Getting Faster

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!

Block It

We all get stuck in a rut, but it can be really easy to do with your workout routine. I know I’m guilty of this on multiple occasions, with both my running and with my strength workouts.  There are a few problems with the rut: first, you don’t make any progress; second, you lose motivation; third, it’s boring!

The first is the most important for runners who want to improve. Not all runners want to improve. They are content running their six miles four days a week at a comfortable pace. That’s not me. I want to get better and I like to see progress. Even if improvement isn’t your think, staying motivated to get out there and not being bored the entire time should be enough for you to want to change things up every few weeks.

Many runners work through their training in blocks. Blocks can be four, six or eight weeks long and during each block you focus on a different aspect of your running. That doesn’t mean you drop other aspects of training, they just aren’t the focus point. Other runners switch things around by every other week. And still others, do a rotation over a ten-day period.

Strength Blocks: Starting a block rotation with strength is great because the number one goal of strength training for runners is to reduce risk of injuries. There are three types of strength training typically used by runners. First is body weight. This uses light weights or no weights with high repetitions. The idea is it builds strength and stability without the mass. Second is plyometrics. Plyometrics are explosive movements, such as jumping and springing. These are great but need to be implemented in small dosages especially at the beginning. Third is heavy lifting. Heavy lifting is low repetitions and max weight which strengths your connective tissue. Lifts should be done very slow and controlled. You’re runs during a strength rotation should be lower in intensity because you’re kicking up the intensity with strength training.

Speed Blocks: during your speed block you’re going to have an intense speed workout once a week and then throw in some fartleks during your long run. For your weekly intense session, choose different types of work outs. Don’t just do 800s. There’s nothing wrong with doing a week of 800s, just don’t make it an every week thing. Use pyramids, tempo runs, ladders, or 400s.

Hill Blocks: during your hill block you will have one run a week dedicated to running hills and then you’ll throw in extra hills for your long run. You can run hill repeats or find a long steady climb to conquer. If you’re doing short repeats, walking the downhill is fine, but you’ll have to find some longer downhills to practice downhill running. Downhills will tear up your legs if you don’t build them into your training.

Build Blocks: As endurance runners, especially at ultra-distances, your long run is going to stay in the weekly rotation. However, if you’re not doing a build phase, you’ll only do one long run a week rather than the back to backs. You can also choose to run one long run and then the next day a ten-mile run. But if you’re not in a build block, you’re not increasing the miles on that second day.

The important part is that you are changing things and challenging your body in new ways. Using the same workouts doesn’t get you more of the same results. It gets you a flatline.


Feel the Burn

burning runner

No I’m not promoting Burnie Sanders for president, but I do have to admit I like his ideas. Anyway, that’s about as political as this blog should ever get!

You know the burning in your legs when you run, especially, when you do speed work or hill/mountain climbs? Yeah, it’s a good feeling. It reminds you, that you are working hard and working on getting stronger.

The burn is caused by lactic acid buildup in your muscles. More accurately it’s the breakdown process that causes the burn. Your fast twitch muscles become more engaged when you run harder or your workout is more strenuous (hills or mountains). These muscles break down things into fuel more slowly because they don’t have enough mitochondria to do it at the same rate as you produce it. Read on to find out how to improve the breakdown.

What is lactic acid? It is a byproduct created when we burn glycogen (sugar) without oxygen as we run. The harder you run the more your body produces. The more you push past your limits the more your body produces. Your body breaks the lactic acid down into lactate and hydrogen. Then, your body uses the lactate as fuel. So, the culprit is the hydrogen ions. The hydrogen makes it hard for your muscles to contract, which causes the muscles to burn and running to feel more difficult.

Lactic acid does not cause soreness in your muscles the day following a work out. It is absorbed by your body fairly quickly. The soreness is the result of microtrauma caused to your muscles when you push them hard (this is not a bad thing because they heal stronger).

You can teach your body to process the hydrogen more quickly and delay the onset of the burn. This is done by training beyond your lactate threshold. The lactate threshold is the point where your body has accumulated more hydrogen than it can process. The more frequently you push past your lactic threshold, the more you can delay that burn. You need to train at 120-140 percent of your lactic threshold (80-90% of max heart rate) three days a week for five weeks to increase your tolerance by 25%.

