Speed Work for Distance Runners Part 4

Speedwork for a Faster 10K

Dave Couper PhD, Chapell Hill, North Carolina

If you haven’t read part III, please do so before continuing here. Most of what I wrote previously applies equally well to what I discuss here — my lack of expertise in this type of speedwork, the risks of injury, increasing intensity and volume gradually from session to session, doing speedwork regularly throughout the year, keeping moving during a session rather than stopping or walking, etc., etc.

As I intend referring to it again, I will repeat my guide to the classification of paces:

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.

As with any kind of speedwork, a good warmup and cooldown are essential. When I do speedwork on a track I usually run there and back rather than driving to the track. If you need to drive to your track, you need to have enough self-control to force yourself to do a decent cooldown jog at the end of the session. For the warmup I typically run slowly for about 15 minutes and then get my legs ready to move faster by doing two laps of the track in which I do strides (see part III) on the straights and jog the bends. I follow this immediately with one slow lap and then the first of the “sprints”.

I’ll use “sprint” to refer to the fast parts even when these are too long to be sprints and I’ll use “jog” to refer to the slow parts even when they are faster than a steady training pace.

There are 5 main factors that can be manipulated to create different types of speedwork sessions — the number of sprints (and hence also of jogs), the length and speed of the sprints and the length and speed of the jogs.

In part III, I mentioned the importance of starting with a small number of sprints and increasing gradually. The other factors are used to classify speedwork sessions. Some main types are: “pure” speedwork, ladders, step-ups, step-downs, intervals, repetitions and variable-pace workouts. This list is neither exhaustive nor are the items necessarily mutually exclusive.

By “pure” speedwork I mean a session which is intended to improve your basic sprinting speed. This would involve short sprints — 50m to 200m — with complete rest in between. Suitable for sprinters and track athletes working on their speed. I’m the last person you would turn to for advice on this type of speedwork.

Step-ups, step-downs and ladders are similar to one another. In step-ups the distance of the sprints increases through the session, e.g. 400m, 600m, 800m, 1,000m. Step-downs involve decreasing distances for the sprints. Ladders involve going up and then down or down and then up in a single session, such as 400m, 800m, 1,200m, 800m, 400m. I don’t do this type of workout — my little brain cannot handle the amount of thought required and my legs prefer to lock into a single pace for the sprints rather than continually adapting to different paces and distances (this is probably a good reason why I *should* do this type of workout). Why do this? Maybe to combat boredom. I happen to have a high boredom threshold … . Maybe to get used to changing paces — probably more important for elite track runners trying to win tactical races than for citizen marathoners trying to improve their PRs. If you insist on doing ladders you’ll have to ask someone else for advice or design your own session.

Variable-pace workouts. Now we get to something I do know a little about. I described VP workouts in some detail in part III. As I mentioned, 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. Of the formal types of speedwork I’ve done, VP workouts have probably been the most useful and they have definitely been some of most satisfying sessions. (BTW, I don’t use the term “workout” to describe any of my running — although I may run fairly intensely at times I do regard my running as “play” rather than “work”.)

What distinguishes VP workouts is that the “jogs” are actually faster than normal training pace. When using distance rather than time as the basis for the VP workout the “sprints” and “jogs” are equally long. A suitable distance for each is anything from 400m (or a quarter mile) up to about one mile (about 1600m). When I do these on a track I usually use 400m — last year I was alternating 75 second (about A- pace) laps with 90 second (C- pace) laps for up to 7 laps. In Seattle I aimed for similar times on a stretch of the Burke-Gilman where someone had marked every quarter mile. There I usually completed 3 miles at the alternating paces. In Cape Town I used part of the route of a local road race. As this was marked in kilometers that is the distance I used, trying to get close to 3 minutes for the fast 1Ks (but probably averaging about 3:07, B to B+ pace at that stage of my running career) while keeping under 4 minutes for the “slow” 1Ks (D+ pace at the time), usually totaling 7K to 10K for the VP part of the training session.

