The Importance of Speedwork

Most athletes that reach out to me have at least one thing in common: They want to get faster. And how do we get faster? By running faster! While that’s a bit of an oversimplification, speed work is an important tool in the tool box you’ll use to build yourself into a faster runner.

The physiology

Shorter, faster speed work such as hill sprints, flat sprints, strides, and 1500 meter to 3K paced intervals is, at it’s core, neuromuscular work. When I talk about “Neuromuscular work” I’m referring to the communication between the brain, the nerves, and the muscles. This includes coordination, proprioception, and chemical changes in the body. This communication happens at all paces, but some of the biggest improvements in neural communication come via specific work that can lead to improved biomechanical efficiency, improved economy, increased power, and improved fatigue resistance across all subsequent paces. Even if you never plan to race anything shorter than 50K, these improvements can lower your “all day” pace dramatically!

Think about this: When racing the marathon, we use less than half of our maximal stride power at marathon race pace. If you increase your stride power with speed work by only 5% the time improvement from power efficiency improvement alone can be huge. This, coupled with a reduction in energy cost and a bigger pool of recruitable fibers can lead to less fatigue, better movement, and more enjoyable running.

While these workouts are done mainly for neuromuscular reasons, they’re also highly aerobic. Which means in addition to the adaptions listed above you’ll also be increasing cardiac output and teaching the body how to shuttle lactate to be recycled as an energy source during faster running. The latter can be achieved by manipulating the workout to include both faster and slower reps within the set to aid buffering (that’s for another post all together).

The application

First we start with a small block of hill sprints working from 2 x 8 seconds all the way to 12 x 12 seconds at a near maximal effort over a handful of weeks to improve power and reduce the risks of injury. Once you’ve completed this phase, you’re ready to find your paces. Choose a race up to 13.1 miles or perform a 5K time trial at a track or on a flat route to assess your current fitness. Plug your time trail or race time into Jack Daniels’ VDOT calculator to get a good idea of what your current quality work paces should be. If you don’t want to use the VDOT calculator you can use Hansons, Tinman, or McMillan if you prefer – they’re all fairly close and will do the trick.

I use Jack Daniels because he is the OG of pacing. Coach Daniels defines short reps as follows: Reps are fast, but not necessarily “hard,” because work bouts are relatively short and are followed by relatively long recovery bouts. Recoveries are to be long enough that each run feels no more difficult than the previous run, because the purpose of Reps is to improve speed and economy and you can not get faster (nor more economical) if you are not running relaxed. If it takes 3 minutes recovery between Rep 400s, then that is what is needed. Reducing rest time between individual work bouts does not make for a better workout, in fact it probably makes for a worse workout because the short rests could increase the stress and lead to poor economy. Think of Reps as similar to current 1500 or mile race pace.”

Here’s an example of a short speed session I did the other day in which the actual work equated to less than 5% of my current weekly volume:

2 miles easy + drills (A,B,C skips,  butt kicks, side skips, and strides)

2 X (8 x 200) meters in 00:35 each with 200 meter walk/jogs in between. 800 meter jog in between sets. Last 200 meter rep as an “all out tag”

3 mile cool down.

If you’re against doing track or road work, that’s ok! A lot of our Ultra athletes tend to shy away from the track for various reasons. For trail runners, something as simple as 8 x 45 seconds hard, 2 minutes easy will do the trick. All you need to do is perform the “on” portions at a pace you feel you could ONLY sustain for a mile. If you’ve never run an all out mile, that’s ok. Simply imagine what it would be like and trust yourself; our minds are amazing governors.

The timing

Timing is important. Where you inject specific work in a block matters. While we use strides and surges throughout a given training block, the majority of your speed work should be done towards the beginning of your plan to elicit the aforementioned adaptations before moving on to more specific work. A very generalized block layout of quality work for a North American trail runner would look something like this:

Base phase // Hill sprints and short reps // Speed work at 1500m to 3K // Work at 5K to 10K // Specific endurance.

This is not an exclusive path. Training emphasis can change throughout your training cycle based on how the athlete is responding. Your week will also include a number of other workouts ranging from easy runs to long runs to lactate threshold. Marathoners and ultra marathoners will have much less speed work and much more specific endurance work, vertical gain, and volume than half marathon an below will, but all runners should include speed work throughout their plan.

Caution

For marathoners and ultra marathoners, once the speed phase is complete, keep this type of speed work to a minimum and maintain the adaptions with hill sprints, strides, and surges. Once you enter the specific endurance phase of training for your race, the goal is to maintain the positive adaptations that you obtained during the speed phase, but to keep the body from relying  heavily on glycogen during workouts.

Also, remember that this type of the work can be hard on the body, especially if this is the first time you’re introducing this type of stress. The impact forces can be extreme and injuries can happen if introduced incorrectly. That’s not to say you should be afraid to implement this type of work into your training, in fact, you should embrace it! However, it’s always a good idea to work with your coach to build safely as you’re becoming a speed demon.

Happy running!