Speed Work for Distance Runners Part 1

Introduction & Hill Training

Dave Couper PhD, Chapell Hill, North Carolina


Various runners have asked about what speedwork to do and how fast does one need to be at shorter distances to be able to run a sub 40 min 10K.

Despite being a statistician I will not try to provide a precise answer to the question of how fast one needs to be over a mile or a 5K in order to break 40 min for 10K. Of course, one needs to average under 6:30 per mile in order to get under 40 min.  If one has been training *specifically* for a mile and one cannot break 6:30 then there is little chance of averaging faster than that for 10K. If you haven’t done *any* speedwork, you should have the capacity to improve substantially at all distances.

Most of us can still improve. If we have been running for many years we may not be able to break our all-time PRs, but we should be able to improve on our recent performances.

How much can you hope to improve? I don’t know! (There are some things that I’ll admit that I don’t know. 🙂 ) Is there an ideal training program to follow? Perhaps. Some programs are better than others but, at least initially, the differences are minor.  If you haven’t followed a program before just the mere fact of sticking to a set program – any program – will improve your performance. This happens for at least three reasons:

  1. By following a program you are more likely to train consistently. You are less likely to bag scheduled runs or to get lazy and cut the distance than when you are not following a program.
  2. Most programs contain some kind of speedwork. If you haven’t been doing speedwork regularly, then any type of regular speedwork is likely to help you run faster.
  3. Knowing that you have been following a program helps psych you up for the race you are aiming at. You know you have done the work so you approach the race more confidently. Also, many programs contain tips on how to prepare yourself mentally for the race.

What qualifications do I have for telling you about speedwork? None at all! I have never been coached nor have I ever coached anyone. Rietta (my wife) and I sometimes tell each other what kind of training we have been doing. We may even suggest particular types of workouts to each other, but we don’t interfere in each other’s training.

Although I ran a few track races in my final quarter in high school I never trained with the track team.  When I started running more seriously later, I used to run with a small group. We just ran, without doing fancy things like speedwork.

Like many recreational runners, I had already run numerous road races (including a few marathons) before I did any formal speedwork. The informal “speedwork” I used to do led to big improvements and by the time I started formal speedwork there wasn’t much room for improvement left. In parts I and II of this series of posts I will discuss the less formal types of speedwork.  Then in parts III and IV I’ll write about the more formal types. The ideas I present have been picked up from a variety of sources. Except where I specifically state otherwise, I’ve used all the ideas I mention in my own training at some stage.

One final general comment on training programs: When one first starts running it is easy to see that one is improving from week to week. One manages to do increasing distances and/or run fixed distances faster. Eventually one tends to reach a plateau where one no longer seems to be improving. A similar thing happens when one first starts doing speedwork – one may get noticeably faster within a few weeks or months but after that improvement is much more gradual. This can become disheartening. What I have found is that once I reach a plateau I can still improve. But, instead of a continual gradual improvement, the improvement comes in “jumps” or steps. For a long time there will not seem to be any improvement. Then suddenly one day I will find myself at a new level, racing and training substantially faster than just a week or two earlier. If my training has been consistent, this will not just be a one-off occurrence. Rather, I will stay on this new plateau for a while before moving up to another new level (or, if I race too hard and too often, getting stale and moving back down to the previous level). Glenn McCarthy of the Dead Runners Society wrote something along these lines:

“Don’t get to excited about the benefits of your track workouts showing up in your races. I find that the benefits of changes in your training will not show up in races for some time. I find you will get inconsistent results in your races until your body has accommodated to the changes in training. This may take 4 to 6 weeks. With or without the accommodation it will take 10-14 days for the impact of a workout to be assimilated and available as a resource for racing.”


I believe that for most recreational runners (which is what most of us are), running hills is a much easier and less stressful way to improve than doing speedwork on a track. I am not advocating repeated sprints up a single hill. Although this has its benefits, it is very stressful and is much more like formal track sessions than what I am suggesting.

What I am suggesting is running over undulating routes at least a few times each week. Put some effort into the uphills. Run them with an exaggerated knee lift and try to push off hard with your ankles. The steeper the hills the more exaggerated should be the knee lift. On very slight inclines, try to run faster than you had been going before reaching the hill. On steeper inclines, concentrate more on vertical than on forward movement. On the steepest hills try to lift your knees high enough that at the top of the motion your thighs are horizontal. You will get tired, but it is a less damaging tiredness than that caused by more serious speedwork. Running uphill you will not hit the ground as heavily as when running hard on the flat or downhills. The tiredness will be muscle fatigue rather than muscle damage. In this it is somewhat more like cycling or swimming than most other types of running. Because they don’t have to survive pounding like that involved in running, cyclists and swimmers can train longer and with a higher proportion of quality work than runners. (No, I don’t have any hard information to back up this statement. :-))

The hills should be long rather than short. Each should take at least a couple of minutes to run. Even for long steady climbs of a mile or more I exaggerate my knee lift somewhat and try to keep up a good pace all the way to the top. Use the flat and downhill sections of the run for recovery.

What if you live in a flat place like Gainesville, Florida? Tough. You’ll just have to accept that you’ll never reach your full running potential. 🙂 Rietta regards running up steps as a reasonable alternative. I do not. (But this may be because I’ve not been able to run all the way up the steps up the side of a local mountain that she can do twice in one session. :-)) If all else fails, you could always use one of those deadmill things.

