3 Ways Runners Get Speed Work Wrong (and How to Make It Right)

Jason Fitzgerald
by Jason Fitzgerald
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3 Ways Runners Get Speed Work Wrong (and How to Make It Right)

Speed. Runners strive for more of it. We want to get stronger, faster and earn that shiny new PR. But while the goal may be nearly universal, the means of getting there is often misunderstood.

Runners have widely varying definitions of speed work. For some, it means going all out at top speed whenever the urge strikes them. Others may think that speed work only refers to interval sessions done on a track. And for many runners, any type of speed work may be a distant memory, something that hasn’t been part of their repertoire for too long.

Technically speaking, “speed work” refers to any type of workout that develops top-end or maximal speed. But the truth is, few of us have an opportunity to test that top-end speed in a race situation — we’re rarely ever sprinting at 100 percent effort. Instead, we can think of speed work as a more relative term, and it can be applied to a variety of workouts ranging from strides and hill sprints to tempo runs and more traditional track sessions.

Speed work is often misunderstood and even more often misused during training. But what’s really important is learning how to apply it properly to your training.

So let’s keep the definition simple: “Speed work” is any effort faster than your easy pace that is being used strategically. In other words, speed work has a specific purpose in your training and isn’t just a random burst of speed at the end of a run when you’re feeling good. (Though that can be fun to do on occasion as well!)

With that broad definition in mind, let’s focus on the most important components of speed work: when and how to apply it to your training, and how to avoid common mistakes.

Mistake Number 1: Inconsistent or Nonexistent Speed Work

There’s certainly a time and a place for running easy, particularly in a recovery period after a hard race. But incorporating even a moderate amount of speed work on a regular basis will make running new personal bests a lot easier (and running at a variety of paces may help you prevent injuries).

Easier, less structured speed work can be used 1–2 times weekly even in the offseason to help maintain fitness and keep you out of the rut that can come from running the same pace day in and day out. Some starter speed workouts might include strides or fartlek intervals, which are a great way to reintroduce faster-paced workouts without putting too much stress on your body too soon.

Strides are simply 100-meter accelerations, where you speed up gradually to about 95 percent effort, hold the pace and then slow back down. They are best done at the end of an easy run. Start with four repeats, and build up to six over a few weeks.

Fartlek intervals can vary greatly in terms of how structured they are, but one example of an early season fartlek session is 8 x 1 minute at 10K effort, with two to three minutes easy in between. Before pushing yourself all out during an interval session on the track, it’s essential to rebuild some strength and leg speed with these more moderate efforts.

Once you have reintroduced some faster running to your weekly routine, you’ll be better prepared to handle more race-specific workouts, which will increase in intensity as your race approaches. But if you’re consistent about performing moderate intensity speed sessions throughout the year, you’ll be less prone to injury and better prepared to handle the harder efforts when they come later in your training.

Mistake Number 2: Getting the Timing Wrong

When it comes to making speed sessions part of your training routine, timing is everything.
Once you’ve realized the importance of regular speed work, you may be tempted to dive in and do too much, too soon. This is a surefire path to injury. Take your time and build slowly. If you’re new to speed work or haven’t done any for a long stretch of time, start with some of the introductory sessions described above.

In addition to easing your way into faster running, you also want to make sure that you’re following a proper progression of workouts as your goal race approaches. Workouts should become more race-specific the closer you get to race day, with the most challenging workouts occurring in the last 6–8 weeks of training. To clarify what this might look like, here is an example of a progression over a 16-week, 5K training plan for a runner who has not been doing regular speed sessions:

5K Training Plan Speed Work Progression:

Weeks 1–4

  • Strides: 4–6 reps, 2–3 times weekly after easy runs
  • Fartlek intervals: 6–10 reps of 1-minute at 5K effort with 2–3 minutes easy in between. Increase the reps and decrease the rest slightly as you progress.

Weeks 5–8

  • Strides: 6 reps twice weekly after easy runs
  • Intervals: 10–12 x 400m at 5K pace
  • Tempo run: 2 x 10 minutes

Weeks 9–12

  • Strides: 6 reps twice weekly after easy runs
  • Intervals: 5–6 x 800 at 5K pace
  • Tempo run: 2 x 15 minutes

Weeks 13–16

  • Strides: 6 reps twice weekly after easy runs
  • Intervals: 5 x 1K at 5K pace
  • Threshold run: 30 minutes

This is only a broad outline of a training plan, but it’s intended to illustrate a proper progression of speed sessions. Notice that you’re moving from intervals that are shorter and faster (with a neuromuscular focus) to workouts that are more 5K-specific as race day approaches.

The interval sessions start with simple, less structured fartleks and culminate in a workout that comes close to replicating what you’ll face on race day. At the same time you continue to build strength and endurance with weekly tempo runs, which teach you to hold a “comfortably hard” pace over an increasing distance.

Mistake Number 3: Overly Frequent Speed Sessions

It’s OK to train hard, but it’s equally important to train smart. And training smart means using an appropriate amount of speed work. It’s best to be a little like Goldilocks here — not too little, not too much, but just right.

At the opposite end of the spectrum from those who run the same easy pace every day are those who want to run fast all the time. These runners may feel like a run isn’t worthwhile if they haven’t pushed themselves “hard.” Although doing too little speed work may keep you from experiencing consistent progress, too many hard efforts are almost certain to leave you injured and overtrained.

Recovery days are absolutely vital in your training plan, especially when you’re continuing to push yourself and increase your mileage. Although easy days may feel like “junk” miles, this is the time when your body heals and grows stronger as a result of a previous hard effort. But if you never give your body the opportunity to recover and rebuild, you’ll eventually start to break down. All those hard, speedy sessions will be useless if you find yourself sidelined by a running injury.

Most runners will benefit 1–2 weekly speed sessions depending on the goal race and ability level of the runner. It’s essential to schedule these sessions appropriately as well — always allow 2–3 days of recovery time between harder efforts.

With a little planning and effort, speed work can be an effective tool to help you become a faster runner. Don’t be afraid to inject a little speed play into your running, even if you’re not training for something specific. Remember to integrate it intelligently into your training, and keep in mind that more is not always better. Most importantly, have fun and enjoy the feeling of running fast!

About the Author

Jason Fitzgerald
Jason Fitzgerald

Jason is the founder of Strength Running, a USA Track & Field certified running coach and 2017’s Men’s Running’s Influencer of the Year. Learn more about how he can help you run faster.

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