Over the years my use of and encouragement to other runners about speedwork has evolved. This happens with any runner and coach. If it doesn’t, you don’t get better. You stagnate. I’m sure a lot of my original strategies to up my game and that of others has evolved, perhaps I’ll write a post about it.
Early in my training, way back when I first began, speed work was something I did every week. I went to the track and busted out some 800s, or a ladder, or a pyramid, or 400s. I had a whole list of the sessions I loved to do and the ones I loved to hate. As my distance increased from marathon to 50 to 100 miles, the speed work dropped off and only appeared every once in a while for a few months and then I was done with it.
My justification for not doing speed work was that as an ultradistance runner I didn’t need to be super fast. I needed to be able to maintain a steady pace for a really long ways and to manage any discomfort and other issues that came along the way to maintain that pace. I’ve also used other types of things to increase my leg turn over rather than speed work, such as cycling.
Why? Speedwork is hard. It is easier when you have a running partner or a coach to crack the whip and hold you accountable for your training. It is rather difficult to find a training partner who wants to go out at 5 am, especially in the winter.
If you have hit a plateau in your training or you want to get faster, you need to do speedwork. You don’t need to do it every day. You don’t need to throw up by the end of the session. You do need to work harder than you would during an easy run, a lot harder.
For speed work to really have the desired impact you also have to make your easy runs easy. This can be more challenging than it sounds. Run easy? no problem. Running easy is hard because it really means easy. It means go at the pace your body needs in order for it to be easy on that day. It means being able to hold a conversation, mostly, with someone running next to you. On a perceived effort scale, it should not go over a 3 or 4, 1 being a walking pace. If your fast is a 9 minute mile, your easy may be a 12 or 13 minute mile. If your fast is a 6 minute mile, your easy may be a 8 or 9 minute mile. It will likely change throughout the week and training cycle. As your fast increases, your easy will likely increase as well. All of this is why the perceived effort scale is needed. I’ll probably write a post about that too.
Having the speed work without the easy runs, is going to decrease your chances of increasing your speed. If you are always pushing your body to it’s max, it doesn’t have a chance to recover, rebuild and get stronger (faster).
How often speed work is done, depends on the runner and their goals. If you don’t care if you get faster, just throw in some speed play or fartleks on a couple of your runs during the week. It gives you some variation and also decreases the chance of you getting slower. For those who would like to increase their speed, you will do speed work one time a week and for a few you can get away with twice a week (if you are running six days a week).
If you’re newer to running or are increasing distance at the same time as getting faster, once a week is enough and may be too much. If you are feeling extra tired, reduce it to once every 10 days. If you are an older runner (over 50) and haven’t consistently done speedwork, you may want to start with once every 10 days and then see how it feels. If you are an injury prone runner or have hamstring issues, you will want to start cautious and also at 10 days.
For new runners, please don’t go out and do an hour of speed work. Just like with distance, you need to start small and work your way up. Start with 30 minutes, do a warm up of ten minutes, run 4 or 5 800s with a quarter mile recovery between and then cool down for 10 minutes. Alternate this with a ladder. Warm up for 10 minutes, run a fast quarter mile, recover for a quarter mile, run a fast 800, recover for a quarter mile, run a fast one mile, recover for a quarter mile up to a mile and a half and then cool down for 10 minutes. If you can’t get through the whole ladder, do what you can.
For older runners just starting speed work, the warm up is more critical than for the new runner. You may need longer than the ten minutes to warm up. You likely know your body well enough to feel the switch flip and you can run easier. If you are both older and new to running, get some base miles under your belt before adding in speed work. Just run consistently for two months. Consistently means 3 plus days a week.
For injury prone runners and some older runners, hill work is better than speed work and has basically the same effect. This also means that other runners can use hills to add variation to their speed work repertoire. Running fast is harder on your body and increases the chances of an injury especially a hamstring injury. Hamstrings are fickle and when they get injured, they take their sweet sweet time healing. Hill work means running up a hill and then recovering on the way back down. It doesn’t have to be a super steep grade. It needs to be a challenge for you to get to the top while still running. You can change things up by using different grades, lengths, and number of repeats. Frequency is the same with other speed work, once a week or every ten days. If you feel the tingle of an injury coming on, don’t do the speed/hill work and think about taking 1-3 days off of running.
This was a long one. Please ask questions, if you have any and Happy Running!