More seriously: how often should you run undulating/hilly workouts? As often as possible! I have done as many as 6 hilly run per week. Currently at least once a week I try to do a longish run which is basically uphill for the first half and downhill for the second half. Parts of the routes for my two half-easy days and my long weekend run are also undulating. (editors note: interestingly, this is exactly the type of running practiced by the immensely successful Kenyans)

After a while your response to hills should become automatic. As soon as your body senses it is going up an incline you will startto stride out more purposefully. You will still get tired, but you will begin to treat hills as friends rather than as enemies.

If you have a HRM (heart rate monitor), either leave it at home or ignore it whenever you run hills. Even a slight uphill will send your heart rate up. On an easy day, if you are trying to keep your heart rate below say 65% or 70% of maximum, you will probably have to slow down dramatically on hills. DO NOT DO THIS – IT IS COUNTER-PRODUCTIVE!!! The training benefit from running up the hills at a steady pace is far more important than keeping your heart rate down. If you want to keep your heart rate down on a particular day, stay on the flat.

How much effort should be put into uphills in races and/or training?

There are two extremes:

(a) Run the uphills at the same pace as the downhills.

(b) Run the uphills at the same effort or heart rate as the flat stretches.

Using (a) you will run too fast up the hills and/or too slowly downhill. With (b) you will run too slowly uphill and/or too fast downhill. The optimum is somewhere in between. Particularly if you are using a HRM to gauge effort, do not tr to stick to (b).  If you decide to keep your heart rate within a particular range on the flat stretches, allow your heart rate to climb above this range on the uphills. On the downhills do not try too hard to keep it above your lower limit – to do so may require you to pound down the hills too hard.

What benefits does hill running provide?

One obvious benefit is that you will get better at running hills. This is obviously an important consideration if you run hilly races.

But there are other benefits, even if most of your races are flat. Running speed is determined by two factors:

(i) stride frequency – how many steps you take in a given time

(ii) stride length – the distance you cover with each step.

Although there are various ways of increasing stride frequency, it is not as easy to change as stride length. One way to lengthen your stride is to try to reach further forward with your feet. This is a VERY BAD idea as it leads to overstriding, which is inefficient and also a prime source of injuries. Better ways to improve stride length are to push off more forcefully with your ankles (propelling yourself forward further) and increasing the range of motion in your hips. The strong ankle action and high knee lift that I have suggested do both of these. So these hill workouts should help you to run faster on the flats as well as on hills.

You can also work on your stride frequency on these hilly runs. On some of the gradual downhill stretches try to run with short quick strides. That is, try to get your legs turning over fast. Count your strides and see how many you can take in 30 seconds or a minute. Ease off for a minute or so and then do another 30 – 60 seconds. Taking short strides is very important. Not only does this help you pick up the frequency, but it also reduces the pounding from running downhill.

Another important benefit of hill running is that it strengthens the muscles around the knees. This can help substantially in reducing the risk of knee injuries. Just be very careful on the downhills.

Clydesdales (heavy runners) and hills: Some Clydesdales believe that being heavy means one cannot run uphill well. That may be true if you are carrying dead weight, but if you are tall and muscular you can still be a strong hill runner. When I was in prime shape 15-16 years ago, I had a training partner who dwarfed me. Richard is well over 6′ tall and solidly constructed. We often used to do 10 milers together on Sunday mornings. Whenever we started from his house he delighted in taking me up the longest, steepest hills he could find and running away from me. I usually beat him in races, so perhaps this was his way of getting revenge. It got so bad at one stage that I developed a mental block against one particular hill and threatened that if we used that route again I would not even try running up it but would walk all the way from the bottom to the top. It was a few years later before I tried that hill again. I managed to overcome my mental block and from then on no longer had any problems with it.

DEAD RUNNER Sarah Miller wrote:

“My endurance is fine, I could run miles and miles at a fairly steady pace, but I just can’t seem to pick up that pace very well when doing speedwork. Do you think it is something some people are just born with, I know that is it to an extent, but is there anything we can do!”

What I have suggested here is a way to break out of the “steady pace”. You will get used to changing pace and effort as you move from running on the flat to running uphill.

Finally, a short (?) autobiographical piece:

I have mentioned previously that when sprinting talent was handed out I was at the back of the line. I also don’t have great endurance ability or mental toughness. I have managed a few short ultras (50K and 35 miles) successfully but don’t see myself being able to go much further. I do have (or at least I used to have) a couple of strengths. One is an inbuilt and completely subconscious pace-judgement ability, which I’ll boast about in full technicolor detail some other time. The other is an *acquired* ability to run strongly on hills. I am no good on very steep hills such as in mountain races, but relish most hills in road and cross country races. If I can match someone in a flat race I am confident that I will be able to run away from that person in a hilly race. Although I lose quite a bit on the downhills, I more than make up for this on the uphills. I use a relatively high knee lift action when going uphill in races. This may seem inefficient but it has worked for me – even in races up to 35 miles.

At least part of my hill running strength comes from a positive mental attitude. I run hills well because I believe in my ability. (I am no good at sprinting because I was born slow. :-)) I hate having anyone pull away from me up a hill. I am still annoyed by what happened in a 10K race here last year. The race is over 3 laps and a 3-person relay is run simultaneously over the same course. Just before the middle of each lap there is a long and fairly steep hill. On the third lap I was running up the hill quite strongly, catching and then moving ahead of one of my main rivals in my age group. But a youngster came flying past me. I still cannot believe that anyone who was still behind me so late in the race could be so much faster than me up the hill. I never managed to find out whether he was one of the runners in the relay and was thus still quite fresh. Maybe what annoys me more than been overtaken is that I didn’t try hard enough to stay with him, instead just telling myself that I was doing well enough against my age-group rivals. This was the only slightly sour note in what was my best 10K in many years.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4