Speed Training for Runners

There are three basic 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 increases in speed, 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 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. Be careful, though, that you don't overstride. Run such that you feet always hit the ground under your body rather than in front of your body. 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. Running a faster pace for longer distances can put a large stress on your body.

One way to run a faster pace without a high expenditure of energy is to lift your knees a little higher. I've known that sprinters lift their knees high, but I just recently discovered that even us shufflers can lift our knees a little higher and increase our speed even though we are still shuffling. However, it does take energy to lift ones knees higher. Instead of doing that, try bending your knees more and lowering your hips by squatting a little. Bending your knees will help you run faster as well as prevent you from doing heel-strikes and slapping the ground with your toes (better form).

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 unstructured 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.

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 a 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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15 comments:

wildcat83 said...

"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."

I am supposed to believe that you had a mile PR of 5:57, yet your long slow pace was just 7:00?? I'm waving the BS flag...while the 5:57 mile isn't the problem, believing that your pace spread between the mile, and something significantly slower (the LSD pace) than a marathon pace, is only 1:03, isn't credible. If the fastest you could run a mile was only 5:57, your marathon pace should have been something like 7:45 mminimum. When you add in the additional slowness for the LSD, we're talking 8:15-8:30 minimum.

So which is it? You never ran a 5:57, or you weren't training LSD at 7:00 minute pace? My bet is the latter.

Allen said...

It's too bad I'm not a betting man, because I'd have a sure win in taking your bet. Your whole analysis, that my LSD pace should be slower than my marathon pace is wrong for people like me who aren't ready to run 26 miles. Let me explain more about my running history to see if that helps.

I ran for about 8 years before I ran my first marathon. I didn't do speed training during those years. I just ran for enjoyment as I increased my distance. I got my long run up to 15 miles and ran that weekly year around. So, I had a really good base of endurance for that distance.

My schedule for marathon training only allowed me to do one 20-miler. I started with my weekly 15-miler and added a mile each week until I got up to 20 miles. I found that I could maintain my 7-minute pace for about 17 miles, and then I started to get tired and slowed down. As I tapered for my first marathon, I thought about the pace I should maintain during the race. I knew I couldn't maintain my 7-minute pace for the full 26 miles, so I decided to run the marathon at a 8:30 pace. My hope was that the slower pace would keep me going longer before I got tired. The slower pace did help, but when I got to about 20 miles, my energy gave out, and I had to walk-jog the last 6 miles. I followed the same strategy for three more marathons, and my times for my four marathons ranged from 3:59 to 4:12. I think in terms of energy. I had enough energy to run my LSD pace of 7-minute miles for 17 miles. In order to spread that energy over 26 miles, I ran a pace slower than my LSD pace.

I only remember running one 10K, and that was about a month after my first marathon. Since it was a shorter race, I did run faster than my LSD pace and finished in 40:35 for a pace of about 6:30. I ran several 5 mile races during the next couple of years and finished in about 33 minutes, for a pace close to 6:30.

During the summer that I set my PB for 1 mile, I went to a school track with some friends once a week and ran timed runs around the track. My 10K and 5-mile race pace were about 6:30, and that is about what I ran the first time I ran on the track. During the course of the summer, my track-time slowly decreased until it went below 6 minutes by three seconds.

I've talked with marathoners who take a person's time for shorter distances and extrapolate those times to a marathon. That strategy is good for a runner who has adjusted to the marathon-distance, but it is a worthless strategy for a person who isn't ready for the marathon distance. For example, one marathoner said that if my LSD was 7 minutes, I should finish a marathon in 2 hours something (I don't remember the time he gave). He is probably right if I could maintain the 7 minute pace for 26 miles. But, his analysis is invalid for me since I could only maintain the 7 minute pace for 17 miles.

wildcat83 said...

Well, help me out here, because this isn't making sense at all: the LSD method is supposed to help you run a long race (it is specifically used to train runners for marathon distance races) better by running your long training runs at a slower-than-race-pace...but your experience with it was just the opposite--you ran your LSD's at a faster pace, but slowed down for your marathons because you felt that you wouldn't be able to maintain that pace. So, how can you consider to have trained using the LSD method, when your training pace was faster than your race pace?

