of rest (or recovery) you get between intervals (or sets) during a specific workout. In order to build strength, the rest between each repetition is relatively short. Conversely, you get a longer rest when focusing on building speed to preserve the quality (or speed) of the workout.
Done properly, speed work represents workouts that will bring out (and enhance) your natural speed as well as build strength to maintain that natural speed during the course of a race.
Almost all the speed work distance runners do is for the strength element. The actual workouts for the element of speed will come only a few times during the year. The reason is simple: Distance runners rely on strength to get faster over distance. Speed, which carries the day for the sprinter, hardly ever comes into play, except maybe in terms of a kick. But even then, a kick at the end of a race is nowhere as important as the strength to maintain pace throughout a race.
Strength is gained through increasing longer repeated faster intervals, say of at least 1000 meters. Or shorter repeated intervals with short rest (or recovery), such as 400- meter repeats with a 45-second rest of slow jogging. Short rest is tough, but it’s designed to be. If done properly on short rest, your legs may feel heavy, requiring an increased effort to move at the same pace (say 75-80 percent of max). That might hurt, but the body and mind respond by getting used to the added strain which directly translates into easier speed and faster racing.
Strength can be thought of in terms of getting fit. As you get fitter, you are capable of doing more repeats at the same pace. The breathing becomes easier for the same workout that used to be difficult. And, even when the breathing gets harder during the workout, you will find yourself recovering quicker.
It’s easy to adjust the workouts to restore a higher level of difficulty. You can make the repeated distance longer, increase the number of repeats, make them faster, and decrease the amount of rest between each repeat or make the resting jog pace a little faster.
Speed, on the other hand, comes from faster, shorter efforts and fewer repeats with longer rest intervals. High-end speed requires full recovery before the next effort to allow you to focus on maintaining the speed at a 90 percent (or higher) effort. It stands to reason that if you can make improvements in your short speed, you will be able to run at a faster pace for the strength workouts.
Another benefit of working on your natural speed is that doing so can also improve your running form. Distance guru Jack Daniels, who coached at UT in the late ‘70s, has his runners start out the season with the shorter speed workouts with full recovery in order to establish proper form right from the beginning. The body, in a sense, takes over when you try to run as fast as you can. There is no room for inefficiencies and the body will naturally minimize any wasted energy movements in your form. At your top speed, you will run more erect with an efficient stride length and foot strike.
Speed work of any type (such as hills) should be only 10-15 percent of your weekly mileage. For example, someone who runs 60 miles per week need only do 6-10 of those miles as a speed work. Or another runner who covers about 30-miles a week, need only do 5-8 miles as speed. That’s all you really need.
It’s tempting to do more because you can see immediate improvements in speed, strength and form. But too much speed is flirting with injuries, not to mention you will plateau quickly. The trick is to do just enough so you feel strong and fast, but still feel fresh enough to utilize this newly acquired speed in a race.
Speed work should be limited to one or two specific workouts per week. Also, make sure you count the warmup, cool down and recovery jogs as part of your easy run mileage and not as part of your total speed miles. Also take an easy day before and after speed days so you get adequate recovery from the workload to get faster.
If you don’t give yourself adequate recovery, you may fizzle out and lose any benefit you just gained from the faster running. Without recovery, you will hold your speed for a few weeks and then get slower as you try to work through fatigue. A sad racing season is the one where you are fastest at the beginning and don’t improve. You want the speed training to have you peak at the goal race at season’s end.
Typically, speed work is done on the track, but it can be done just about as long as you can run safely and uninterrupted by traffic or traffic lights. Other than tracks, some ideal spots around town are Zilker Park, the Lady Bird Lake/Butler Hike and Bike Trail and the Arbor Trails in Southwest Austin (around the Costco-Chuy’s area).
Next week we’ll cover some of the specific type workouts that can be used at different stages of the training and racing season.