Speed Work for Distance Runners Part 3

Off-Track Speed Work 

Dave Couper PhD, Chapell Hill, North Carolina 

Who should read part III?

Parts I & II contain a number of comments about speedwork in general, plus more specific information on hill running and tempo runs. I do not claim to be an expert on these types of training but I do believe that even runners who do speedwork regularly may benefit from thinking about some of the issues mentioned there.

When it comes to shorter, faster speedwork such as in parts III & IV, I am far more hesitant about giving advice. If you have ever trained with a track team you probably know more about this type of speedwork than I do. These parts are directed more specifically at speedwork-neophytes than the previous two parts.

I mentioned previously that progress tends to proceed in steps. We could call these steps a succession of “breakthroughs”. The first big breakthroughs occur soon after one starts running consistently. Further breakthroughs can then usually be achieved by increasing average weekly mileage and the length of the weekly long run. Once one’s body has adjusted to the increased workload, still more breakthroughs can be achieved by running faster in training. If you haven’t done regular speedwork before, nearly any type of speedwork is likely to lead to a breakthrough performance. On the other hand, if you have done speedwork regularly for a number of years my suggestions are unlikely to be specific enough to help you improve significantly.

I’ve noted above that if you haven’t previously done regular speedwork then nearly any type of speedwork is likely to lead to an improvement. There’s a big qualifier which should be attached to this statement:

… if you don’t get injured.

Speedwork may be the quickest route to a breakthrough. It can also be the quickest route to an injury. Most injuries are the result of overstressing some part of one’s body. When you started running you probably built up your mileage rather gradually. At each mileage level you should have waited for your body to adapt before moving up to the next level. Speedwork should be approached in the same way, but even more carefully. Quantity is not the only factor that should be increased gradually — being conservative about the “speed” part of speedwork is even more important. For instance, if your longest training run is 10 miles or more, you should have no problem going out and doing a “speedwork” session of 5 1-mile runs at your long run training pace. Doing the same 5x1mile at a pace slightly faster than your most recent 5K race would be considerably more difficult. Your legs will not be used to intensity of the stresses involved and the chance of an injury is great. Even if you finish the workout without any apparent problems, your legs are likely to have taken a battering and your muscles may be sore or weakened for days afterwards.

So, whatever type of speedwork you decide to do, remember to increase the intensity and duration very gradually.

This becomes more important as you age. Muscle fitness (and in fact total body fitness) is activity-specific. When I was in my teens and early twenties I could move between sports without problems. Even if I hadn’t played a particular sport for months, I didn’t have any problems if I suddenly played it again. By the time I reached my thirties this was no longer true. Running had become my primary sport and I seldom did any form of cross-training. If I tried something else like soccer I was likely to hurt part of my body that was no longer used to the stresses involved. Even if I survived the game without an obvious injury, by the next day aching muscles would remind me that they were no longer accustomed to doing anything other than moving me forward in a straight line.

As we age, seemingly minor changes can overstress our muscles. You may think of grass as providing a gentle, yielding running surface which is kind to your legs. I wouldn’t argue with that. However, if all your running has been on hard surfaces such as asphalt or cement and then you suddenly do a session on grass, the extra “give” of the softer surface means that on each stride your muscles are stretched marginally further than usual. This can be enough to cause minor or even major muscle tears — even if your session on grass is run at your usual training pace. The extra stresses involved in doing speedwork magnify any effect of the change in surface.

What can be particularly frustrating about the muscle damage caused by doing something slightly different from usual is that one often does not get a warning of impending problems while one is running. The strained muscles often don’t make themselves felt until much later – sometimes not until the next day. Even minor muscle strains of this type can make running uncomfortable for a week or more.

With speedwork, even more than with other types of running, it is very important to get to know your body. You need to learn, often through painful experience, the different kinds of messages being sent by your legs. Knowing what kind of pain is a warning of a potential injury and what is just tiredness means being able to distinguish between when abandoning a speedwork session would be wise or would be wimping out. In this regard some of us are slower learners than others. Just last week I read the messages wrongly while doing a tempo run. As a consequence I have had to cut my mileage back while I try to recover from a strained calf muscle.