I appreciate that the error band associated with extrapolating a 5K time to projected marathon finish is pretty broad, but let's look at your stated 25K time (~15 miles at 7:00 pace)--this would be an excellent predictor of 26.2 finish. Using the Mcmillan running calculator, you should be at a 3:10 marathon. So, I have to question whether you were really following the LSD training, because it sure sounds like perhaps you weren't.

Please don't misunderstand, I'm not trying to fault your experience or such; I am really questioning your representation of the LSD approach. As I am sure you are aware, there are two dichotomous schools of thought on whether the long slow run is beneficial or detrimental to marathon training, and representing a minute faster than your PR in the mile as LSD pace, I think, is misleading.

Mike

Allen said...

I'm wondering, Mike, if I have a different definition of LSD that that used by the people who plan marathon strategy.

To me, a LSD pace is a comfortable pace at which I could carry on a conversation with a running partner. It is a pace in which I have sufficient oxygen. A pace that allows me to finish feeling great. As far as I'm concerned, there is no relationship between my LSD pace and my marathon pace. For 8 years I ran a LSD pace. I started at a pace of about 12 minutes and ended up at a pace of 7 minutes. During that 8 years, my body developed a lot of endurance for the 15-mile distance of my long runs. But, that pace was almost the fastest that my body could go. I did run a 10K and several 5 miles at a slightly faster pace, so my LSD pace wasn't quite the fastest my body could go, but almost the fastest. I learned during my training that I could maintain that pace for about 17 miles, so I had no choice but to run a slower pace for 26 miles.

I think the key thing in this is that my LSD pace was also almost my fastest pace. That is not the normal situation for marathoners, but it was my situation. Run an easy, comfortable pace for 8 years, and that is all your body can do. Of course, my easy pace increased during those 8 years, but the fact remains that my body didn't have the ability to go much faster than that pace. Through running intervals for one summer, I did get my speed increased for a one-mile distance, but I couldn't have maintained that pace for a longer distance.

wildcat83 said...

Personally, I am not a fan of the long slow run method. I think there is something quite counter-intuitive about training at a pace markedly slower than what you want to run a long race, and expecting on race day that somehow a miracle happens, and your body can perform faster than what it is used to in training...just does not make sense to me, and past practice makes me believe that you "race like you trained, train like you want to race".

I think, after having had you explain your take on the LSD approach, that we are talking about two entirely different philosophies. The textbook (if there really is one) LSD approach, from everything I have read, says that you should train your long runs at a pace significantly slower (30 seconds? 1 minute 30 seconds? who knows) than your anticipated/target long race pace, not the other way around (race pace being slower than long run training pace).

Again, I am not quarreling with your method at all, or how it worked for you, just trying to clarify that what you were practicing wasn't what most would call the LSD approach. Having said that, I think it is fantastic that you could maintain a 7 minute pace, at what you called a conversational pace, for 25k +. What is highly unusual (to me), is that your mile PR was only a minute and change faster than that. Most long distance runners will have at minimum a 1:30 difference between their 25k pace and their mile pace...but then again, that is what makes us all unique, as we are all built for different strengths and peculiarities.

Happy running--

Mike

Allen said...

I've added a new post to this site in which I discuss this situation. My comments in the new post are a rehash of my comments here. I put the comments in a new post so I can refer people to that post if they have questions about my fast LSD pace and my slower marathon pace.

Mark Garso 3556 said...

What a great conversation piece on speed training. Definitely different views and somewhere in there is a happy medium. As it seems each body will respond differently to different types of training.

Mark F. Garso 3556

wilson said...

Hi Allen. After running LSD for more than 3 months, I can comfortably cover 10k at 6:30 mins/km. Recently, I have registered for a 10K race. As such, i try some speed work recommended in your page. After 10mins of slow jog, i tried doing about 10 repeats of doing 180 steps per minute. According to you, this is called "Strides", but i am unsure about it, since i managed to do so many repeats. Is it improper or would it cause injury if i continue with this amount of repeats?

Allen said...

