Speedwork : Why You Need It & How To Do It

Yes, it's true that if you want to run faster, you have to run fast. If your goal is to race faster, whether your distance is 5K or the marathon, you'll have to incorporate some type of speedwork into your training schedule. Runners new to the sport will usually see improvement in their racing times simply by adding mileage, but eventually most everyone reaches a plateau and even additional miles don't result in increased speed; that's when speedwork becomes necessary.

Getting Started

  • Don't attempt speedwork until you've run a minimum of 25 miles-per-week for at least six months.
  • If you're new to speedwork, don't do it alone. Most running clubs have regularly scheduled speed workouts... join them.
  • New runners should do speedwork no more than once a week; runners who have been training and racing for a year or more may be able to safely do faster workouts twice a week.
  • Speedwork should total no more than 10% of your total weekly mileage.
  • Listen to your body. Speed can lead to injury. Don't ever push yourself through a workout if you feel any pain or discomfort.

Choosing the Right Workout

  • Generally speaking, the length of your speedwork will depend on your goal race distance. Choose shorter workouts for 5K-10K training, longer ones for half-marthon to marathon training.
  • It isn't necessary to do speedwork on a track (with the exception of intervals). Since most runners don't race on the track, it's perfectly fine to run speedwork on the road.

Which Workouts Work

  • Tempo runs are workouts run 20-seconds slower than your current 10K pace or 30-seconds slower than your current 5K pace, for at least two miles. If you haven't raced recently, or have never raced, do the tempo run at a pace that feels comfortably hard...in other words, the pace should be fast enough that you feel like you're working, but not so fast that you couldn't run at that pace for an hour. Do a warm-up and cool-down jog of at least 15-minutes each on either side of the tempo run. New runners should limit their tempo runs to two miles, while more advanced competitors can train up to five to six miles at tempo pace. Increase the length of the tempo run by a half mile every two weeks. Base the length of the workout on your goal race distance: two to three miles for 5K, up to six miles for half-marathon to the marathon.
  • Fartlek workouts are based on how you feel: you choose how fast to run and for how long depending on your fitness level, what distances you're training for and how you feel on that particular day. Since fartlek supposedly means "speedplay" in Swedish, focus on having fun with these workouts. After you've warmed up for two miles, choose a spot to run to at a faster pace. It can be a tree, telephone pole, the ugly purple house at the end of the block...whatever. Run fast to that spot, how fast is up to you, then jog easily to the place you've picked as the next goal. Fartlek workouts can be run anywhere, but the ideal courses are dirt paths or trails through parks, particularly those with rolling hills. Don't worry about maintaining an even pace during the faster portions of the workouts, play around with speeding up then slowing down. You're not running for distance when you do fartleks, focus on time instead. If your goal race is 5K, the speedplay potion of the workout should be no longer than 15-20 minutes; if you're an experienced runner with a half-marathon or marathon on your schedule, 60-75 minutes is an appropriate amount of time. Keep in mind that fartlek workouts shouldn't leave you feeling spent, you should feel refreshed after speedplay.
  • Interval workouts are best done on the track so you'll know exactly how fast you ran each one. It's possible to run intervals on the road, as long as you've accurately measured-out the distances and marked them in some way. Although you can run tempo or fartlek workouts alone, because they're more intense it's best to run intervals with other runners. There are lots of combinations of intervals, generally speaking though short fast intervals (200-400m) with short recoveries are best for 5K to 10K training, while longer (800m-mile) intervals with longer rests are best for half-marathon to the marathon. How quickly you run the fast intervals depends on your fitness level, experience and goal race time; rest intervals should be slow jogs. Run a minimum 20-minute warm-up prior to the interval session, and 20-minute cool-down. Finish the cool-down with 10-15 minutes of stretching. More advanced runners may do five to ten minutes of drills such as skipping, high-knees and butt kicks immediately following the warm-up.