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Cooper River Bridge Run Column - February 14th, 2005
Speedwork - The Key to Getting Faster

By Art Liberman

“How can I improve my speed” is one of the most frequently asked questions by runners. But while running faster is natural desire, it’s important to keep in mind that speedwork is an advanced training technique for the experienced runner and not the true beginner.

If you’re new to the sport or just getting back into a consistent running program, completing the progression mileage indicated on your training schedule at an aerobic pace keeps your risks of injury low. Referred to as building a mileage base, these runs should be done at an easy, conversational pace that equates to about 50 – 65 percent of your maximum heart rate (MHR). Beginners are often surprised to learn that their speed improves through this base-building period alone.

Speedwork provides a variety of benefits. You will run more efficiently and in turn, faster, as a result of improved form and quicker leg turnover. Your cardiovascular system becomes strengthened which enables you to work harder for sustained periods. You will learn to push yourself both physically and mentally during times of discomfort. And you will have a better understanding of pace which translates into setting realistic goals and executing a smart race strategy based on your current ability level.

But all good things have risks! In some respects, speedwork is very similar to the field of investing. Both involve degrees of risk and varying rates of return on investment. Be aware that while faster-paced workouts have the potential to increase your speed, they exponentially increase the chances of injury. Even veteran runners are not immune and must weigh the benefits of speedwork against the possibility of missing a big race like the Bridge Run due to breakdown.

How soon along with the amount of improvement you can expect to achieve through speedwork will depend on a number of factors, some of which include genetics, your age, years of running experience, and ability to stay injury-free. Just as important to your success are the specific speed workouts you choose to integrate into your training. Included below are some of the major types.

Fartlek –This peculiar sounding Swedish word is loosely interpreted to mean “speed play". Fartlek refers to an unstructured and spontaneous type of speedwork that can be done anywhere. Experienced runners use fartlek training to prepare for the anaerobic demands of more structured workouts.

Within the middle of a typical training run, several fast paced segments (that can be based on either distance or duration of time) are each followed by recovery jogs. Depending upon a runner’s experience level, the pace of the fast sets can range from 75 to almost 100 percent of their MHR.

Tempo Runs – Many runners have experienced that heavy, burning feeling in the legs during fast paced workouts or races. The buildup of lactic acid is the culprit. - Their heart rate has exceeded the point when lactic acid can’t be removed as fast as it’s being produced. Here, they’ve reached their anaerobic threshold (AT) and are no longer able to maintain the brisk pace.

The primary purpose of tempo workouts is to increase one’s AT, enabling a runner to sustain a fast pace over a longer period of time. Included within the middle of a regular run, tempo segments can range from six minutes and longer, with the intensity of pace just below one’s current AT. Expressed another way, this is 80 – 85 percent of your MHR or about 10 seconds slower than your current 10K race pace.

Intervals – One of the keys to developing speed and maintaining a fast pace over the entire race distance is to train at one’s maximum aerobic capacity (also called VO2max). Simply stated, aerobic capacity (AC) refers to the maximum amount of oxygen that can be taken in, processed, and used by the heart and lungs to deliver energy to the working muscles.

While the upper ranges of one’s AC are genetically predetermined, the good news for many runners is that they have yet to achieve their full potential in this area. Training at 90 – 95 percent of one’s MHR stimulates and increases aerobic capacity that in turn, leads to improvements in speed.

Interval workouts are usually done on the track and comprise a set of fast-paced runs over fixed distances (usually ranging from 200 to 1600 meters) followed by recovery jogs after each (generally half the distance of the fast part). A wide variety of workouts can be created by manipulating the components of the fast segments (their number, distance, and speed) along with the amount of recovery.

To minimize your risk of injury, it’s important to follow the guidelines below when including speed training within your program:

Get expert advice – The workout possibilities for speed training is endless as all serve a variety of purposes and can range in varying degrees of difficulty. Because there’s no “one-size-fits-all” approach, consult a coach or experienced runner to assist you in designing challenging yet achievable workouts that carefully match your current ability level, goals, and needs.

Build a base – Similar to the importance of laying a solid foundation before constructing a house, one needs to strengthen their musculoskeletal system for the demands of speedwork through consistent aerobic running over a course of several weeks. Don’t consider adding fast paced workouts to your training until you’ve consistently been running a minimum of 20 miles a week for at least six weeks.

Injury Prevention – Above and beyond the guidelines included here, be sure to follow all of the injury prevention strategies mentioned in this column two weeks ago. The “hard-easy concept of training” deserves particular attention - Speed workouts should be couched between either rest days or very easy days of running.

Warm-up and Cool-down – Essential components of one’s training, these include light jogging and stretching both before, and after speed workouts and races.

Quantity - No more than 15-20 percent of your total weekly mileage should be fast paced running. This percentage refers to both speed workouts and races.

Increases – The volume of your fast paced running should not be increased by more than 800 meters per week. Scale-back the distance and intensity of your speed workouts and weekly mileage every fourth week as a rest/recovery measure.

Nutritional considerations - Be careful of what you eat and how soon you time your meals and snacks before doing a speed workout. Experimenting with a variety of foods and drinks is the best way to determine what your digestive system can tolerate. Don't eat a big lunch if you're planning on doing a fast run later in the afternoon. Instead, have small snacks throughout the day.

Warm weather concerns - Schedule your speed workouts for the early morning or evening to avoid the most hot/humid times of the day. Pushing the pace in these conditions increases your chances succumbing to various degrees of heat illness.

Group Dynamics - If you choose to participate in speedwork with a group, be sure that their pace and ability levels are similar to yours. Trying to perform workouts designed for others increases the chances of injury.

Accuracy is important - Use tracks, measured road courses, and pace/distances devices to both monitor and assess the effectiveness of your workouts.

Be flexible - Be willing to modify or even abort the speed workout if your can no longer maintain good running form or intended pace due to fatigue, muscular pain, or injury.

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