Hi wilson,

When we first start speed work, our bodies have the capacity to absorb most if not all of the stress caused by the speed work. This means that when we first do speed work, we may feel fine and thus think we can handle it. However, if some of the stress isn't handled by our bodies, the residues of stress will build up and eventually cause pain and then injury. That is, injury from doing too much or too intense speed may not occur for a while after we've begun the speed. Of course, if our speed is really intense, injuries may occur quite soon.

This means that we need to carefully monitor our bodies as we do speed workouts. Because of this, don't do speed more often than once a week, and don't do it more than 10-20 minutes a session. Give your body plenty of time for recovery between your speed workouts. Get good sleep at night. Eat properly. Be sure you cool down after your speed workouts by doing LSD and then walking for 10-15 minutes.

If you start to feel soreness that you haven't had, reduce your speed work until the soreness is gone and then do less speed and slowly increase your speed workouts as your body gets used to the speed. We're all different from each other in this regard, and we need to be our own "coach" so to speak.

It's better to do too little speed than too much. I had my one and only injury in running from doing speed work for 6 months. That is a long time to do speed and think I'm OK. Then, bang, I was injured. If you're not sure about doing 10 repeats, reduce it to 5 repeats. And then once a month add a couple of repeats, thus taking about 2 1/2 months to get up to the 10 repeats. This will help your body get used to the increased stress from the speed work.

Another thought, wilson. Vary the type of speed you do. One week do your repeats. The next week, do some fartleks. The next week, do Galloways's cadence drills. Our bodies like variety.

Alain said...

Hi Allen,
I read and understood your points. There might also be an age relation to your calculation and results.
I am 43 and faces the same issue of being empty after 32km... then I find my strength on the 5km signboard...
I practice with 15 up to 25km runs and have so far never done speed trainning...
My normal time is around 5:25 per km... now I am finishing a half marathon practice (ok... it was supposed to be a marathon, but the organizers changed the race profile..) so I want to grab this easy opportunity to increase my speed...
Thanks for the advices... will try tomorrow morning some of your options...
Alain

Allen said...

Hi Alain,

You're right about an age factor. As we grow older, our bodies are less able to handle stress, and we have to modify our training accordingly.

You might enjoy reading my new post on Age Grading. It's a way of comparing performance over a wide age-range. PR/PBs only have value over a relatively short age-range.

wilson said...

Thank Allen for the advice. I have another doubt about pertaining to my pace. At the moment, I am doing three runs per week with two days of cross-training in between. Since I run for few days only, I focus on quality workouts that will develop specific areas of my running. I try to do a tempo, a hill/speed (alternating every other week), and a long run. My doubt is pertaining the difference between tempo and speed training. When I was doing tempo last time, I try to run at a faster pace than my usual long run. But I am unsure whether that faster pace is of tempo or speed. Upon competion of the run, i found that i was not panting, which means that i had not reached the anaerobic phase yet. But i am not sure my threshold. Is there any measurand that can be used to gauge my tempo pace? My last 10k race time was 1h 4mins.

Allen said...

wilson,

Planning tempo runs is difficult, because the classic definition of a tempo run is running just below the transition to anaerobic, and most of us don't know when that happens.

One definition that I've seen is running at about 80% of your maximum. That can be a good metric if you have a heart rate monitor. Otherwise, just form your own definition. Just below the level that you huff and puff might be a good way to judge tempo.

Here is an article from Runners World about tempo runs.

As the article points out, tempo runs should be relatively long to condition your body to handle the stress over a longer distance.

In general, "speed" usually refers to shorter, perhaps more intense, runs. So, you want to do shorter, more intense runs, longer tempo runs not quite so intense, and Long Slow Distance runs that are even longer and less intense.

Allen said...

Oh, the fourth type of runs is the shorter and even slower recovery runs.

Doing speed/hills/tempo once a week is good. Doing a long run and a medium run for Long Slow Distance is good. Doing several recovery runs and/or cross training is good.

Running For Speed said...

Being an LSD runner, I find it very important to get my running base strong. Stretching is always important after a warm up run and after a cool down run in order to help you become more flexible and avoid injury. There is a great deal of information here. If any one would like some more running information training, check out my blog at Running For Speed.

Thanks,
John Hanks