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Speed Training for Runners

Posted Nov 17 2008 9:07pm
T here are threebasic types of training : long slow distance (LSD), speed training, and hills. In this page we'll look at speed training. As runners get a good base of LSD, they will naturally run faster as their bodies become stronger. However, these natural increases in speed won't allow them to compete very well in races. To get significant increase in pace, runners must do speed training.

Important!

Before you do speed work, you should develop a strong base of running LSD. This is important, because speed training puts a heavy stress on your body, and without a good running base, the stress from doing speed work (including racing) can lead to injury. Ok, let's look at the popular ways that runners train for speed. I discuss them in the order that I recommend to new runners. As you read this page, keep in mind that the speed training described can be done aerobically (low-level training) or anaerobically (high-level training).

Run a Faster Pace

The first thing you can do to increase your speed is to run faster as you do your long slow distance. I'm not referring to the natural increase in speed as your body gets stronger. I'm referring to an intentional increase in speed. Also, I'm not suggesting that you sprint during your runs. You still want to do a majority of your running such that you're not overly tired at the end, but you can run a little bit faster
than you normally would. You also don't need to do the whole run at the faster pace. You can start out slow to warm up, run a portion of your run at the new pace and then slow down to your normal pace.

I refer to this form of speed training as a "low-level" form of speed training, because it doesn't put an awfully large stress on your body. I like to use this as my first attempt to increase my speed.

Cadence Drills

Jeff Galloway, in his book Running Until You're 100, explains that one way to be a faster runner is to perform cadence drills. The drills help one to run faster by running smoother and easier. He describes them as a "gentle" drill, and I recommend them as an early attempt to systematically do speed training because they don't put a lot of stress on your body.

A cadence drill has two phases. First, jog or run a 30-second interval and count the number of times your left foot touches the ground. Next, after a minute or so of walking or jogging for recovery, run another 30 seconds and try to increase the count by 1 or 2. Repeat this sequence several times. Notice that each repetition starts with the first phase that yields a new count.

Fartlek

Running fartleks is my favorite method of training for speed. I like them because they are fun and because they have no predetermined structure -- you vary them according to how you feel and the location where you're running. When running fartleks, you include a lot of variety in what you're doing, all in the same session. Imagine a child at play. The child doesn't follow a regimented schedule of "run now" and "rest now". The child runs around the playground, trying this and doing that. The child spends more time with some of the equipment because of his or her interests at that moment. So it is with fartleks.

According to Webster, fartlek is " Swedish, speed play: fart, running, speed (from fara, to go, move, from Old Norse ". I like that definition, speed play. Speed: training to run faster. Play: having fun doing it.

Suppose this is the day for your speed training and you decide to do fartleks while you run LSD. As you run down the street, you see a house up ahead with a flag pole in front. The house is, maybe, a couple of hundred feet away. You pick up speed and run to that house at a pace that is faster than your LSD pace. When you reach the house you slow down to your LSD pace and run a rest period for a minute or so. Then you look down the street and see a car parked at the side of the rode. It is closer than the house was. You increase your speed to the car and then slow down to your LSD pace. You decide that's enough speed work for the moment so you continue your LSD. After a few minutes, the desire for another fartlek comes, and you look around for another "target". You see a big tree down the street, further away than the house was. You increase your pace and go to the tree. You continue your run, mastering a few more "targets" at various distances and speeds. As you near your house, you see your 8 year old neighbor on her bike. You throw out a challenge, "I'll race you to your house!" The girl immediately heads for home as fast as she can peddle. You give it your all and run as fast as possible to the girls house (she beats). With a smile, you say, "I'll get you next time", and you jog down the street to cool down and recover. This is how I do fartleks, and it illustrates why I think they're so much fun.

Fartleks can be done on a track as well as during a LSD run. Vary the number of times you circle the track (or portions of it) and the pace you use. Fartleks can even be done on a treadmill by varying the speed and incline of the machine.

