Approach to Building Running Speed
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you enter your base work phase, plan ahead and learn how you can develop speed
if endurance is your strength.
Many long-distance runners and swimmers have
written to lament how they can go at a modest clip for miles, but can never
increase their speed no matter how hard they try. They might simply be unaware
of how to modify their training to accommodate their goals.
Lisa Gonella, 28, of New York City writes
that in 2001 her first year of running she completed two
half-marathons and the New York City Marathon. Pleased with her initial foray,
she branched out into triathlons this year, competing in two Olympic-distance
However, Lisa notes that she is having
trouble getting faster, and has set a goal for herself to place in the Athena
division of her next triathlon.
"My swimming is usually in the top 25% of
finishers, my biking in the top 50%, but my running is only in the top 70%,"
Lisa writes. "I cant figure out if my problem is mental or physical, but
my running just wont get better and its starting to bring me
First off, as I stressed in last
months Fitness Makeover column , be careful not to place unrealistic
expectations on your performances because it can have a debilitating effect on
your enjoyment of a sport (and enjoying what you do is the key to being
successful at it).
Lisa finished a marathon in her first year
of running, which is an accomplishment to be proud of. Wisely, she has expanded
her athletic endeavors this year to include swimming and biking, which bodes
well for a future in which she can avoid injury while cross-training and
competing in various athletic endeavors.
But to feel discouraged because she is not
improving may be a premature reaction to a problem that really isnt
there. Having seriously trained for barely two years, she is probably just now
finding her groove, discovering her athletic strengths and weaknesses, and
understanding her current physical capabilities.
The learning curve, or improvement curve,
may be slowing down for this rookie but that is no cause for alarm.
Simply put, to improve ones speed, it
is necessary to practice speed. Too many endurance-prone athletes are of the
mindset that more is better, and they are unwilling to sacrifice training
mileage for the type of sprint-work that is necessary to develop faster
It is important to remember that you do not
have to sacrifice the distance you put in you just have to refocus your
training more on speedwork instead of endurance.
If you insist on covering 24-32 miles a week
of running, you can certainly maintain that goal while incorporating short,
fast sets into your schedule that will give you the results you want. Here are
a few specific ideas of what Lisa can do to improve her running speed.
First things first
The triathlon season is over and winter is
setting in. If there was ever a better time to develop, maintain, or increase
aerobic levels, its now!
While aerobic capacity is vital for
endurance athletes, it is equally (if not more so) important for sprinters. As
tempting as it might be for Lisa to focus on sprinting now during the
off-season, she should not forgo the type of endurance training she has been
doing these last few years.
Take this time to build a platform of
aerobic endurance that you can use to springboard into effective sprint
training come spring. This may involve long trail runs of up to an hour or
more, with typical weekly mileage spanning anywhere from 24 to 40 miles in
Anaerobic threshold training
Early next year, Lisa should concentrate on
improving her anaerobic threshold (or AT, the point where blood lactic acid
levels rise dramatically, resulting in the painful lactic acid buildup that
produces muscle soreness and fatigue). Increasing AT can be done with an
overall harder effort balanced with longer rest intervals during workouts.
In very simple terms, this means that Lisa
needs to train on less oxygen while performing faster repeats. By exerting more
effort during her sets, Lisa will attain her threshold quickly, and attempt to
maintain it for longer periods of time eventually resulting in a higher
While I personally do my interval training
on a running track, it is also possible to train by the clock if a track is not
available to you. For instance:
- 3 x 17- to 20-minute run @ just below AT
(if her AT is at 140 heartbeats per
minute, then her heart rate should ideally be at 130-135 during this set)
- 5 minutes light jogging as recovery
between each 17- to 20-minute run.
Over the next few weeks, Lisa can modify
this set by practicing 2 x 40 minutes at AT (or below) with 5 minutes of easy
jogging between each set. She should try not to go over AT, but keep her heart
rate at or below her determined rate.
Spring 'sprint' training
With the good endurance base and
expected AT improvements, Lisa will be ready to launch into the speedwork that
should result in improved running times next summer.
Here is a sample workout for someone
eyeing an Olympic distance triathlon (1,500-meter swim, 25-mile bike, 10K
2 x 7 mins. just below or at race pace
2 mins. rest
3 x 5 mins. at race pace
1:45 mins. rest
4 x 3
mins. race pace
1:30 mins. rest
5 x 1 min. runs at race pace
(not all-out sprints)
Concentrate on keeping the right pace,
with a similar heart rate on each set. Light steps and fast feet are important,
so if you fatigue early in the workout, then cut it short rather than pound
through the set with heavy feet and sloppy technique.
The rest intervals should be a walk or
light jog, and allow your heart rate to dip just below 100 beats per minute
before starting up again. The last five 1-minute repeats should be fast and
springy, and ideally performed at race pace without them feeling like a
Improving speed is a laborious process
that takes time. It can span the length of at least a full season, so it is
important to be patient and persistent in your training and not expect
immediate (or even very obvious) results.
If Lisa is an 8-minute miler, then she
should train with a goal in mind of repeating 7:45s for each race-pace
mile. In a 10K, this speedier pace amounts to an improved time of about 90
seconds. Not a huge difference on paper after a season of meticulous
preparation, but nevertheless significant.
Keep such improvements in perspective.
As a rookie, it may take Lisa several more seasons to get to where she wants to
be in her division. Cross-training in other sports (and simultaneously
concentrating on speedwork in swimming and biking) will only help Lisas
overall conditioning and speed in running.
She will eventually achieve what she
wants as long as she is patient with the process it takes time,
dedication, and discipline to make marked improvements in any sport. With
specific drills such as the ones listed above, Lisa can count on speedy
improvements to her running times if shes willing to focus on the long