Speed Development For Distance Runners

When is the best time to do speed development workouts?

Speed development work is a complementary training element and isn’t something that should compose a majority of your training schedule. Instead, you should make it an infrequent, but ongoing component of your regular training or dedicate one or two short speed development phases to your yearly training schedule.

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It’s imperative that you have no existing injuries and have done some core or basic strength work before starting speed development workouts. Running at top end speed is demanding and, in some cases, challenges muscles that you may not have used in years. If you’re unsure about your body’s ability to handle sprint work, start with core workouts and short, explosive hill sprints for three weeks to help you get ready for more intense speed development work.

Ongoing, Year-Round Speed Development

One way to incorporate speed development work into your training is to schedule a speed development workout every 12-14 days, year-round. In doing so, you never get too far away from your top-end speed and you can continuously improve as your training progresses.

At first, speed development workouts should take the place of your normal workout day (preferably replacing a speed workout or hill session). After your muscles get well conditioned to speed development workouts, you can do them the day before a VO2 max session or a lighter threshold run.

The downside to incorporating speed development this way is that you potentially sacrifice a race-specific workout every 12-14 days. If you race often or you are a new runner, this may make it difficult to get in all the longer tempo runs you need to race well in that particular training segment.

Speed Development Phases

Another approach is to dedicate a specific 4 to 6 week training block purely to speed development. This is the preferred approach for marathoners who want to race a spring and a fall marathon. After you recover from a marathon, you can begin a speed development phase, which is a good way to ensure you’re working on all your energy systems and changing up the stimulus between races before jumping back into marathon training.

The negative to the speed development phase is that you won’t be able to race very fast during this 4-to-6 week block. Your training will consist primarily of sprint work and you won’t be doing race-specific workouts or lots of tempo runs, so your race-specific fitness won’t be as high as it will be when fully focused on one event. If you’re not the type of runner who can see the forest through the trees, the ongoing strategy may be a better way to incorporate speed development workouts into your training schedule.

Examples Of Speed Development Workouts

The most important thing to remember about speed development workouts is that they will not feel hard in the traditional sense of training. You won’t be gasping for breath after you’re done. The long periods of rest between each repeat are designed to allow for full recovery. This is where most runners get the concept of speed development wrong. It takes 2-3 minutes to fully recover from a 30 to 50-meter sprint. Don’t try to shorten it – if anything, err on the side of caution and take a longer break than you think you made need.

Workout #1

Full, lengthy warmup of 2-3 miles, followed by 3 x 150-meters at 90% effort (90 seconds recovery between reps), 6 x 50 meters at 100% (2-3 minutes recovery between reps), 3 x 200 meters at 85% effort with full recovery (90 seconds recovery between reps), 2 miles at 10K race pace, 2-mile cooldown.

This is a session that works well if you’re doing speed development work throughout your training cycle in place of another workout. While the 150m and 200m repeats aren’t technically alactic, they will help you improve your ability to relax while running fast. The 50m repeats are definitely alactic and are the real speed development portion of this workout. I’ve added the 2 miles at 10K pace at the end to add a little tempo effort and keep the workout at a reasonable mileage level. This session is definitely a fun change of pace in the middle of marathon training if done once every two weeks.

Workout #2

Full, lengthy warmup of 2-3 miles, 8 x 150 meters (Accelerate to 90% effort in the first 50m, run the second 50m as fast as can, decelerate in the last 50m). Take a full recovery of 2-3 minutes jogging between each rep, then perform 5 x 8 second sprints at fast as you can with 3 minutes WALKING rest between repeats. Finish with a 2-mile cooldown.

This workout structure was popularized by Jay Johnson and is a true speed development session. The first part of the 150-meter reps is to get you up to speed and helps prevent injuries. The later half of the workout maximizes muscle fiber recruitment and explosive speed.

Try incorporating these or other speed development workouts into your training cycle, whether it be ongoing or as a specific-speed phase, and experience the difference improving your top-end speed can have on your long distance racing.

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