“The simplest way to improve is to run faster.”– Scott Jurek
No matter if you’re front-pack runner, a back-pack jogger or somewhere in between, adding speed work into your weekly routine can bring huge benefits to your running. And whether you’re training for a 5K or a marathon, speed work is essential to becoming a faster and stronger runner. It is also a great way to break up your normal routine.
The best way to think of speed work is that it improves your running efficiency, sort of like the “gas mileage” of a car. When you run faster in your speed workouts, you get more efficient at running, both reducing how much energy your body uses and increasing the speed that you remove waste products from your muscles. By hitting the gas pedal harder on one or two runs each week, you can improve your race times, better your overall fitness, and have an easier time keeping up with your running partners.
Adding in speed work also keep your running fresh and fun while challenging you in new ways. However it is important to start gradually if you are new to speed work to avoid getting sidelined with an injury. Don’t make the mistake of going too fast too soon, which can lead to injury or discouragement. Instead, take the time to set your end goal and have a plan in place before you get started, otherwise it’s too easy to deviate.
Here are two different ways to include speed work into your weekly running routine and help take your running to the next level:
Know & Maintain Proper Running Form
This may seem obvious to some of you, but proper running form is the key many things – including increasing speed, preventing injuries and being a consistent runner.
So what is proper running form?
Running form can be broken down into 4 main areas: Posture, Core Strength, Arm Positioning, and Proper Foot Placement.
Shoulders back, head up and facing towards the horizon (not down looking at your feet), with a very slight forward lean.
Engage your glutes, hips and abs to keep a straight core while running. Do not twist or lean to one side or the other.
Keep arms at a 90 degree angle or less. Do not pump arms, or cross them across your body. Instead use a natural front to back cadence that will control your rhythm. Keep your elbows and arms close to your sides (not out away from your body like wings).
Proper Foot Placement:
Make sure your foot strikes under your body, not in front or behind it. Engage your glutes when landing and spring forward with control. Do not land really hard or loud. Maintain shorter strides.
To increase speed, increase turnover (number of times your feet hit the ground), but do not increase stride length.
Don’t Run Fast Every Run
There are 4 basic types of runs that most runners include in their weekly schedules: a long run, a tempo run, a hill or interval run, and an easy run (or two). The interval run (and tempo, if you’re increasing target pace over time) are the only fast ones.
As you saw above in Mary’s Training Paces Calculator, the easy run and long run are at much slower paces than your normal average (or your target pace). Slower runs are very important in training too.
While it’s very tempting to speed up while on a long run or hill run, don’t do it. Stay within your target pace. Save the speed for the speed runs and your body will thank you by getting faster without over-training.
Interval Training (aka Speed Work)
Interval training – also known as “speed work” – is where your body gets used to increased speeds by repeating bursts of speed followed by periods of rest (aka recovery).
Why is interval training good for runners? Multiple reasons.
- Increases cardio fitness
- Improves running efficiency
- Gets your body used to increased speeds
Some interval training tips:
- If you’r a beginner, make sure to pick a pace for your high-intensity push that you can maintain throughout all the repetitions (meaning don’t start off too fast or hard for your fitness level)
- Try not to exceed 30 seconds of high-intensity at the beginning
- Make the recovery time at least double the high-intensity time, if not more
Interval training will help your body learn how to run faster. A lot of runners experience PR’s after incorporating interval training into their running schedules!
A blessing and a curse, all in one.
As much as we may dislike hills, integrating hill work into your training schedule will also teach your body how to run faster. If you want the nitty-gritty details, check out this article, which explains the mechanics and science in depth.
In summary – running hills (correctly) increases force while fostering good form techniques (like raising our knees up higher during stride).
One basic hill workout is: find a hill that is about 1/8 to 1/4 of a mile long, with about a 5-10% grade. Don’t pick a hill that is too steep, or too long. Next, warm up for 10 minutes and then run up the hill, and walk back down to recover. Effort should be high but not 100%. Recovery time should be at least 2-3 minutes so walk slowly down the hill if you’re arriving at the bottom sooner than that. Repeat this 3-5 times and add repeats only as your fitness increases.
Injuries sideline runners all the time. Sometimes injuries just happen by accident, but often they are preventable.
Take extra care to prevent injuries while training to run faster by:
- Following a Training Plan – select a training plan to fit your goals. Don’t over-train, or be tempted to incorporate too many speed work sessions. It will only result in over-training, which opens you up to injury.
- Cross Training Too – Strengthen supporting muscles by sticking to a cross training plan in addition to your running schedule. Specifically – focus on abs, hips, glutes and quads as they are main drivers of running form and weak muscles often result in injuries. Learn more about Cross Training for Runners: The Hidden Secrets You Need to Know.
- Cautiously Increase Mileage or Intensity – Never increase weekly mileage but much more than 10%, and try to evenly and strategically increase your workout intensity without major jumps or your muscles could become overworked or strained by the increase (resulting in injuries).
- Proper Nutrition & Hydration – our bodies need proper nutrition and lots of water to perform well. Learn more nutrition for runners with Runners Food 101: The Ultimate Guide to Nutrition for Runners.
Keep a Running Log
Presumably, you start off learning how to run faster by identifying your current pace (as explained above) and selecting a target pace to train towards.
Now you should track progress against that goal throughout training.
Keeping a running log is like keeping a food diary or regular personal diary, but focused on exercise and your running performance. It allows you to document your journey and learn from it (or tweak your plan if results are better or worse than expected).
A running log doesn’t have to be over-complicated – grab a cheap spiral notebook or create a digital spreadsheet (in Excel or Google Sheets).
Track things like: workout type (run and run type, cross training, etc), target pace for that run, actual pace for that run, how you felt, what shoes or gear you wore, the weather, etc.
So – are you ready to run faster in the next 30 days? Great! Go get your next PR, runner friend!
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8 minute warm up jog—building from Zone 1 to 23 sets of 5 minutes at Zone 3-4 effort, followed by 1 minute of very easy running/walking for recovery
10 minute warm down jog
You can progress the number of sets (from 3 to 5, and so on)You can progress the length of tempo (from 5 minutes to 10 minutes, and so on)
|Zone||PERCEIVED EFFORT: Breathing and Perception|
|1||Gentle rhythmic breathing. Pace is easy and relaxed. The intensity is a very easy swim, bike or run.|
|2||Breathing rate and pace increase slightly. Many notice a change with slightly deeper breathing, although still comfortable. Running and cycling pace remains comfortable and conversation is possible.|
|3||Become aware of breathing a little harder, pace is moderate. A stronger swimming, biking or running rhythm, this is “feel good” fast. It is slightly more difficult to hold conversation.|
|4||Starting to breathe hard, pace is fast and beginning to get uncomfortable, approaching all-out 30 minute bike or run effort, or 800 swim pace. This pace should be challenging to maintain.|
|5||Breathing deep and forceful, many notice a second significant change in breathing pattern. Pace is all-out sustainable for one to five minutes. Mental focus required, effort is uncomfortable and conversation undesirable.|