Speed workouts are a staple in many training plans – and for a good reason. Whether you are training for a fast 5K or want to complete a marathon, speed work is essential for becoming a faster and stronger runner. Let’s delve into the benefits of speedwork for runners and how to do speedwork!
What exactly does the term mean? Although some coaches and runners use it to describe a run done at faster than an easy pace, speed work refers to a type of running workout in which you are running for certain intervals near, at, or even faster than your VO2max pace. Your VO2max is a measure of how much oxygen your body can use; most runners will hit their VO2max pace around their 5K to 3K (2-mile) pace, although you do get benefits doing it slightly slower.
The benefits of speed work for runners
Both science and practice support the clear benefits of speedwork for runners. A study in Physiological Reports trained male and female runners to complete ten sessions of speed training over the course of six weeks. By the end, their average 10K time improved by 3.2% – which would equate to a 50-minute 10K runner bringing their time down to 48:25.
How exactly do speed intervals make you faster? Let’s look at the physiology behind it first. During speed workouts, you maximally activate your slow-twitch muscles and intermediate muscle fibers, which increases your aerobic capacity.
Speed workouts also increase your production of myoglobin, which is a protein found in your muscles. Myoglobin transports oxygen to the mitochondria in your muscles, which in turn produce ATP to give your muscles energy. So, as you increase your myoglobin, you improve your body’s ability to quickly transport oxygen to the muscles for energy, making you able to run faster. Speed work is uniquely beneficial in this aspect, as research indicates that high-intensity running is the best way to develop myoglobin.
While you may not significantly increase your VO2max (genetics can limit it), you will see clear benefits of speedwork. Your body will become more efficient at recruiting your fast-twitch muscles. Your running economy will improve, so that you expend less energy and can run faster at the same effort level, whether you are running a 5K or 50K.
Finally, there is the skill aspect. If you want to run faster, you have to practice running faster! Speed workouts train you how to output more effort, maintain a higher cadence, and mentally cope with some physical discomfort while running. If you practice this skill once or twice per week consistently, you won’t just become faster -you will run faster with less effort.
Myths about speed workouts
Myth #1: You need to be fast to do speed work.
There is no pace requirement for doing a speed workout. Every runner can benefit from speed work. Once you have been running for a few months, you are ready to introduce it to your training. Even if running faster is not one of your goals, speed work should still be a part of a well-rounded training program.
Your paces for speed workouts are relative to your current fitness. Your body knows effort—and does not care what someone else is running! Speed work is performed at an effort that hard (think an 8-9 out of 10), whether hard is a 6:00 minute mile or a 10:00 minute mile.
Myth #2: You must do speed work on a track.
When runners think of how to do speedwork, many think of the track. The track can be a great place to do speed work: the distances are measured, you don’t have to stop for traffic, and the surface is smooth and flat. However, it is not the only option: you can do speedwork on the roads, treadmill, or even trails!
Doing your speed work on the roads or a smooth trail offers numerous benefits. The varying terrain mimics what you will encounter on race day, especially if you are prepping for a trail race or hilly road race. Your body will learn to adapt to running fast over changing terrain, rather than the controlled surface of the track. Some runners experience IT band issues from running circles around the track, so speed work on the roads may also decrease your risk of injury.
Bonus: you can use Runkeeper’s custom workouts feature to get audio cues for your interval workouts. No measuring needed!
Myth #3: Speed workouts should be exhausting to be effective.
Many runners treat intervals like mini-races – but that can actually hinder the effectiveness of your speed workout! Faster workouts are not better workouts; going too hard on every speed workout impairs your body’s ability to recover. The biggest benefits of speedwork for running come when you pace yourself appropriately. When you are doing a speed workout, you want to aim for an effort of 8-9 out of 10. You should feel as if you could keep going for a bit more in each rep – and finish the workout feeling as if you could complete one to two more reps.
If you are straining so much that your form falls apart, you could increase your risk of injury. If you do ever notice that your form is becoming sloppy or that you are putting in every last ounce of effort, it is time to stop the workout. 10 x 400m fast with good form is more effective than 12 x 400m of struggling!
How to do speed work
Generally speaking, speed workouts should constitute only about 10-20% of your training – or roughly one run per week. You can also include small doses of speed in the form of strides (see below) throughout the rest of the week after a few easy runs.
If you are completely new to speedwork, you want to start with strides. Strides are 20-second accelerations to a fast pace (not quite a sprint) that train your body how to run fast without working too hard. Once you have spent six or eight weeks doing strides, then you can introduce speed workouts (such as the ones below).
Shorter is better when it comes to speed workouts. A study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research confirmed what many top coaches practice: shorter speed intervals yield more benefits to long-distance runners than long speed intervals. Shorter speed intervals develop more running economy and have less risk of injury than longer intervals. Just how short? Aim for 1 minute to 3 minutes in length (or roughly 200m-600m), with a total of ten to fifteen minutes of hard running total depending on your ability.
Whenever you are doing speed workouts, build in time to recover before your next hard effort. This may look like a speed workout on Wednesday and a long run on Saturday, with rest days and easy runs in between.
If you have any aches or injuries, you want to avoid speed workouts. Speedwork places higher stress on the musculoskeletal system, which could turn an ache into an injury or slow healing of a worsening injury.
Running speed workouts
While not quite a hard workout like other ones, strides develop foundational speed for other speed workouts. Strides are ideal for beginners or during base-building phases between races. Experienced runners can add these after a couple of easy runs per week (or as part of their run), in addition to a weekly speed workout.
4-6 x 20-second stride, 60 seconds rest
After an easy run, find a flat and straight stretch of road (or a track). Smoothly accelerate for 5-7 seconds, until you reach a fast pace (about mile effort; not sprinting). Hold this fast pace for 10-12 seconds, then gently decelerate. In between each stride, stand or walk around for approximately 60 seconds to allow your nervous system to recover and heart rate to lower. Beginners should do four strides; intermediate and advanced runners can do five to eight.
These short intervals are the ultimately versatile speed workout. Beginners and experienced runners alike benefit from them and you can do them at virtually any point in training. You can aim to run all of these intervals at the same pace/effort, or run progressively faster as you go.
10-20 minute warm-up of easy running
10-12 x 1 min fast, 1 min easy
10-20 minute cool down of easy running
Once you are ready for more advanced speed workouts, these cutdown intervals are a fun way to push yourself to run faster. As the intervals get shorter, you pick up the pace more. (Enjoy this style of workout? Try this one as well!)
1-2 miles easy running
3 x 600m-400m-200m, with 1.5 min recovery after the 600m & 400m repeats and 3 min recovery between sets
1-2 miles easy running
Fast Kick Intervals
For a fun twist on speed workouts, vary your pace within the intervals themselves. This fun variation involves running the final 30-seconds of each interval faster. You will keep your mind more engaged and train yourself to develop a solid finishing kick for races.
10-20 min warm-up of easy running
6-8 x 2 minutes (first 90 seconds at 5K effort, final 30 seconds faster), with 2 minutes recovery jog in between
10-20 min cool down of easy running
Want more? Check out our five minute fartleks workout.