Speedwork: The Bottom Line Is, You Have to Run Fast to Run Fast

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Speedwork. The word itself can send chills down a runner's spine and cause an aching feeling in the pit of one's stomach--which is mild compared to what you'll feel when you actually begin doing speedwork.


Whether you're a casual runner or looking to come in two hours behind the winners of the New York City Marathon, you should--after achieving a moderate level of fitness--incorporate some kind of rapid, shorter repeats into your training regimen.

If establishing a distance base is the cake, speedwork is the icing. This columnist has interviewed most of the top male and female distance runners in the country, and variations on two pertinent themes repeatedly arise:

  1. The athlete describes a promising, eye-opening early season performance and then adds, "Of course, that was before I had even done any speedwork."
  2. When asked to explain why they are getting much better results than a year ago, the response will be "I've increased my intensity" -- which means they're doing more well-planned and well-executed speed sessions.
The reasons to do speedwork are so simple they almost seem simple-minded. In order to run fast, you have to run fast. Slogging through one slow, long-distance session after another can only help you improve so much. You need to do something as quick, or quicker, than your targeted race pace.


That merely means that an athlete hoping to run 46:00 in the 10K, approximately a 7:30-per-mile average, needs to run something faster than a 7:30 pace in practice. That means half-miles in better than 3:45 or quarters under 1:52. When broken down into those kind of segments, the task of doing speed sounds less daunting, doesn't it?

Speedwork encourages a runner to focus, to make workouts meaningful, to concentrate in a way that approaches the mindset of a race itself. What's more notable, and just as important, is the positive effect speedwork will have on your running form. You'll be purposeful. You'll have an erect posture, not a slouch. There will be a bounce to your stride, which will itself lengthen.

You'll find yourself pushing off harder with every step. The prerequisites of speedwork, like the mandate to run hard and in the proper form until the end of each interval, can carry over to race situations and abet athletes who've had a tendency to fade in the latter stages.

Speed workouts can be conservative at first. At the end of a regular workout, you might--assuming, for mathematical reasons, that you're that theoretical 46:00 10K person -- try 800 meters on the track or the Central Park Reservoir oval in 3:35, a bit quicker than the 3:45 you average for each 800 of that 10,000.

As you build up slowly, you can do a variety of speed sessions. Try 4x800 in 3:35, with slow recovery jogs of the same 3:35 in between each one. Try 6x400 in 1:40. For strength, try three times a mile in 7:20, with recoveries of equal time in between each interval. It may not be long before these targeted times seem modest, and you'll adjust them accordingly.

If the image of a track, or even stepping onto a track, is intimidating or not feasible, one alternative is "fartlek." In Swedish, it means "speed play," and it involves running sections of a longer workout at a faster than normal pace. A five-mile road workout that is mostly done at an 8:00 pace, for example, could include perhaps four segments of 2:00 each run considerably faster.

Of course, you'll need a watch for all of that. But some runners prefer an option that doesn't need to be timed. They'll stay out on the roads and do their speedier running by counting traffic lights or telephone poles. They'll sprint for three traffic lights, recover slowly for three, and sprint again for three more. It may be a bit more exhilarating and liberating than conventional track work.

No matter what your favorite distance, speedwork will help you get through it more efficiently and even more enjoyably. Add it to your regimen by small increments; doing too much at once, obviously, can lead to injury.

Not by leaps, but certainly by bounds, you'll be more buoyant, much stronger. The confidence and preparedness you bring to the starting line will yield results that may even astound you.