Intervals and repetitions (reps): These terms are often used interchangeably, but there is a subtle distinction between the two. For both of these one does sprints over a specified distance (typically anything from 200m up to a mile). The name “repetitions” presumably comes from the fact that one repeatedly sprints over the same distance. The jogs are slow — certainly much slower than in a VP session. The distinction between the two terms relates to the jogs. “Interval” in intervals refers to the gap or interval between the sprints, that is, to the amount of time spent jogging/resting. In an interval session the time spent jogging is kept constant — usually too short to allow complete recovery from sprint to sprint. So one gets used to running fast while combating increasing fatigue. (Isn’t that true of any speedwork?) Thus, in order to describe an interval session, one states the number and distance of the sprints and the time interval between them. For example: 6 x 400m with 30 second jogs (in which case one would do the sprints over a full lap of a 400m track and the jogs would involve a short loop in the vicinity of the start/finish line). For repetitions one usually describes the jogs in terms of their distance rather than time. An example of a session of reps is 6 x 400m with 400m jogs.

As I prefer to circle the track continuously rather than having to do shorter (unmeasured) loops to get ready for the next sprint, I do repetitions rather than intervals. Distances I have used for the sprints include 200m, 400m, 1,000m and 1,600m/mile. The number of repetitions depends on my fitness, how many I managed in the previous session and how long ago that session was. Fifteen years ago I aimed for 20 x 200m or 10-20 x 400m. If I were to start doing repetitions again now I’d try to work up to 12 x 200m, probably splitting this into 2 “blocks” of 6 x 200m with a few minutes of easy running and maybe a stop for a drink in between. If the track is quiet I’d probably do one block clockwise and the other counter-clockwise so that I don’t keeping running round the bends in the same direction.

How fast should the sprints be? That obviously depends on the distance — for 200m I’d say A or even A+ pace, for 400m A- pace, and anything longer would be B to B+ pace. Whatever distance you use, try to do the sprints at a pace which (a) allows you to complete the number of sprints you intended to do and (b) you can maintain throughout the session. I don’t have much sprinting speed, but I pride myself on the consistency of my speedwork sessions — the pace I run the first couple of sprints is pretty much the same as the pace for the rest of them. When I do 12 x 200m the spread of my times for the sprints is usually no more than a second. (If I do blocks in alternate directions my average time for the second block tends to be faster than that for the first. Also, if I don’t do a few strides in my warmup my times for the first two sprints differ somewhat from those of the remainder.)

However tired I feel during each sprint and however much I feel during the jog that I won’t be able to get my legs moving fast again, when I reach the place where the next sprint starts my body somehow knows what to do and slots into the appropriate pace. This seems to be instinctive rather than something I have consciously learned to do, so I don’t know how to teach someone else this. I’d be very interested to hear about your experiences with learning to find the appropriate paces for your sessions.

My average times vary much more from session to session — being affected by what other training I’ve been doing, weather conditions, how much rest I have had and the various stresses and strains of my life outside running. So I don’t try to state beforehand how *fast* I will be sprinting — my body just seems to know what it can handle on a given day. I do decide before I start how *many* sprints I intend doing. Occasionally I don’t make this target — once I start I may find that I am more tired than anticipated and the sprints rapidly become unbearably tough. You’ll have to learn for yourself when wimping out would just be sheer laziness and when cutting the session short is wise to avoid injury or overstressing your body in some other way.

Doing speedwork with a group or even just one partner can be much easier than doing it alone. I find it much easier to sustain a fast pace when running with others. However, there are some howevers. 🙂 The biggest problem is finding appropriate partners. You need to find runners whose sprinting speeds are reasonably compatible with yours. Pushing *too* hard in order to try to keep up with others is a sure-fire way of overexerting yourself and losing interest in speedwork. Runners who finish road races in similar times to me are usually able to run away from me in a sprint. To train with them they either have to rein themselves in or I have to get used to their back views.

That’s all I have to offer on speedwork. Any comments, suggestions, or questions would be most welcome.

Have fun.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4