Some Dead runners and coaches have suggested that serious speedwork should be restricted to certain times of the year, for instance during an XX-week training program for a specific race. This may be fine for relatively young runners, but IMHO is very poor advice for anyone over the age of about 35. Why? Because, as I’ve outlined above, the sudden introduction of speedwork (or any other change in one’s training routine) carries a high risk of injury. That program which guarantees a PR may look great in theory. And it might get you that PR, but there is also a good chance that will you injure yourself and won’t even be able to run the race you were training for. (This criticism does not apply to most of the programs whose aim is just to get you to the finish line. These tend to allow a very gradual buildup with little or no speedwork.) What works best for me is to do speedwork on a regular basis. The type of speedwork I do and the intensity may vary depending on the season or particular races I am aiming at. But I know that if I go for even just a couple of weeks without doing any faster running I must not try to run as hard as I was doing before. It may still be possible for me to run as fast as previously but if I try to do so I am likely to suffer the consequences for days or weeks thereafter. In short, strict periodization may work for others, particularly younger athletes, but it is counter-productive for me now. One more general comment before getting down to specifics. What should you do between the fast parts of a speedwork session? Bend over with your hands on your knees gasping for air? Walk slowly? Sit down? No. No. And No. Maybe if you are a sprinter it is necessary to do some all-out sprints in training and to take long recoveries between these sprints. I say “maybe” because what I know about training for sprinting is dangerous. All I know is that when I train on the track it seems that I can finish a session of 12x200m in the time a sprinter does just 2 or 3 sprints. If you are reading this you are presumably a distance runner and aim to finish your race without stopping along the way. Practice this in your training sessions. Jog slowly between the faster parts. In fact, as you will see if you read further, for some types of speedwork the “slower” parts should even be run at faster than normal training pace. If you are so tired that you have to stop at the end of a fast section you have been trying to run too fast. There are good physiological reasons why it is better to run slowly between fast sections rather than walking or standing around. I wrote some months ago that this was one of the few things I had learned from using a heart rate monitor. When I stop running my heart rate drops very rapidly, usually falling below 100 bpm in about a minute. If I continue running slowly my heart rate stays elevated. I take this to mean that more blood is circulating and that my muscles are being replenished and having waste products removed more efficiently. An article in the October 1996 issue of Running Research News entitled “What you do between work intervals can be as important as the work itself” provides scientific support for my argument.

Different types of speedwork are done at different paces. I’ll use the following classification as a rough guide:

A = all-out 400m sprint speed

B = 5K — 10K race pace

C = half marathon race pace

D = steady training run pace

E = easy/recovery run pace (jogging)

F = fail to get out of the door

This is a very rough guide, but even so we can put in refinements, e.g. A+ means all-out 100m sprinting pace.

Aside: You can use this pace chart to determine whether you are a real runner. 🙂 If your pace is anything other than F you *are* a real runner. If your paces A through E are all exactly the same then you aren’t reading this. 🙂

Now I’ll describe the three principal types of unmeasured speedwork that I use: (1) strides, (2) fartlek, and (3) variable-pace workouts.

  1. Strides.
    What to do: accelerate smoothly to about pace A, hold that pace for 50 to 60 strides and then slow down gradually. (I count my strides rather than covering a measured distance or timing myself.)

    There are a number of ways to incorporate “strides” into a workout. One of my favorites is to use them in one of my usual training runs of 40-60 minutes. As part of any speedwork session you should start by running easily for at least 10 minutes to loosen up your muscles. You should also end with at least another 10 minutes of easy running as a cool down. So, do the first and last parts of the training route at about pace D. For the middle portion of the run, do one of the “strides” every 3 or 4 minutes, while continuing at pace D between the “strides”. Do no more than 5 “strides” the first time and gradually increase to 10-12. You may well find that by doing this you end up with a PR for the route (but do not set out to deliberately run a PR). Although the amount of time gained while running fast is minimal, the in between parts tend to be slightly *faster* than usual training pace — even though they feel slow relative to the “strides”. Because the fast bursts are short (about 15-20 seconds) and the intervals between them long, your muscles should recover well between the “strides” and there should be little more accumulation of fatigue than if the whole run was as pace D.

    Another alternative is to do a short run first, ending at a grass field. Then do a set of these “strides” on the field, jogging (pace E) for a minute or two between each of the “strides”. I find this particularly useful while tapering for a long race and often do 2-4 of these strides each day in the week leading up to the race. (I even do a couple a day or two before a marathon.) Recent research suggests that it is important to do some fast running during the taper. As mentioned above, the fast bits are short enough and the slow bits long enough that this should not compromise your race.

    “Strides” are also useful preparation for a more serious speedwork session. I usually do 4 of them at the beginning of a track session. This helps make the timed/measured part of my track session more consistent. Without them the first two repetitions often end up being the fastest and slowest of the whole session as my legs try to find their right pace for the day.

  2. Fartlek.

    As you probably know, fartlek is a vaguely rude sounding Scandinavian word meaning “speed-play”. One test of whether you are a real runner is whether you can say fartlek in mixed company without feeling embarrassed. I don’t think I’ll ever be a real runner. BTW, by “mixed” company I mean runners plus non-runners. 🙂 In “The Penguin Chronicles” for November, John the King Penguin Bingham wrote:

    “Somehow, I figure, if you’ve gotten to the point where you use words like CoolMax and GU with a straight face, the center of the universe has probably moved past you.”

