Runners are always looking for ways to improve, and when it comes to running, that almost always involves getting faster. The concept of speed work can be a little daunting, however. What exactly does that mean? And how can I make it part of my training without getting injured?
“Speed work” is a vague, all-encompassing term. Depending on who is using it, this can mean anything from strides and tempo runs to interval sessions on the track. All of it has a place in training but knowing when and how to implement it is essential.
Why Do Speed Work?
Once you have established a regular running habit, chances are you’ll want to get faster! Setting goals to run new distances and set new personal bests can be an excellent motivator. Adding variety to your training paces with different types of speed workouts will continue to make you stronger.
Whether you have just tackled your first 5k, are coming back from injury, or are looking to set a PR, speed workouts can make you faster and more efficient. If you run at the same pace every day, your body becomes comfortable with that effort. In order to improve your race times, you’ll need to push yourself outside of your comfort zone.
Speed workouts can be both challenging and exhilarating. And sometimes they just feel downright hard! Running faster will make you stronger both mentally and physically and help you improve your running economy. As your body adapts to these faster paces, you’ll become more efficient and continue to feel more comfortable as you progress.
Types of Speed Work
Because speed work is such a broad-ranging term, let’s look at some of the most common types to see when and how you can fit them into your own training:
Strides: Strides are the perfect introduction to speed work because they give you a taste of running faster without putting too much stress on your body. They only take a few minutes to perform, but the benefits are significant!
Strides are simply accelerations where you start at a jog, build to almost your maximum speed (about 90-95%) for about 15-20 seconds, and then gradually slow back down. You’ll want to walk or jog slowly for a minute or two in between each one to allow a brief recovery period, then repeat. Start with 3-4 strides, and you can gradually build up to 6-8.
Strides help improve running economy and get your body used to a faster pace, but their short duration make them less challenging than a true speed workout. Strides are best done on a smooth, level surface at the end of an easy run.
Fartleks: Fartlek is a funny sounding word that means “speed play” in Swedish. Fartleks are another great introduction to faster running because they can be varied endlessly in both structure and intensity.
Fartleks are simply periods of faster running interspersed with easy recovery intervals in between. An unstructured fartlek can be as simple as running fast to the next mailbox, and then recovering for a minute or so before picking up the pace again. You can repeat this 5-10 times during a run, allowing an easier mile or more to warm up and cool down.
While they can be longer, fartleks typically vary in length between 30 seconds and 5 minutes, and the paces can vary as well. Here are some examples of more structured fartleks:
- 10 reps of 1 minute hard and 1 minute easy
- 8 reps of 90 seconds at 5k pace and 2 minutes easy
- 6 reps of 5 minutes at tempo effort and 1 minute easy
The options are endless! Fartleks can be run by feel or at specific paces, and you can alter the rest intervals to make them more or less intense.
Tempo Runs: While the term “tempo” has been used loosely to give it a range of meanings, in terms of effort it should feel “comfortably hard.” It’s the pace you could sustain for just about an hour of hard racing.
For most runners, tempo pace will fall somewhere in between your 10k and half-marathon pace. If you’re new to tempo runs, an online pace calculator may be helpful as you can plug in a recent race time and get a range of training paces for your tempos, intervals and even long easy runs.
If you’re new to tempos, start with just 10-15 minutes with a warm up and cool down at either end. You can also break it up into tempo intervals (sometimes called “cruise intervals”) where you run two shorter tempo efforts with a few minutes easy in between (e.g. 2 x 10 minutes at tempo effort with 3 minutes easy in between).
Tempos can be run by pace, effort level, or heart rate. If you’re doing your tempo on a hilly route or in challenging weather conditions, running by effort is often most appropriate. Stick with a flat or moderately rolling route on smooth terrain if you’re looking to nail a particular pace.
Intervals: Intervals on the track are probably how most runners envision “speed work.” Just like fartleks and tempos, they can be varied endlessly to suit your training needs.
Over the course of a training block, intervals typically progress to become more race specific. If you’re training for a 5k PR, the progression might look like this:
- 12 x 400-meter intervals at 5-10 seconds faster than race pace
- 6 x 800-meter intervals at 5 seconds faster than race pace
- 3 x 1 mile at race pace
The last workout is most similar to what you’ll face on race day, and it’s also the most taxing. Always run warm up and cool down miles with a track session and allow adequate recovery days in between hard efforts.
Putting it all Together
There are endless options for incorporating speed work into your training. The options listed above progress (roughly) from the least to the most intense. If you are brand new to speed, start with strides 2-3 times per week. Once you are comfortable, try adding in an unstructured fartlek each week. These can gradually become more structured and intense as you build fitness.
Tempo runs improve both mental and physical stamina and are beneficial for runners training for almost every distance from 5ks to ultras. But again, introduce them gradually. Running by effort is ideal to train your body what “sustainably hard” feels like, and allows yourself to adapt to changing conditions.
Whether it’s fartleks or intervals or anything in between, know that not every session needs to be a PR effort! Some days speed work will feel invigorating, and other days it may feel incredibly tough.
Listen to your body and be sensible. With consistency and even a little creativity, speed work will get you ready mentally and physically for that next PR!