How Distance Runners Can Develop Speed to Run Faster

by Jason Fitzgerald
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How Distance Runners Can Develop Speed to Run Faster

Most runners are familiar with fast workouts: tempo runs, track intervals, hill workouts and even progression runs. But, you might be surprised to hear that none of these workouts are technically speed workouts. Yes, they’re much faster than your easy pace, and they improve your speed, but they’re not “speed work.”

True speed development — work designed to improve maximal velocity, acceleration or speed-endurance — is relatively foreign to distance runners. To better understand this type of workout, you need to know three terms:

  1. Maximal velocity is your maximum speed. It’s how fast you can run if you try to sprint at 100% effort and reach your top-end speed.
  2. Acceleration is how quickly you can go from a position of rest to maximal velocity. It’s a good measure of power.
  3. Speed-endurance is how long you can maintain your maximal velocity. Most runners can only maintain their top-end speed for about 30–50 meters.

These don’t sound like aspects of fitness that distance runners need to worry about. After all, at no point in any race from the 5K to the marathon do we ever approach our fastest speeds or try to accelerate to that speed. But including a small dose of speed development work can pay large dividends.


READ MORE > THE 3 KEYS TO RUNNING FASTER FOR LONGER


WHY SHOULD RUNNERS FOCUS ON SPEED DEVELOPMENT

There are three major reasons runners should add sprint work to their training.

First, it improves your top-end speed. You’ll be able to sprint faster, thus increasing the range of speed that you’re capable of achieving. This helps slower paces feel a lot easier. If you compete in mid-distance events like the 800-meter, mile or 3,000-meter, then you’ll experience a tangible performance improvement.

Second, sprinting forces your legs to recruit more muscle fibers to increase power production. By having a larger pool of fibers available, you’ll be able to sprint more effectively at the end of a race.

Finally, those speed-development workouts improve your running economy — or, running efficiency. All those extra muscle fibers are now available to be used when you’re tired, running uphill or finishing a long run. Sprinting also reinforces proper running form, further enhancing your running economy.

HOW TO ADD SPEED WORK TO YOUR RUNNING

Speed development work is very challenging — not because there’s a lot of volume at fast paces or the rest is short, but because it stresses the central nervous system.

These sessions are neuromuscular, challenging the communication pathways between the brain and muscles. They require a long recovery interval and a low volume of total work. Since they’re so difficult, it’s best to run these drills when you’re fresh at the beginning of a workout.


READ MORE > TRAIN YOUR BRAIN FOR MAX PERFORMANCE


After a dynamic warm-up, some easy running and strides, you can add several short repetitions before the bulk of your workout.

Here are a few examples, with each one getting progressively more difficult:

  • 4 x 8 second hill sprints, 60–90 second walk recovery
  • 4 x 20m, 90 second–2 minute walk recovery
  • 6 x 25m, 2–2:30-minute walk recovery
  • 6 x 30m, 2–2:30-minute walk recovery

The most important thing to remember about speed development for distance runners is that a small amount is all that’s necessary. There’s no need to run a high number of repetitions at maximum speed. In fact, doing so only predisposes you to an increased risk of injury. When in doubt, run fewer repetitions with longer recoveries. Play it safe!

Doing 1–2 of these workouts per week is all you need to gain the power, efficiency and speed benefits. They’re not a focus, but rather a supplemental training tool that’s available to work on an oft-neglected area of fitness for distance runners.

After 4–6 weeks of consistent sprint work, done in a gradual and safe way, you’ll find yourself running faster and feeling more powerful than before. This new fitness will transfer very well to the longer distances.


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