Mumblings of an Old Man: Speed Work

Race Prep – Speed Work

If you really want to “race” a race, how do you prepare? Do you need to do speedwork? What about hill repeats or tempo runs? Will running a track/treadmill/road help?

First, let’s define “race” for the purposes of this article. By “race” I mean run a particular race in a pace that’s fast for you. It doesn’t mean winning or placing high in the standings. Just racing so that when you finish, you know that you put out a solid effort and are happy with the time.

So, how do we do that? Well, there’s an old saying in ultrarunning, “get comfortable with being uncomfortable”. The point here is that part of racing is being uncomfortable. But how do you get comfortable with being uncomfortable? It happens with your training.

Here’s what I’ve discovered works for me. I preach all the time about doing speed work. I don’t always practice what I preach, but I do know that it works. For me, speed work of any kind has a number of great benefits.

First, consistent speed work will make you race faster. You’re building leg strength, increasing leg turnover, and resetting your cardio system to a higher level. The thing is, speedwork is very uncomfortable, and that’s the second benefit. It’s also why we tend to avoid it. Doing it consistently gets your body and, most importantly, your mind used to being uncomfortable. You realize that you won’t die if you really push the effort. What I have found is that as I reset my mind and body to a faster level of running, the previously normal pace seems positively easy by comparison. You know those 9-10 minute miles you struggle to maintain during a race? They just got much easier as a result.

How much speed work do you need to do? Everything I’ve read says to start your intervals about 8-10 weeks out from your key race. For me, that works. No more than once a week as well.

What is speed work?

Well, to me, it takes on several forms. First up are intervals. We all know what those are, repeats at different distances. Switch it up, 400m repeats one week, 800m’s the next, maybe even mile repeats. Do them on the track, find a flat section of trail, I do repeats on my treadmill. The advantage to the treadmill is that the speed remains constant throughout the entire interval. No slowing down as you get more tired during the interval. The treadmill forces you to gut it out and keep that speed up. Plus, on the treadmill, you can set the next interval to an even faster pace than the one you just completed.

The other part of speedwork is tempo runs. These are typically a run with a one mile or so warmup, then run 3-5 miles at a pace that makes it hard to carry on a conversation, say just under your 10K pace. What tempo runs do is get you used to a longer distance with faster leg turnover and a longer period of time with being uncomfortable. Again, once a week is enough.

Next up is hill repeats. Same thing here but find a hill you can actually run up, not hike, maybe ¼ to ½ mile long. Work your way up to doing several during each session. And again, once a week is enough.

The third thing is weight lifting. While not technically speed work, I consider it such. No single thing has helped my speed and hill climbing ability more than weightlifting twice a week. Core and leg work, heavy leg work. None of this light weights, lots of reps crap.

So you do all this work and your legs seem to be constantly dead when you go out for just a run. Persevere. It’ll take a few weeks before you really start to notice the effort paying off. That hill you couldn’t run all the way up? One day you run up it. And the thing is, it didn’t seem like it took as much effort as it did before. You know that favorite flat section of trail? You know, the twisty turny single track that’s so much fun to run? Well, now it’s a bunch more fun because the effort to run it at the same pace as you used to is now much less. It almost feels like your floating down the trail. I always get a silly grin on my face when this happens.

Remember me mentioning something about “getting comfortable with being uncomfortable”? If you were diligent with your training and made those training sessions very uncomfortable, you’ll find (at least I have) that when you race and you hit that uncomfortable part that it isn’t so bad. It’s still uncomfortable, but maybe not as much, in fact, it’s not too bad at all. Hey, let’s just go with this level of effort and see where it leads.

So get out there and do some speed specific training, do it consistently, and put out some serious effort. It will pay off at your next key race.

(photo Credit: Lori Burlison)

Author- Jim Skaggs


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