Why You Need Speed Even If You're Not Training for a Race

If you run to improve health, lose weight or stay fit when on a racing hiatus, you likely plod at the same pace for the majority of your miles. This approach provides results for a finite amount of time; when you plateau, consider increasing your intensity to help you achieve your goals. Here's why and how to incorporate speed work into your weekly routine when you're not training for a race.

How Speed Work Benefits Recreational Runners Who Want to Get Healthier

If your goal is to improve your overall health through running, speed work can help you achieve this in a way that easy running can't.

Speed will help you build stronger muscles.

Speed work recruits different muscles than slow runs do; it strengthens the bones, ligaments and joints so they can absorb and adapt to higher workloads.

More: Run With More Muscle

This effect is similar to weight training. The heavier the weight you lift, the stronger your muscle will become because the muscle has to resist more weight. With speed work, the more you push the leg muscles to move faster, the more total muscle fibers you activate and the more explosively you contract them. This results in greater strength and injury resistance.

More: 10 Running-Specific Strength Training Exercises

Speed will boost your heart health.

Speed sessions evoke an increase in the maximal stroke volume of the heart. This is a fairly complicated cardiologic discussion but, simply stated, stroke volume is the amount of blood that can be pumped from the heart in one stroke. A greater stroke volume decreases the heart rate and, in a sense, makes the heart more efficient.

You'll see progress.

One of the biggest challenges of not training for a specific race is staying motivated. Running an easy pace every day gets boring and you'll feel like you're not making any progress.

More: 3 Ways to Break Through a Running Plateau

Completing speed workouts and repeating the same type of workout every two to four weeks will allow your body to run faster with less effort. Bonus: You'll feel fitter.

Even if you don't have a race goal, switching up your pace can keep you going on those days when you need extra motivation to get out the door or when the weather gets bad.

More: 6 Ways Runners Stay Motivated in Colder Weather

Sample Speed Workout

Short, explosive hill sprints are a great way to have fun with speed work because they are brief and not too difficult.

1. Choose a hill that has a fairly steep grade (5 to 8 percent).

2. Warm up your muscles by running 1 to 2 miles easy or perform the Lunge Matrix.

More: How to Perform the Lunge Matrix

3. Starting at the bottom of the hill, sprint up as fast as you can for 15 seconds.

4. Slowly walk back down, jog very easy for 3 minutes and repeat. Start with 5 repeats and work your way up to 10.

More: 7 Hill Running Workouts That Increase Power

How Speed Work Benefits Runners Who Want to Lose Weight

At an easy pace, running 1 mile burns about 100 calories. However, the faster you run, the more calories you'll burn during that mile. Plus, high-intensity training keeps your metabolism revved even after the workout is over. Research suggests that the afterburn—the number of calories your body burns after your workout, when your metabolism is revved—lasts longer when you run faster.

More: How to Burn Calories Fast With Interval Training Workouts

Sample Speed Workout

Short, fast interval workouts at near maximal effort maximizes calorie burning. Try this workout:

1. Warm up with 1 easy mile of running and some dynamic stretching.

2. Run 400 meters at 90 percent effort. You should be breathing very hard when finished.

More: 5 Minute High Intensity Circuit for Runners

3. Jog slowly for 2 minutes to recover.

4. Repeat 4 to 8 times.

More: Get More Out of High-Intensity Training By Doing Less

How Speed Work Enhances Training Between Races

Speed work helps maintain efficiency by stimulating the central nervous system and activating slow twitch muscle fibers. Reduce injury by gradually introducing speed into your training schedule. Many runners get hurt when they try to run at speeds their muscles, tendons and ligaments aren't ready for, so try easy speed sessions to ease into running faster and prepare those muscles for the harder workouts when you get back to training.

More: 8 Workouts to Improve Your Endurance

Sample Speed Workout

The fartlek workout (a Swedish term for "speed play") is a great way to inject a little speed but still gives you the freedom to run by feel and avoid the mental stress involved with a more structured workout.

1. Warm up with 1 easy mile of running and some dynamic stretching.

More: 7 Running Drills to Warm Up the Right Way

2. Run anywhere from 30 seconds to 5 minutes at a moderately hard pace. You shouldn't be gasping for breath, but it shouldn't be easy either. The actual pace isn't important—it's the fact that you are "turning your legs over" and providing your body with a change of pace.

3. Recover by walking or very slowly jogging for a period that equals the time you ran hard. If you ran 2 minutes hard, recover for 2 minutes.

4. Repeat until you've done 20 to 30 minutes total of fartlek running.

More: 6 Fartlek Workouts for 3 Training Phases

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