Whether you’re a 5K racer or training for your first ultra, speedwork should be part of your regimen. It might seem counterintuitive if you’re logging bigger miles and training for long distance, but speedwork can boost your cardio engine and keep you healthier over time.
Ultrarunning coach extraordinaire and author of “The Happy Runner,” David Roche is a firm believer in speedwork for every type of runner — it keeps your body guessing, keeps you pushing yourself without adding too much stress and it can feel like playtime if you do it right.
Here, he has a few reasons to incorporate speedwork into your training, regardless of what type of racing you’re hoping to do:
SPEEDWORK MAKES ECONOMIC SENSE
“Speedwork comes back to running economy. In training, we’re trying to learn to put out more power and run at a faster pace with less effort,” says Roche. “You can improve running economy by running easy, but eventually, you’re going to be tapped out by whatever your upper level of speed is.”
SPEEDWORK IS SHORTER AND FASTER, NOT HARDER
Speedwork is about growing efficiency, not necessarily intensity. “If you neglect the top end, the bottom end will never be as efficient as it can be,” says Roche. “Going harder makes easier runs start feeling easier. Structured speedwork’s goal isn’t to go hard, exactly, it’s to get more efficient and put out more speed. A lot of athletes think that when it feels hard, that qualifies as speedwork, but that isn’t the case. The goal isn’t to add big workouts or get better at slow grinding up a hill at a hard pace, it’s to do fast, short efforts a couple times a week to work on form.” (Roche likes starting with a few reps of 30-second efforts on hills versus longer efforts.)
SPEED SHOULDN’T HURT
Speedwork shouldn’t be so extremely hard that you get sick or dread it. “If I give a workout with eight one-minute fast efforts with two-minutes easy, your one-minute pace isn’t meant to hurt,” says Roche. “You should be able to sustain it. That’s what makes you more efficient and improves your running economy and, over time, that will make every pace feel easier. You shouldn’t be scared of your speedwork.”
GO EASIER THAN YOU THINK
Roche might have a client list that includes some of the world’s top ultrarunners, but he still believes every runner — no matter what distance you’re training for — should be spending more time in that ‘laughably easy’ pace. That’s because when you shift to going hard and adding speedwork, you’ll be able to actually go hard and do the workout the way it’s intended versus being gassed from your ‘easy’ effort earlier in the week.
STAY HEALTHIER BY BEING SMART
“Good running training shouldn’t hurt. Hurt is an unsustainable method of improvement,” says Roche. “What you can be in a year or two is way more important than what you can be in a month or two. Layering cycles of training and speedwork on top of each other is what makes athletes go from their baseline to their full potential. But it takes sustainable work to get there, not just hard work for a short time.” In a perfect world, Roche believes in a training plan that includes a rest day, two speedwork workouts a week, plus a long run and two easy runs sprinkled throughout the week.
FARTLEKS ARE FOR EVERYONE
Fartleks are the easiest way to intro yourself to speed training without freaking out about the clock. During your run, just pick a couple of markers that are about 10–15 seconds from where you are and sprint to them. Rest, recover, repeat. “Generally, when I start my training and I’m still doing pretty low mileage, I use that time to focus on some speed,” says ultrarunner Eimanne Zein. “I’ll run fartleks because that’s super easy to just do on your own. Speed training is worth doing! Even if it sucks.”