The Need for Speed

I have never incorporated speed work into my marathon training before this year. I was always intimidated by track workouts and was too afraid to push myself beyond my comfort zone, where I had difficulty breathing. I am more of a slow and steady kind of gal.  I could go on forever, but hate short bursts of speed. However, I have set a goal for myself to qualify for the Boston Marathon and in order to do that, I need to get faster.  So for this training cycle, I’ve decided to give speed work a try.  

Speed work is a key part of a well-rounded running program because it accomplishes things that your other workouts don’t do. I never totally understood that before. I had always kind of figured if I did my best and logged my miles I would start to run more efficiently and just get faster. However, that isn’t totally true. Yes, easy slow miles are a great way to teach patience, discipline and how to handle physical discomfort. They also train the cardiorespiratory and muscular systems to work more efficiently, but the real work comes from interval type workouts which build strength and speed, while still continuing to increase your cardiovascular fitness. In short, adding speed work to your routine can help you get faster and stronger.

There are many different types of speed work or interval training you can do. I have included some interval based workouts below.

There are only a few parameters to vary in speed work: How long the intervals are, how many of them to do, rest between intervals, and how fast you run.

Here are some common workouts:

  • Short intervals, like 100 and 200 meters challenge your muscles in ways that build strength and power.
  • Longer intervals, like 800 meters work strength a little less and endurance a little more.
  • Tempo runs are like very long intervals, lasting a mile or more. They may be measured by time; some plans might call for a “20 minute tempo run” or they can be measured in number of miles.
  • Hill repeats, where you run up a hill multiple times. These can be short sprints up steep hills, or longer jogs up long gradual hills.
  • Fartlek and time-based workouts can be done when you’re running along a road or trail, and you begin to vary your speed according to your watch, evenly spaced utility poles or just whenever you feel like a change (that’s fartlek, Swedish for “speed play”).

All of these workouts are meant to be done after an easy warm-up (maybe a light jog for 15 minute or a few miles), and should make up a small fraction of your weekly miles. In between intervals, aim to rest for about the same amount of time you spent running or whatever your plan calls for, i.e. 800m run with 400m recovery.  When resting, don’t sit down! You should walk between short sprints or consider jogging between the intervals.

If you are thinking about incorporating speed work into your training, make sure you’ve been running regularly for a few months. An important point about speed work is that it’s possible to run it too fast, and as a beginner, you’ll have to exercise a little willpower to slow down to the right speed. Speed work is challenging and exhausting and after several intervals you’ll start to feel the hard work. So find a pace that works for you and your goals.

If you’re not sure how fast to run each interval and are not following a formal plan,  you can use a calculator like this one as a starting point. It asks for a recent race time. If you haven’t run a race lately, try running a mile as fast as you can (after a good warm-up, of course), and input that as your one-mile race time.

I think it’s important to do some research and find a program/training plan that is right for you and will help get you to your next goal. When I started running I always used Hal Higdon’s plan, I think it’s a great place to start. Stick to a plan and in time, you’ll be faster and happier.

Happy Running!