A Case for Speed Work
If you search marathon or half marathon training plans online, most all of them will have at least one day of a speed session. Marathon training methods have varied significantly over the years. Initially, continuous running (and walking!) was all that was used to train for a marathon. Once interval training was introduced, it was clear that training, even a few minutes, at a goal pace or faster made race day more approachable than always training at a slower speed. After all, how can you know if you will be able to actually race at your goal pace if you have never tried it while training?
Technically you can train for a race with a few easy runs per week, increasing the miles for one of those runs, and finish just fine at the race. However, if you are looking to reach a specific finish time or pace, it is very important to include one or two speed sessions per week.
These faster interval training sessions will help improve your running economy. In simpler terms, shorter, faster segments will teach your body to burn less fuel while running longer. Think of fuel-efficient cars—they can drive more miles with less fuel. Essentially, what you want is to make sure your muscle strength and energy last at that goal pace for the entire race.
Distance running requires strong slow twitch muscle fibers, which are the fibers responsible for withholding our endurance. As you get into the second half or last third of your long runs and races, eventually your slow twitch fibers will fatigue. At this point you will want your intermediate and fast twitch muscle fibers to kick in and carry you along, although they fatigue quicker than the slow twitch fibers. Fast repeats of 800 meters, for example, work your fast twitch muscle fibers, while longer, faster segments, such as one or two mile repeats, will work the intermediate muscle fibers.
Below are a few great speed workouts that work those faster muscle fibers and help reach those goal paces.
- Tempo: warm-up 1-2 miles; complete 3-6 miles at 20 seconds faster than goal pace (GP); cool-down 1 mile
- Fartlek: warm-up 1-2 miles; run 2 minutes at 30 seconds faster than GP + 1 min easy + 1 min 45 seconds faster than GP + 2 min easy—repeat this circuit 2-4 times; cool-down
- Hill Sprints: warm-up 1-2 miles; sprint 20-30 seconds faster than GP for 30-45 seconds uphill, repeat 6-10 times; cool-down
- 1-2 mile Repeats: warm-up 1-2 miles, run 2-4 sets of 1-2 miles at 30-45 seconds faster than GP; cool-down
- 800m Repeats: warm-up; sprint 6-10x 800 meters at 60-90 seconds faster than GP with a 400 meter recovery in between each repeat; cool-down
Recovery time in between the intervals in workouts such as the ones above varies. If you are just starting to add in interval training, aim for a recovery time equal to the interval time. For example, if it takes you 3 minutes to complete 800 meters, your recovery time should be 3 minutes. As you advance, cutting the recovery time to half of the interval time will help improve endurance. If speed is your main focus, keep the recovery time longer to ensure keeping that faster pace during each interval.
Improve Your VO2 Max
Studies on high impact interval training show two sessions per week is sufficient enough to increase performance at the lowest risk of injury. Research on elite runners’ programs have indicated that up to 20% of weekly mileage is done at 80-90% of VO2 max, which is the maximum rate of oxygen consumption. This value is a good indicator of cardiorespiratory fitness and endurance capacity.
Many fitness trackers and watches now have a feature that use heart rate to determine the VO2 max value. After a few good speed sessions, such as 800 meter repeats, and steady training runs, you should see this value increase over time. The higher the value of VO2 max, the longer you can hold that faster pace.
More studies show that intervals of three to five minutes are the most effective in increasing VO2 max. This is why many training programs include the 800 meter repeat workout.
Log On, Not Off
Including speed sessions in your training will also help relieve boredom! Going out for the same easy run day after day can get repetitive. It will eventually lead to skipping some days because all of the runs are the same so you will think of each as less important. Knowing you have specific types of workouts to complete by the end of the week, you will think of all as too important to skip.
Of course as with any exercise program, beginning to incorporate speed sessions should be done gradually. It is best to start with only one session per week with very few sets. Add one or two sets each week until you reach 10% of your weekly mileage. After this time, add in a second session in the same manner until you reach up to 20% of your weekly mileage. Practicing holding a faster pace for some time will help you feel like your actual goal pace is much easier…now that’s a great feeling!