Give a Kick but Don't Sprint

When I run LSD I run at my "comfortable" pace such that I feel good at the end. I like to finish the LSD with a short fartlek or kick in which I increase my speed to the finish. I am careful, though, to not sprint during the kick. Going all out in speed that I'm not used to is a good way to get injured. I may not do this in every run, but I like to do it at the end of most runs. Similarly, when I race I end the race running faster for the last two hundred feet or so. I remember a five mile race I did in Townsend, Massachusetts in 1985. The course took a gradual increase to the top of a high hill (approximately 500 feet elevation change) and then a steep descent down the hill and a level stretch to the end. I paced myself going up the hill, but coming down I really "poured it on". I really flew down that hill. As I neared the end, I heard footsteps behind me, and they were getting closer to me. I thought, "That runner won't catch me!", and I increased my speed (he didn't pass me). Adding that kick to the end of the race gave me a great finish to a great race. I finished in 33 minutes 44 seconds; not bad for a 48 year old guy and a course that had a big hill in it! When I ran marathons, I always finished them with a kick at the end, but I was careful not to go all out in a sprint since that would increase my risk of injury. The few seconds I saved didn't do much for my overall time, but the kick gave me great ending to the marathon.

Intervals

Intervals are one of the standard ways that runners train for speed. Tracks are frequently used, but intervals can be run anywhere there is a circular path, such as around city blocks or around a trail in a city park. Intervals can also
be run on out/back routes, where out is one interval and back is another interval.

In running intervals, the runner runs a specified distance at a very fast pace and then follows that with a rest period of slow jogging. This sequence of fast-pace/rest-pace is repeated a number of times. The length of the interval is short enough that the runner can complete it in 2 pr 3 minutes. In doing this, the runner is pushing his or her body into the anaerobic level in which the runner isn't getting enough oxygen; because of this lack of oxygen, the runner doesn't run long intervals. The rest period is long enough that the runner's heart rate comes down significantly. Through running intervals, the person's body becomes used to higher levels of lactate and to having an oxygen debt.

When you begin doing intervals, do short intervals that you can complete in about 30 seconds, and use a pace slightly faster than your LSD pace. As your body gets stronger run the intervals at a faster pace and longer distance. In addition, vary the distance and pace on different days so your body has to adjust to changing conditions. Listen to your body as you do intervals so you don't push yourself into fatigue or injury. Intervals drastically raise your heart rate (HR), so give yourself enough rest by doing slow jogs or walks between intervals such that your heart rate comes down significantly.

Don't run intervals more than once a week, and don't run them for more than 15-20 minutes a session. Also, don't do a lot of fartleks and intervals in the same week. Your body can only handle so much stress.

Before you start an interval session and after you finish the session, allow 15 minutes to warm up and cool down by walking and slowly jogging so you don't pull a muscle due to the fast acceleration when you begin an interval and the high stress during the interval.

Back in the early 1980s , when I was running marathons, I went once a week with some friends to the local high school track, and we ran intervals on the track. Once a month I would time myself for a mile on the track. During that summer, I worked up to just a few seconds greater than 6 minutes for the mile, and then I finally broke 6 minutes and set my PB of 5:57 for the mile. I thought that was pretty good for a 48 year-old guy who isn't built for speed. At that time I was doing 7 minute miles for my LSD, and I never would have cut 63 seconds off of that time without interval training.

Runners who want to maximize their speed will learn to burn lactate for energy by doing running short intervals anaerobically followed by slower aerobic recovery jogs or walks. Many of those runners run anaerobically in 5K races.

Strides

Another type of speed training is called strides. Strides are similar to fartleks, but they aren't done to increase ones speed. They are done to overcome the bad form that often results from running LSD.

In running strides, you run several short bursts of speed, and you run at a comfortable pace between each burst to allow your body to recover. By doing this, you are forcing your body to have longer steps and faster leg movement. Aim for a stride rate close to 180 steps per minute. Don't force your body to take longer steps. Focus on getting a faster stride rate and let your body automatically increase the stride length.

Strides are similar to fartleks but are shorter and faster. Keeping them short, say 30-50 meters, is important so you don't enter the anaerobic phase of running. During each stride, avoid looking down at your feet by looking down the path or road. Because strides are actually a form of speed training, they increase the stress on your body. So, don't do them more than once or twice a week, and don't do more than 5-10 bursts each time.

Racing

One form of speed training that is popular is entering races. Even if you're not very fast compared to how you'd like to be, you can enter races and enjoy the crowds, excitement, adrenalin rush, competition, and just have fun. By running faster in races, you'll be conditioning your body to run faster in races. Be careful, though, that you don't over do it and become injured. With all of the excitement of the event, it is easy to get caught up and to push yourself too hard.

Along with increasing your speed, you'll want to avoid running further in the race than you need to. See Run the Tangents for tips to avoid running too far during the race.

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