Speed Training for Running: How to Get Started

Last Updated: June 1, 2022

We all have our reasons for wanting to become faster runners. Maybe you’re trying to beat your personal record, or you’re training for a big marathon coming up. Whatever the case may be, speed training will help you become a stronger, quicker, and more efficient runner. 

As with any new training program, the first step you need to take before beginning speed training is to consider your fitness level and health. Once you’ve done that, you’ll be able to begin your training. 

Let’s take a look at how you can get started with speed training to become a better runner. 

Incorporating Speed Workouts

Many of the world’s best runners make speed workouts – both on and off of the track – a core part of their training. After all, you’re not going to get faster at running without running fast. 

Who are speed workouts for?

Speed training is an excellent option for any runner that is looking to improve their running speed. However, if you’re a beginner runner, you should consider starting slowly. It helps to focus on building your mileage and endurance first, after which you’ll be able to move on to incorporating speed workouts into your training. 

The benefits of increasing your lactate threshold

If you’ve done any research into running, then you’ve probably heard the term ‘lactate threshold’ being thrown around. 

Your body produces lactate on any run. During easy runs, your body will maintain lactate production and convert it to glycogen to be used for energy, but once you start running faster and harder, your body will start to produce more lactate.

Running too quickly or for too long will cause your body to reach a threshold where it won’t be able to maintain lactate production, resulting in fatigue and a decline in your running performance. 

However, if you train at a pace that brings you close, but never to, your lactate threshold, you could raise said threshold. Doing so will help you maintain a faster pace over a longer period. This can be achieved through speed training. 

Types of Speed Workouts

There’s not just one universal speed workout, but rather a range of formats that work for different people. The intensity and length of your workout will depend on your fitness level and experience as a runner, but here are some general guidelines:

  • Warm up with dynamic stretches for 5 minutes before your run.
  • Cool down with stretches for 5 minutes after your run.
  • If you don’t feel like running, listen to your body.
  • Limit the number of speed workouts you perform each week.

Tempo runs

With tempo runs, you will run a set time or distance (for instance, for 20 minutes or for 1 mile) at a set pace, which is generally 20 – 40 seconds slower than your pace for a 5k or 10k race. The goal with this speed workout is to get your body to run at a continuous pace that is slightly below your race pace. 

Tempo runs will generally be done at about 85% to 88% of your max heart run; you’ll be putting in effort, but you’ll still be able to speak single words. 

Strides

Strides can be performed both on and off of the track. 

When performing strides on the track, accelerate during the straight sections, and take it easy at the curves. You should be aiming for 4 complete laps around the track. If there’s no track near you, find a trail, road, or other straightaway where you’re able to sprint for 10 – 20 seconds, then walk or run at a slower pace, then repeat 4 times. 

Interval runs

Interval runs are any repetitive distance run at a certain pace. There are a number of ways that you can perform interval runs, but in its simplest form, you’ll run for a short distance (700 meters, for instance), rest, then repeat. 

Ladder workouts

Ladder workouts are excellent for training your finishing and explosive speeds. They are aimed at maximizing your speed and working toward making your running speed and economy more efficient. 

Because this is a fairly strenuous workout, ladder workouts are usually recommended for dedicated runners who have had at least a few months of training. In this interval-style workout, you’ll increase or decrease the distance or time of each repetition. You can tailor the distance, pace, and time of each repetition to suit your needs the best. 

Fartlek

Fartlek is a Swedish term that means ‘speed play’. The general idea is that you vary your effort and speed when running so that you can run faster at certain periods and slower during other periods. Your fartlek workout can be unstructured or structured, and you have a lot of options when it comes to where you perform this kind of training. 

For instance, you can run up a hill faster or run faster between blocks, trees or any other landmarks. 

Working On Your Form & Technique

You’ll also be prevented from reaching your top speed if you have poor form and technique, so here are a few ways that you can improve these areas:

Increase your foot turnover

Your turnover is the number of steps that you take each minute. To determine your turnover, count how many times your foot strikes the ground in a minute, then multiply that number by 2 (because you have two legs) to get your turnover rate. 

180 steps per minute is generally considered the magic number, but it is totally normal for non-professional runners to have a slower turnover rate. You also don’t have to aim for 180 exactly, but working toward a quicker rate will bring you closer to the optimal balance of frequency and stride length, which can improve your speed and efficiency. 

Avoid heel strikes

Each time you heel strike (or hit the ground heel-first), you’re essentially hitting the brakes. Not only does heel striking slow you down, but it’s also a huge waste of energy, so you want to aim for a midfoot strike that keeps your feet directly beneath your body.

Try video analysis

All kinds of athletes have been using video analysis for years to help them refine their form and technique, and these benefits extend to runners as well. If possible, have a friend film you, then review the footage and look for any areas that you might improve your technique. 

You might notice that your toes are pointing inward or outward rather than straight, or that you are striking with the heel of your foot rather than the middle. 

Having the correct running shoes can help you run more natural to your foot type, so consider that if you’re worried that your running form may be harming you.

The Importance of Listening to Your Body

We’ve discussed how adding mileage to your training plan each week can improve your speed, but how many miles should you add? Most runners will tell you that you shouldn’t increase your mileage by more than 10% each week, but there’s really no reason to limit yourself that much if you feel good. 

In fact, a recent study found that runners suffered from the same injury rates regardless of whether they followed this 10% rule or not. Of course, we’re not saying that you should just go ahead and double your mileage over a 7-day period; you should simply be paying attention to how you feel, and adjust your mileage based on that. 

Why Increase Your Speed?

Both practice and science have shown the clear benefits of speed training for runners. One Psychological Reports study trained female and male runners to complete 10 speed training sessions over a 6-week period, and by the end of this period, their average time for a 10k course experienced a 3.2% increase, which equates to a 50-minute 10k-runner reducing their time to 48:25.

While that might not seem like a huge difference, over the course of a year or two, it can equate to some major improvements. 

Another benefit to speed workouts is that they also increase your body’s production of myoglobin, a protein found in the muscles. This protein is responsible for delivering oxygen to the mitochondria within the muscles, which produces ATP and provides your muscles with energy. So, as your myoglobin count increases, you improve your body’s ability to transport oxygen to the muscles, which allows you to run faster for greater distances. 

Speed training is uniquely beneficial in this way, and research has indicated that high-intensity running is the best way to develop myoglobin. 

There’s also the aspect of skill. If you want to be able to run faster, you have to start running faster. Speed workouts train you to put out more effort, mentally cope with some of the physical discomfort that comes with pushing your body outside of its comfort zone, and maintain a higher cadence. If you consistently practice this skill a few times a week, you’ll be able to run faster with less effort. 

Check out this video by one of our favorite runners, Sage Canaday and what he mentions about the benefits of speed training even for long distance runners:

Wrapping Up

Speed training is an important skill for every runner to practice, especially if you want to reach your full running potential. We certainly hope that we were able to help you along this journey.

Another important element you should consider is tracking your time and progress with the likes of a stopwatch or a GPS running watch that can automatically track your ongoing efforts so you can see the improvements.

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