    If you can use “fartlek” with a straight face, the center of the universe has *definitely* moved past you.

    So, what exactly *is* fartlek? It can probably be best described as a variable-pace workout. After the obligatory warm-up, run at a pace between D and E, interspersing this with faster sections over a variety of distances. The distances are typically not measured but are often delineated by landmarks — such as to the tree at the top of the next rise, or a utility pole further up the street. Vary the speed and times of the faster sections, with some being as short as around 15 seconds and others as long as a minute or two. Vary the amount of recovery too.

    Try to decide where a fast section will end *before* you speed up (for longer sections this may have to be a landmark which is far enough ahead that it is out of sight round a bend or over the crest of a hill). Try to maintain a constant speed until you reach that mark. That is, don’t set off at such a furious pace that you have to ease off or even end the sprint earlier than intended. It will take a while to develop the ability to determine the appropriate pace for each faster stretch. This is one of the key benefits of fartlek, over and above the benefits obtained from most forms of speedwork. For instance, this will help you learn how hard and how long you can push to catch and pass someone in a race.

    Traditionally fartlek is done on a golf course or on a wood-chip trail, but there is no reason why other surfaces cannot be used. Even sidewalks can be used as long as you don’t get so engrossed in the workout that you forget to look out for traffic at intersections. Although fartlek is often done in a group, it can be done alone — and a solo session is probably less intimidating for a speedwork novice.

    When fartlek is done in a group there are a variety of ways of deciding on the fast sections. A coach or team captain can make all the decisions. Or members of the group can take turns deciding on when to begin and end each sprint. In one cruel version of the latter method, the person whose turn it is does not tell the others how far the sprint will be. The rest of the group just have to try to keep pace with him/her until he/she eases off. (The person concerned should still decide beforehand where the sprint will end, but just not tell the rest of the group.)

    How long should the workout be? Start with a distance or time that you are confident that you can manage and gradually increase this from session to session. Measure the length of the workout either in terms of time or in terms of a vague distance (e.g. 2 laps of the golf course). I prefer not to use time, because of the impact of the Theory of Relativity. After twenty minutes of hard fartlek, when I look at my watch I usually discover that just three minutes have gone by. 🙂

    By altering the lengths and intensities of the sprints and recovery sections and the overall duration, a fartlek session can range from being little more than a light recovery run to an extremely demanding workout. (I seem to recall that in one of the marathon training programs drawn up by the famed New Zealand coach Arthur Lydiard fartlek is scheduled for the easy/rest/recovery days.)

  3. Variable-pace workouts.

    I had been doing workouts of this type for a number of years before I first saw them formally described and called by this name in Running Research News. IMHO, “variable-pace” (or VP) is not really a very good name — the business portion of *any* speedwork session other than a tempo run involves at least two paces. As I mentioned above, the term variable-pace workout would be an appropriate description for a fartlek session. What Owen Anderson refers to as a VP workout has just two paces (aside from the warm-up and cool down). What distinguishes this from other types of speedwork is that the “slower” parts are faster than normal training pace. Typically one alternates sections at pace B or B+ with sections at pace C or C-.

    The sections can be measured in terms of either distance of time. Using distance-based VP workouts one covers *equal distances* at the two paces. This means spending *more time* running at the slower pace than at the faster pace. I’ll discuss doing distance-based VP workouts in Part IV. With time-based VP workouts I adopt the same principle. So, for instance, I alternate 3 minutes at the faster pace with 4 minutes at the slower pace. Another favorite of mine is alternating 75 seconds fast with 90 seconds at a somewhat slower pace. (Care to guess what track distances these are based on?) A stopwatch with two count-down timers is ideal for this type of workout. If you have 1 timer rather than 2, set it for 1 minute if you are alternating 3 and 4 minutes or use the same duration for the faster and slower sections. Having to keep looking at your watch is far less satisfactory.

    How many should you do? Start with one fast, one slower and just one more fast. Build up until you can manage a total of 20-30 minutes of alternating paces. Try to maintain a consistent pace within each section and from one fast section to the next. It is most important to keep the pace of the “slower” sections faster than your usual steady run pace. Run the faster sections slower rather than slowing the slower sections. Because of the fast pace, you will probably be struggling near the end of each of the fast stretches. This is normal. If you find you have to slow down early you are trying to run too fast. As with all types of speedwork, it will take time for you to learn to run at pace you can sustain for the whole of the serious part of the workout.

    A VP workout allows you to practice running at 5K/8K/10K race pace. It also lets you get used to running fairly hard for a significant proportion of the time you would take for one of these races. By alternating race pace with the slightly slower pace you should be able to sustain a high work load for longer than if you were trying to do a tempo run at close to race pace.

Have fun.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4