There are physiological and psychological benefits of increase your lactic acid tolerance. The physiological benefits include strengthening connective tissue, improving recovery times, reduced injury, raise the rate of protein synthesis due to increased muscle and blood oxygen levels, reduced muscle and nerve damage due to faster removal and recycling of the hydrogen ions.

The psychological benefit is mental toughness and confidence. The more you are able to push against the burn the more confident you will become at your ability to push back. This confidence increases your mental toughness or fortitude, which allows you to continue to push against the threshold.

The take away: the burn is good. Learn to love it.

Metal mouth

metal mouth

So, I have a confession to make, I have not been doing my speed work, but I jumped back on the bandwagon this last week.

While I was running my 800s, I began to taste iron or a metallic taste, like I had blood in my mouth. I’ve never noticed this before during speed work, so I decided to look into it.

What I discovered was, doctors don’t know why this happens in runners, but it is not uncommon. There are many reasons for it and some hypothesis.

First, is that there could be an infection in your glands that produce saliva. Physical activity and heavy breathing can increase saliva production and then the infection can get into your mouth. Sorry, kinda gross.

Second, is there could be tooth decay.

I am able to rule out those two as possible causes. Let’s see what else is on the list.

Tiny cracks in the lining of your throat and nose can cause this if you are running in cold, dry air. Especially at higher altitude. This is a likely suspect in my case, but there are still more options.

There are research studies that show that intense exercise increases the pressure on the lungs allowing red blood cells to leak into air sacs. This is only temporary and shouldn’t cause concern for runners.

The last possibility is a mild pulmonary edema, which causes fluid to leak into the space between the air sacs and capillaries in your lungs. Gerald Zavorsky, PhD, associate health and sport sciences at the University of Louisville says that this is what happens in most runners. The fluid that is leaked can contain a small amount of blood, which causes the metallic taste.

Pulmonary edema sounds really bad. My understanding (not a doctor) is that what happens is your left ventricle in your heart is not able to pump the blood out of the heart at the same rate as the right ventricle pumps it into the lungs (to pick up oxygen), this causes fluid accumulation in the lungs and is referred to as pulmonary edema.  If your only symptom is the taste of metal in your mouth and things return to normal once you have rested, then you are fine but may want to slow the pace a bit and let your body have time to adjust to the new intensity. If you have other symptoms, shortness of breath, swelling of feet or ankles, a change in mental state then you need to consult your doctor.

What do you mean easy days?

track run

“These are hard,” Spongebunny said breathless.

“Only three more, you’re halfway.” I smiled and kept pushing the six minute pace.

Running is never easy, right? Wrong. Many beginning and experienced runners run too hard on their easy run days. Each of your runs should serve a specific purpose. Running too hard on easy days compromises your ability to benefit from your quality workouts.

Easy run means run at a pace where you can hold a conversation of about three sentences at a time with another runner. The goal of an easy run is to keep your muscles loose and to work on your aerobic system. You are increasing the efficiency of blood flow to your lungs, heart, and blood vessels.  You are teaching your body to metabolize and uptake oxygen faster and more efficiently.

Anaerobic on the other hand increases your power, strength, and speed. This is what you are doing when you run hills and speed work. Running hard is expected and desired. Push to your body to its limit and then do one more.

“This will get easier right?” Spongebunny asked.

I laughed. “Yes, but then you just add more repetitions.”

“Why are we doing this?”

“If you want to get faster, you have to train to run fast. Teach your body what it can do,” I said, my breathing regaining the slow rhythm of the recovery lap.

“So, I should be running all my runs harder?”

I shook my head back and forth. “Nope. Respect the easy days. The reason I can put up numbers like 7:00 minute miles for a six miles after swimming and cycling, is because I respect my easy days. If I push hard on all of my runs, my body cannot recover and the quality of my hill training and speed work will seriously decline.”

My easy days are done at whatever pace my body needs. Most days that is a 9-930 minute per mile pace. But, some days it is a 10-10:30 pace and that’s okay. In fact, it’s great because it reminds me that I need my easy days. I don’t worry about the pace of the run, I focus on how I feel during the run. There should be no burning muscles or lungs. No wheezing or gulping air and definitely no vomiting.

Respecting the easy days, allows you to be at the top of your game on the hard days. This really applies to all aspects of life work, parenting, and socializing. Life is full of ups and downs. Enjoy those recovery days because you’re going to have to dig deep sometimes sooner than you realize.