Anyone who has taken up the challenge of running a distance event has read or heard the axiom: speed work is the key to improvement.
It’s easier said than done. Grinding out intervals at a local track or fast-paced running in the middle of a training run isn’t fun – or easy to understand. But workouts aimed at boosting performance – strength and stamina – simply work.
Starting out, my goal was to keep running simple: A trusty pair of shoes, Timex watch, shorts and a shirt. Focusing on the technical jargon – VO2 max (maximum oxygen consumption), lactate threshold and the other science – only added layers of confusion to the subject for me. For many everyday athletes, it’s probably pretty confusing, too.
Specific workouts designed to improve stamina and speed can help provide significant boosts to performance times to most runners.
Everything I’ve read and experienced, though, convinces me that it doesn’t need to be that complicated. When it comes to boosting performance, a little training goes a long way: a small percentage of training at faster paces each week can considerably drop race times.
Most of the time, we’re going to work at improving endurance and how our bodies can run efficiently. The bulk of training falls into endurance training. Adding just a bit of the other types of training produce the adaptations we need for improved running economy and race day performances.
Here’s an oversimplified version of the types of performance-boosting runs:
- Strength – This simply comes down to our ability to climb hills. To run well on a hilly course, a runner must do some incline work: incorporate rolling hills into a long run and try a set of 90-second hill repeats (sprints) once every couple weeks. Start with 4-6 repeats and build up to 10-12, using a slow jog downhill as recovery time between each repetition. Running a flat course? Hill work even pays off, especially late in a race, when slight elevation changes can make the average runner crumble or whimper.
- Speed – Running that builds your speed endurance and improving several of your body’s systems. It may include fartlek, or “speed play,” or shorter intervals at 5K to 3K pace.
- Stamina – Steady, medium-paced runs aimed at developing the ability to run a steady pace for extended times. Tempo runs and workouts with longer intervals run at 30K to 8K pace.
- Sprint – Very short, high intensity intervals, either in the middle or near the end of a workout to develop leg turnover. It might include a series of 20-second sprints, interrupted by recovery jogging.
Many coaches, especially while working with beginning and intermediate runners, suggest running one speed-type training session a week. It goes back to the mantra that a little goes a long way. Some runners push themselves with 2 speed workouts per week, mixing in 1 or 2 of the principles. Regardless, the day after a speed session must be an easy day – light training, rest or some other type of cross training that doesn’t tax the same muscles.
Following a well-crafted training program provides major benefits – improved fitness, running economy and building your body’s ability to handle the rigors of racing. In addition, it gives each run purpose – building your body’s systems in collaboration with each other to maximize performance and emphasizing proper recovery – to help reach our potential.