Spotlight on Speedwork

As a running coach, one of the biggest aspects of training I’ve been working on with my clients is their speed. Almost every runner has a desire to get faster, feel stronger and perform better. That’s the nature of our sport, we are competing against ourselves and always trying to improve. Speed workouts are a great element of any training plan, and can be modified depending on whether you are newer to running or more advanced. Here’s what I’ve learned about speedwork through my training as an RRCA certified running coach and my own experience.


Why Do Speedwork?

Incorporating faster running into your training and routine has many benefits. Here are a few of them:

  1. It can be fun and mix up your routine!
  2. Speedwork like intervals burns more calories and also revs up your metabolism so you continue to burn calories after the workout is over… gotta love a good afterburn! I have noticed that I am extra hungry on my speed work days!
  3. It teaches you how to maintain a strong effort while running on tired legs.
  4. It teaches your body how and when to recruit your fast twitch muscle fibers, which are not utilized on slower runs.
  5. It strengthens your cardiovascular system and increases your aerobic capacity (VO2 max), which increases your ability to consume oxygen and deliver it to the muscles efficiently.
  6. It helps to push you outside of your comfort zone and builds your mental strength in addition to the physical. Speedwork teaches you patience while managing low-grade physical discomfort, and builds confidence in your running ability.

Types of Speed Workouts

There are 4 basic types of speedwork I like to incorporate into my training plans 1-2 times a week: Intervals, tempo runs, fartleks and progression runs.

  1. Intervals. There are a TON of variations on interval work, but the basic concept is to run hard, recover for a set amount of time, run hard again, repeat. Always start by warming up for 1 mile or about 10 minutes, then begin workout. An example of an interval workout might look like 6-8 x 800 meters with 400 meter recovery. One time around the track is 400 meters, so that means run fast around the track for two laps, then recover by running slowly for one lap, and repeat that 6-8 times. Generally you would recover for half the distance of the faster running segment. At the end of your track workouts just cool down by running slowly for however long you need to. This can also be done on the treadmill.
  2. Tempo Runs. There are two main types of tempo runs. The first is when you run a slow and easy mile, followed by some faster miles at a sustained effort, then end with a slow and easy mile. An example workout might look like: 1 easy, 3 @ tempo pace, 1 easy. The second type is a “steady state” tempo run, where you start out at a certain fast pace and try to maintain it the whole time. An example might look like: 4 miles @ tempo pace.
  3. Progression Runs. My favorite! For a progression run you want each mile to be faster than the last. For example, for a 4 mile progression run your mile splits might look like this, 9:45, 9:12, 8:56, 8:33. It’s a good challenge and a great way to teach your legs to finish fast!
  4. Fartleks. This is more of an unstructured speed workout. If the workout says “4 miles with 6-8 fartlek sprints”, you will run at an easy pace for 4 miles, but 6-8 times throughout the run you will pick landmarks or objects ahead of you to sprint to. These sprints should be done at pretty much your maximum effort, a 9-10 on the exertion scale, since they are so short. Some people call this “speed play” rather than “speed work.” Fartleks are great for all runners, but are especially good for beginners who are just getting into trying to run faster.

How Often?

When doing speedwork, the first rule is always run easy or take a rest day between the harder effort runs, none back to back to rest your legs and minimize injury. If you are training for a long distance race (anything above 10 miles) make sure you try to have at least one easy or rest day between your speed workout and your long run too.  1 to 2 days of speedwork a week is PLENTY, especially if you are also doing a long run. If you’re just starting out with incorporating speed into your running I would start with once a week and ease your body into it. Now is a great time to start since it’s nice and cool outside! Even when I’m not training for anything specific, I still like to mix up my workouts by throwing some simple speed workouts into my week, especially fartleks and progression runs.

How to Determine Training Paces for Speedwork

How to choose which paces to go for in your speedwork depends on your goals. If you are working toward a specific time goal or PR, you’ll want to train at specific paces that will help you with your leg turnover and “practicing” faster paced running. There are many different pace calculators out there, but my favorite place to go is The McMillan Running Calculator will use a recent race time and a goal race time to come up with training paces. It tells you what you should be running during long runs, easy runs, and all of the speedwork runs I mentioned above. It is amazing and has helped me PR in almost every distance in the last 2 years!

If you just have a general goal to get faster you can go by the exertion scale instead. Rather than train at certain paces you will go by your perceived effort/exertion from a scale of 1-10. See the chart below for an explanation about what the different types of workouts should feel like. An easy run is a conversational pace, which would be a 4-5 on the exertion scale. This way of incorporating speedwork is a little less intimidating than using specific training paces and is still very effective! It helped one of my clients just take 5 minutes off her half marathon PR.

Exertion Scale (From 1-10)
1-3 Recovery Pace (between intervals)
4-5 Long Run/Easy Run Pace
6-7 Tempo Run Pace
8-9 Interval Pace
9-10 Fartlek Pace

Matching Speed Workouts to Your Goals

In my RRCA Coach Training we discussed the principle of specificity of training. The concept is that the system you stress is the system that will improve, and a specific stress will produce a specific result. This idea is important to consider when you are building a training plan. With that said, if you are training for a full marathon, there really is not much need to do any short interval repeats less than 800 meters. You are not training your body to utilize those types of muscles, you are training your body for a long, slower race. The opposite is also true. If you’re training to get faster at a 5K, you wouldn’t need to necessarily do tempo runs of 6-8 miles like you would in marathon training. Just something to keep in mind 🙂

I hope this little overview provided a good idea of the different types of speedwork and how to incorporate it into your training. When I started becoming interested in getting faster I did a lot of research and reached out to the experts I knew at my local running store, running coaches, etc. It definitely takes some guidance and support to figure out what works for you and will help you reach your goals. One of the things I love about speedwork and running in general is that your progress is so measurable. It’s exciting to see yourself improving and wonder what else you are capable of achieving. Over the last 6 years I’ve worked hard on my speed by using these techniques and I’ve never felt better or stronger. Here are my race times, comparing my first attempt at each distance to my current PR (most of which I achieved just this past year!)

  • 5K- From 28:31 to 21:55
  • 10K- From 56:50 to 49:35 (and I’ve run faster than in non-race situations, so I need to find a race to get myself a new PR!)
  • 15K- From 1:26:37 to 1:14:39
  • 10 Miles- From 1:32:07 to 1:20:43
  • Half Marathon- From 2:02:04 to 1:48:55
  • Marathon- From 4:35:15 to 3:56:08
The feeling of finally getting under 4 hours in the marathon after 6 years of hard work- nothing like it!!!

The feeling of finally getting under 4 hours in the marathon after 9 marathons & 6 years of hard work- nothing like it!!!

Here’s to getting faster! Hopefully I’ll be able to cut those times down even more after baby #2 🙂

My other “Running Tips” posts:


One response to “Spotlight on Speedwork

  1. Pingback: Spotlight on Hills | Run Inspired

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