Speed Work For Dummies

No matter what type of runner we are, most of us would like to run faster. Including speed work into your training will not only help you run faster, but also improve your overall running fitness.


Kim & Richard Woolrich |

No matter what type of runner we are, most of us would like to run faster.  Including speed work into your training will not only help you run faster, but also improve your overall running fitness. – By Kim & Richard Woolrich 

Image by Jacques Marais
Image by Jacques Marais

Everyone can benefit from speed work – it’s not just for the elite. If it is integrated into your training correctly, you will see substantial improvements in your performance.

The different types of speed work:

Tempo Runs: These are run at 80-90% of maximum heart rate or at about 10km race pace. A tempo run consists of about 20-40 minutes of running at this pace. Example: running your local 5km or 8km time trial.

Intervals: These can consist of longer (800m-2000m) or shorter (200m-400m) intervals. Intervals are run at about 85-95% of maximum heart rate. Longer intervals: run at about 5km race pace, with recovery time equal to or slightly less than the interval running time. Shorter intervals: run slightly faster than 5km race pace, with longer recovery periods, 2-4 times as long as the repetition time.

Fartlek:  Means ‘speed play’ in Swedish. The speed of running varies by alternating surges of high intensity running with periods of easy running. It differs from interval training in that it is unstructured; intensity and/or speed can be varied whenever the athlete wishes. This is great if you don’t have access to a track, or if you are introducing speed work into your training for the first time. You can use time or even lamp posts as markers.

Benefits of speed work

The most important benefit of speed work is that the working muscles learn to tolerate the build-up of lactic acid. Lactic acid and other byproducts are produced during exercise (especially high-intensity exercise), and cause fatigue, at which point you will need to slow down. During moderate exercise the lactic acid is dissipated quickly, but in high-intensity exercise it is produced quicker than it can be removed. Due to the intensity of speed work, the body becomes more efficient at shuttling these byproducts out of the working muscles. Speed work therefore increases your lactate turn point, which is the point at which lactic acid build-up exceeds removal. Presumably if an athlete has a higher lactate turn-point, they can continue at a higher intensity of effort with a longer time until exhaustion.

Speed work also has a greater cardiovascular training stimulus, which improves your endurance capabilities.

Guidelines

  • Speed work can increase your chance of sustaining injuries. Ensure you’ve developed a substantial running base (ie 2-3 months of running at least 3 times a week).  Surface is important: grass is more forgiving than road.
  • Start with longer intervals (eg 1000m); closer to race day, include shorter intervals (eg 400m).
  • Always warm up: at least 10-15 mins easy running, followed by dynamic stretching or running drills, and a couple of short bouts of faster running before your speed session.
  • Always cool down: about 10-15 mins light jogging and static stretching post-workout.
  • Speed work improves bio- mechanics and efficiency, so focus on your technique.
  • Schedule your speed workouts prior to an easy/rest day.
  • Include max 1-2 speed workouts a week; if you are new to speed work, every 10 days.
  • If you are carrying any niggles or injury, avoid speed work until completely healed.

4 Great Speed Sessions

For Beginners:

Fartlek: 6 x 1 minute, with 2-3 minutes of light jogging 

3-4 x 1000m with 2-4 minutes recovery (depending on the speed of your interval)

For the more experienced or advanced runner:

5-6 x 1000m with 2-3 minutes recovery (depending on the speed of your interval)

4 x 800m with 2-3 minutes recovery (depending on the speed of your interval), followed by 4 x 400m, with 1-2 minutes recovery (depending on the speed of your interval)

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