Would it surprise you to learn that almost no distance runners complete traditional speed workouts? No, your tempo run, fartlek workout, or interval session on the track doesn’t count. We’re talking about speed development — a type of workout that’s more common among sprinters.
And be this happy doing it. Photo via Visualhunt
These workouts are designed to increase your acceleration, maximal velocity, or speed-endurance. To better understand these workouts, let’s get our terms right:
Acceleration is how quickly you can go from a position of rest to maximal velocity. In other words, it’s how fast you can get to top speed from a standing position. It’s a good measure of power.
Maximal velocity is your top speed — the absolute fastest that you can run. If you try to sprint at 100% effort and reach your “top-end” speed, then you’re at maximal velocity.
Speed-endurance is how long you can hold your maximal velocity before slowing down. Most runners can only maintain their top-end speed for about 40m (this is normal!).
These aren’t elements of speed that distance runners typically focus on — but a small amount of speed development work can give you a lot of benefit.
Runners should add speed development sessions to their training for three reasons.
First, it improves your maximum speed. You’ll be able to sprint faster when at your maximal velocity, thereby increasing the range of speed that’s available to you.
This helps slower race paces feel a lot easier. And if you compete in mid-distance events like the 800m, 1600km or 3000m then you’ll experience a real performance improvement.
Second, sprinting at top speed forces you to recruit more muscle fibres to increase the power production of your leg muscles. By having a larger pool of fibres available, you’ll be able to sprint faster at the end of a race.
Finally, speed development will improve your efficiency (for the geeks out there, this is called “running economy”). All those extra muscle fibres that are now available can be used when you’re tired during a workout, running uphill, or finishing a long run.
Since running at max speed also reinforces proper running form, it further improves your economy so you can run faster with less effort.
How to Add Sprints to Your Training
Speed development work is hard — not because there’s a lot of volume at fast paces or the rest is short, but because it has a high neuromuscular component. In other words, it stresses your central nervous system.
They challenge the communication pathways between the brain and muscles and require a long recovery interval and a low volume of total work.
Since they’re so difficult, it’s best to run these workouts when you’re fresh at the beginning of a workout.
After a series of dynamic exercises, some easy running, and strides to warm up, you can add several short repetitions before the bulk of your workout.
Here are a few examples, with each example getting more difficult:
- 4 x 8-second hill sprints, walking 60 to 90 seconds in between sprints to recover
- 4 x 20m, 90sec — 2min walk recovery
- 6 x 25m, 2min — 2:30 walk recovery
- 6 x 30m, 2min — 2:30 walk recovery
Remember that a small amount of sprint work is all that’s necessary. There’s no need to run a high number of repetitions at maximum speed. In fact, doing so only predisposes you to running injuries. When in doubt, run fewer repetitions with longer recoveries. Be conservative to stay healthy!
Doing just one of these workouts per week is all that’s needed to gain power, efficiency, and speed just like a sprinter. They’re not a focus, but rather a supplemental training tactic that will help extend your range of speed.
Spend about a month doing one speed development session per week and you’ll begin feeling faster and more powerful than ever before.
And soon, you’ll be racing faster in the long distances, too!