Running: Taking the speed work seriously

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Something I did on a whim may end up being one of the cooler things I’ve done, at least when it comes to running.

Coming off the fall race season, one in which I had some of my slower race times (and not coincidentally, a season in which I came in at my heaviest), I was hoping to keep some momentum going as those summer months round the corner. As has been typical for me, my thinking is the longer I can run, the better conditioned I’ll be.

But I’ve learned something, courtesy of a running coach who is a trainer at my local gym. When the new year turned, the trainer, a fella named Steve, started a running club with a program that put an emphasis on speed. I figured what the heck, I’ll sign up. So instead of gearing up workouts based on how long my weekend long run is, I’ve been focused on how fast I can go over shorter distances.

What this means is not following a Hal Higdon plan to marathon or half marathon glory, but rather how fast I can push it on a set of eight 400-meter intervals. Or 800-meter intervals. Or 1,000-meter intervals.

Let me tell you, this is hard. Really, freaking hard. Yes, it’s tough to grind out a 20-miler. But it’s also tough to command your body to move faster than it’s used to going, and hold that pace well after you want to quit.

It’s also hard for a guy like me, who has never been fast. It gets even harder to be fast when you’re carrying 10 extra pounds of bad weight.

But interesting things have been happening. I’ve been doing this program for three weeks now. So far, the speed is coming along.

Here's a place where you can work on some speed.

Here’s a place where you can work on some speed.

We did a 2-mile time trial last weekend. Our group is a mix of veteran runners, young speedsters and newbie plodders. I’m just an overweight slow guy. Try as I might, I couldn’t keep up with the front of the pack, finishing those 2 miles in 16 minutes, 41 seconds. So that’s about an 8:20 mile.

For many experienced runners, this is no big deal. People run marathons at faster paces than this. Lots of them, actually. But digging a little deeper, I calculated my 5K PR from a couple of years ago – 26:08 – and lo and behold, that’s holding about an 8:20 pace. I set that mark in 2013, right after having trained for a marathon, and weighing a full 16 pounds less than I do now. Looking where I was even a month ago, I’d say this is progress.

But why is this important to me? Well, for a couple of reasons.

First, I want to be better. Even though I’m far removed from my youth, I know I can improve. Many people in the running community will downplay this, saying I should just enjoy the run, not be a slave to the clock, and do my thing for the sheer joy of it. I agree with that sentiment, but there is also joy in achieving more. PRs are awesome too, right? And something else that can’t be discounted: There is serious enjoyment when you go for a run, with no clock or any performance pressure, and still kill it. Crush the hills. Bust the wind. Clock mile after mile, running hard, just because you can. Sure, you can enjoy a slower run. But smashing a run for fun feels awesome. I’ve had a taste of that, and I want it back.

Second, faster runners make for fitter people. This is important to me because I understand that many of the other things I do, particularly in the mountains, requires a good deal of cardiovascular fitness. When you struggle on the mountain, really suffer, it can rob you of the beauty of the moment. It can also rob you of a summit. I’ve been perilously close to being turned back for just that reason, when I was too almost weak of heart to finish the job. I don’t want to be that guy. Let the mountain turn me back, not my own physical shortcomings.

When it comes to performing at altitude, cardiovascular fitness is key. But not all cardio is created equal. It’s one thing to get into a rhythm, but what happens when you enter that anaerobic stage? That happens on the mountain, when you’re pushing uphill at 12,000, 13,000 or 14,000 feet. Your heart pounds, your breath is quickened, and you can’t catch your breath. You know what that looks like? Speed work. It looks a lot like pushing beyond your limits as you run as fast as your body will allow for a mile or three. When you’re breathing so hard you’re almost at puke stage, can you kick up your pace for those last couple hundred meters? Is that applicable in the high country? Yes. Yes it is.

I’ve found that I’ve been complacent when it comes to this form of fitness. Give me a couple of months and I can run 13 miles in a couple of hours and change. I can comfortably run in the middle of the pack on most long-distance races. That’s fine, but there are rewards for pushing harder. Working to be fast – even if that’s only relative to you – will make you fitter. It will make you physically tougher. And mentally stronger.

So I’m not looking at booking my first 50K. Not now, anyway. There’s work to do. How close can I get to 20 minutes in a 5K? What time can I post in, say, a 10K trail race? How fast can I run a mile? And what sort of benefits will all this stuff reap? Time to find out.

Bob Doucette

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10 thoughts on “Running: Taking the speed work seriously

  1. Great write up on the need for speed training. As a big (reads fat) person running I know how much is sucks when you gotta run fast. I’m myself hoping to do my first marathon since 2010 this coming fall. I predict speed work in my future.

    • That’s a great plan. I was doing 800s as part of my marathon training, and I know it helped me in terms of getting lighter and smoother. Unfortunately, those last 7 miles or so really dragged on me. But that’s a whole other story. In short, greater speed translates to greater athleticism. Who doesn’t want that, right?

      Best of luck on your marathon!

  2. My focus is always speed, and the long run is just something I do to keep a good endurance base. Distance is your friend, but speed is your brother! 🙂 Nice work out there! Keep it up!

  3. I experimented with speed work on the track and developed some knee pain but not before getting faster. I may resume but will try to work out some routes that don’t involve repetitive turns. Nonetheless, I am a bit conflicted when accomplished and not too slow people like Hal Higdon downplay the need for speed work. Could he be totally wrong?

    • Hard to say. I’ve used Hal Higdon plans for half marathons and a full marathon, and I believe they were effective. Some of the workouts for intermediate and advanced runners include what I consider “long-distance speed work.” So I don’t think he’s totally wrong at all.

      That said, speed work does things that simple volume does not. Speed work promotes athleticism, and that’s useful at any distance. When you’re running hard, you’re exercising relevant muscles groups at a fuller range of motion than when you’re running slower. Developing strength at a fuller range of motion is a good way to prevent muscle imbalances from forming.

      As far as your injury issues: I’m not an expert, but a few things I’ve learned from research and experience have helped me avoid the injuries that seem to plague a lot of runners. I’m a firm believer in strength training — I lift four days a week. I’m also careful to include core training, corrective exercises (mostly postural corrective exercises) and foam rolling. I try to take in at least 120 grams of protein a day, and include a lot of plant-based foods. And recovery is a huge element for injury prevention and overall improvement in physical fitness. I make sure I get at least 8-9 hours of sleep every day, and I take a rest day every week.

      Not sure if any of this helps (all pretty general), but if you’re looking for more details, holler. I’m not that fast, but I’ve managed to see some improvements and stay free of running-related injuries while mitigating some of the other bugaboos I have from my youth.

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