Speed work is the Devil! At least that’s the opinion I take every early Friday morning, which is my day for speed training on non-race weeks. As devilish as it is, speed work it the only way to develop that demon speed. If I could channel some poignant but simple way of saying it like Yogi Berra might, I would say something like: “The only way to be a faster runner is to run faster.” So like it or not, every Friday, I curse the Devil and suck it up.
There are a couple of different camps in regards to the approach or necessity of speed training. Mention speed work to a marathoner, a 5K’er, or an avid racer of any distance in between, and he or she will spout off terms like “fartleks,” “lactate threshold,” “VO2 Max,” “vVO2 Max (not a typo, but a different term),” and so on. These racers also know where all the best tracks are, and what times of the week are the best to go use them. Ask an ultra runner or a dedicated trail runner about speed work, and you’ll more likely hear “meh…what’s the rush?” Being a marathoner in pursuit of 3:30 and an acolyte ultra runner in pursuit of 50+ miles means I kind of straddle the divide between these two camps. I embrace speed work as a valuable training tool, but I don’t always enjoy it. Sometimes I just want to be out there plodding along, ticking off high numbers of miles as I go, but I have to wait until Sundays for that.
As far as the physical benefits of speed work in regards to performance, one can find volumes of information online and in well-respected running literature. Since I’m not a coach, I’m not going to regurgitate what I know about VO2 Max, biomechanics, and all that geek speak that we runners throw around at each other on weekend long runs. I can’t teach you anything that you won’t find with Google and Wikipedia. I will share my “working man’s” approach to speed play, and how it has affected my running for the past year.
First, I do not use a track. I have nothing against tracks, and I live near one of the nicest tracks in the North Mecklenburg area, but I’m just more at home doing my speed work on roads. Besides, a lot of my fast races are on roads, whereas none of them are on tracks. Not using a measured 400 meter track means I need to rely on my GPS watch and online mapping software in order to organize a speed workout. I know, I know, GPS watches have a margin of error in regards to distance and pace, but they are good enough for my generalized training. As long as I am using a consistent distance or time for my intervals, I don’t care if they are 800 meters or 853. I just need to balance one lap against the next, and the next, etc. Therefore, I use landmarks like streetlamps and traffic signs to start and stop intervals with passive recoveries.
More often than not, I do my speed workouts as tempo runs—usually 4-6 miles at 60 seconds/mile faster than my goal marathon pace with 1 mile of easy warm up and 1 mile of easy cool down. Not only does this train my body to economize motion and energy at prolonged periods of fast pace running, but it tests my resolve. I know I’m doing it right when I contemplate dropping out of tempo pace while I’m 2 miles in. “Maybe I can just jog a quarter mile and then pick it back up,” I would think. No…away with those thoughts! As the old Native American saying goes: “Pain is just weakness leaving your body.” By the time I get to the cool down mile, my easy float back home might be only a little bit slower than my marathon pace, but it seems like a relative crawl in comparison. This is when I have visions of hot oatmeal and some well-deserved bananas with peanut butter.
I do two forms of intervals: half-mile repeats with a passive (stationary) recovery, and mile-repeats with an active (slow jogging) recovery. Near my house, there is a fairly flat stretch of road with wide sidewalks and bike lanes. This is where I do my half-mile repeats. Since this workout usually starts at 5 o’clock in the morning, I usually have the roads and bike lanes to myself. Although I say it’s flat, there is the subtlest of inclines on the return direction of this stretch—so subtle that probably no one would complain about it unless they are on the 6th or 8th interval. I try to do 6 or 8 x half-mile repeats a few times a month. This is my least favorite workout. There is no scenery to enjoy; all I have to focus on is 3 minutes of pain, and then 90 seconds of breathing at a standstill. However, it is a good tune-up in preparation for a fast 5K or 8K race. I did this workout a week in advance of setting my last 3 PR’s for 5K.
Slightly less dreadful—but just as agonizing—are my floating mile repeats. Instead of a tempo run, I will do up to 4 mile repeats at 5K pace. Between these miles, I will jog at an 8:30-8:45 pace to catch my breath for about 5 minutes. The perpetual forward motion makes this workout seem a little less like work. I do these intervals in preparation for 8K’s, 10K’s, and sometimes even a Half-Marathon. If I’m really hungry for a PR, I will decrease the recovery time between intervals on consecutive workouts until it approaches zero.
Speed work often wears my ass out more than a weekend long run, but I must admit I feel better later in the day after an intensive tempo run or interval workout. I immediately recover post-run with a hot, high-protein breakfast, and I usually schedule rest days after my speed days. That way, my body has time to absorb the training before my long runs. In addition to the satisfaction of feeling the extra burn, I have slashed minutes off my race times and overall pace in the past 8 months of speed training. This time last year, I would have been proud of myself for running a 25 minute 5K. Now, I routinely cross the line at around 20 minutes, and sometimes below. My PR Half-Marathon pace is more than half a minute/mile faster than my old 5K pace. More and more, it feels good to run fast. My form has improved, and I consequently suffer fewer injuries. So, while I may not be obsessing over splits and intervals during the final miles of my next ultra marathon, I will remember that the Speed Work Devil is partially responsible for getting me to that point in the first place.
Run fast, so you can be a fast runner…and damn the Devil!