How investing in just a few minutes a week of dedicated turnover work really can produce results.
Whether you’re an 800-meter runner who knows you need to develop some wheels or a marathon specialist who rues not having them, as a distance runner of some sort, you most likely recognize the value of basic leg speed. While it’s well-established that you need to dedicate the vast majority of your training for events from 5K on up to aerobic development and a sizable fraction to lactate-threshold work, you’re probably sold on the idea of doing short repetitions – 200s and 400s, say – to develop what most coaches and athletes like to call “turnover” when they’re not inclined to use words like “speed” (a term a lot of us graciously relinquish to the sprinters of the sport).
The downside of repeats even this long, however, is that even with a 1:1 or even 1:2 work-to-recovery ratio, they invariably result in serious-to-debilitating muscle fatigue. Although relatively recent research has found that lactic acid itself is not the direct-acting biochemical criminal it was once presumed to be, its accumulation is nonetheless correlated with muscle fatigue of the sort that rapidly leads to an obligatory reduction in, or cessation of, work. In plain terms, you rig up, hit the wall, get handed a refrigerator, et cetera.
So what’s the answer? That is, how can you get faster without your leg muscles experiencing that not-so-fresh feeling?
The most common way distance runners work on basic speed is by executing short, fast bursts that are brief enough in duration and punctuated by long enough recoveries to preclude the build-up of lactate. Commonly called strides, striders or stride-outs, they take the form of 10- to 20-second accelerations to near-all-out sprint speed, and are normally done at the end or within an easy recovery run, though seasoned competitors might do them to prepare for an interval session or other track work.
Most competitive runners are well aware of strides and their utility these days, but getting people to do them can be surprisingly difficult. It’s as if the fact that they are virtually painless renders people less apt to bother with them, with the underlying thought being, “If it doesn’t hurt at least a little, it can’t matter all that much.”
Voices of experience vehemently contend that this is bunk. “You can’t sprint without practicing running really fast a lot,” says Joe Rubio, a former 2:18 marathoner and longtime coach of the California-based ASICS Aggies. “It’s neuromuscular, it’s mental. If you practice flying, your odds are much better of actually flying.”
Rubio says that middle-distance athletes – e.g., those concentrating on the 1,500 to 5,000 meters – tend to warm up to doing strides more readily, as they are generally focused on doing everything possible to improve their ability to kick the last 400 meters or less of a race. That said, he emphasizes that all athletes can benefit from doing strides. “You cannot run at your potential top-end speed without practicing doing so consistently over a long period of time,” Rubio stresses. “One or two sessions won’t get it done; doing these consistently one or two days a week will.”
Rubio admits that he’s not a scientist by training, but he recognizes results when he sees them. “What I do know is that [running fast] is as much neurological as it is mental,” he says. “If you run fast, you gain confidence in running fast and your body is equipped to do what your brain is asking. What’s that they say about needing 1,000 hours to become proficient at something? There’s no way you can sprint effectively without consistent practice.”
Rubio notes that because running short, fast reps is a primarily a neurological exercise, your system needs to be fresh at the outset. “If you try doing strides after a series of mile reps, they are not nearly as effective as if you do them at the front end of a workout when your brain and nerves aren’t dragging-butt tired,” he says. “You want excellent form, great power and pop off the track, which fresh legs allow.”
Below are examples of stride-style efforts Aggies athletes often do as part of their warmup before a hard track workout. Each is preceded by an easy 20-minute warmup run, followed by 4 to 6 short “shake-out” strides. Recovery between sessions must be complete, and the total amount of fast running should be about 10 seconds or so per bout at the fastest speeds.
* 4-6 x 110-meter barefoot accelerations across the diagonal of a football field, with a walk-across recovery. The first 30 to 40 meters should be at 1500-meter race-pace effort, the next 30 to 40 meters at 800-meter effort, and the last 30 to 40 meters at best smooth top-end speed.
* 4-6 x 150-meter sprint/float/sprint – i.e., 50-meter sprint/50-meter float/50-meter sprint. This is followed by a 50-meter walk, 200-meter walk/jog recovery to bring you back to your starting point.
* 4-6 x flying 60’s. 40-meter run up, 60-meter at best smooth top-end speed. Easy walk-back recovery.
While Rubio’s runners do these in preparation for a dedicated track session, you can work them into an everyday run or do them after a run as a stand-alone speed-enriching enterprise. Once a week is good, twice better, but always keep in mind that it’s not running long distance per se that robs you of foot speed; it’s simply not practicing it.