The Two Best Speed Workouts For New Runners

Suzanne is a runner—though she says not a “real runner”—and started running three years ago to get back in shape after the birth of her second child. Over a few months, she progressed from a walk/run around the block to running 2-4 days per week, covering 3-5 miles each run and up to 10 miles in her long runs on the weekend.

Like most of us, Suzanne soon realized that running was so much more than just a way to get in shape. She treasures morning runs with her training partners, and talking through life’s ups and downs as the miles roll past.

Despite running a few 5Ks and 10Ks—and even two half marathons—Suzanne was intimidated by the local running group and their workouts. But she wanted to get fitter and thus would push herself to run faster in races. In her words, she’s “not training for the Olympics” but knows she needs to do some “real runner” workouts to boost her fitness.

RELATED: Basic Speed Workouts For Beginners

Sound familiar? Many runners I’ve worked with over the years have been in the same boat as Suzanne. Here are two of the “real runner” workouts I had her do to become a fitter, faster and more confident runner. Try ’em for yourself!

Workout 1: Surges

Once per week for eight weeks, Suzanne inserted a few “surges” into a mid-week run, beginning the run with 10-15 minutes of easy running and then alternating 15 seconds of faster running with 60 seconds of slower running. She started with five surges in Week 1 and added 2-3 each week. By Week 4, she was doing 10-15 surges and could even extend them to 45-60 seconds.

The surges are simply a slight increase in effort and pace—not an all-out sprint. The objective is to prepare the neuromuscular system for extended bouts of faster running.

As I’ve witnessed with dozens of other athletes who have used surges as their first workout, Suzanne loved it. “It was exhilarating to get out of my normal stride and pick up the pace! It also made the run go by quicker. Since the surges started at just 15 seconds, I wasn’t scared of them and after a few weeks, I could definitely tell my surges were getting faster,” she says.

Like Suzanne, many new runners run the same pace for all their runs. But in order to boost fitness, there must be variety in training and thus new challenges to both the body and mind so that adaptation continues. Surges provide a safe way to do this while keeping the injury risk very low.

Many other great things happened to Suzanne. First, her running form improved. When you run fast, form flaws are accentuated. So, she was aware of form issues and cleaned them up. Second, she learned her “redline.” She knew if she went too fast, she’d get out of breath quickly and her surge would slow—a big no-no for this workout. This began her education on different effort levels and how they relate to fatigue. Lastly, she noticed that the average pace for her other runs during the week got faster and her stride felt more relaxed and flowing.

Workout 2: Progression Runs

After 3-4 weeks, Suzanne started to feel good on the surge workouts, so I had her start progression runs, which is the second workout I prescribe as a transition from what I call “same pace” training to varied pace training. On her weekly long run (6-10 miles in her case), I told her to finish the last 5 minutes a little faster than the pace she was averaging for most of the run. Similar to surges, this 5-minute progression was not an all-out sprint, but it was fast enough to the point where her breathing rate increased while she kept her effort level under control. I told her she should feel exhilarated after the strong finish, but not overly tired.

Each week, she was allowed to extend the faster portion of the progression run by an additional 5 minutes if she felt like it. By Week 8, she was finishing her long runs with a faster 10-20 minutes depending on how she felt. Our mantra was “finish strong.”

As with the surge workouts, progression runs aren’t anything fancy or intimidating for new runners like Suzanne. But, the physical and mental benefits are great. She liked finishing strong. She learned the hard way when she pushed too hard, too soon (something I told her would pay off in her future training and racing). And, she started to look forward to the final few miles of her long runs instead of feeling more and more tired and just wanting the run to end. The workouts made training fun and her fitness, as expected, improved a lot.

RELATED: Running 101: The 8 Basic Types of Runs

Sample 8-Week Training Program

After two months of once-a-week surges and progression runs, Suzanne knew what it felt like to run fast, recover and run fast again. She developed better running form. She also developed more stamina and finishing strong became a habit. Her body was stronger and her stride smoother, but most importantly, she now had the confidence that she could go to the local group workout and, in her words, “not make a fool of myself.”

Here’s what Suzanne’s training program looked like for the 8 weeks we worked together:

Week 1

Monday: OFF
Tuesday: 5 miles w/ 5 x 15 sec surges w/ 1 min easy run recovery within run
Wednesday: OFF
Thursday: 3 miles
Friday: OFF
Saturday: 6 miles
Sunday: OFF

Week 2

Monday: OFF
Tuesday: 5 miles w/ 7-8 x 15-30 sec surges w/ 1 min easy run recovery within run
Wednesday: OFF
Thursday: 4 miles
Friday: OFF
Saturday: 8 miles
Sunday: OFF

Week 3

Monday: OFF
Tuesday: 5 miles w/ 8-10 x 15-45 sec surges w/ 1 min easy run recovery within run
Wednesday: 3 miles
Thursday: 5 miles
Friday: OFF
Saturday: 10 miles
Sunday: OFF

Week 4

Monday: OFF
Tuesday: 5 miles w/ 10-15 x 15-60 sec surges w/ 1 min easy run recovery within run
Wednesday: OFF
Thursday: 3 miles
Friday: OFF
Saturday: 6 miles
Sunday: OFF

Week 5

Monday: OFF
Tuesday: 5 miles w/ 10-15 x 15-60 sec surges w/ 1 min easy run recovery within run
Wednesday: OFF
Thursday: 4 miles
Friday: OFF
Saturday: 8 miles w/ 5 min progression
Sunday: OFF

Week 6

Monday: OFF
Tuesday: 5 miles w/ 10-15 x 15-60 sec surges w/ 1 min easy run recovery within run
Wednesday: 3 miles
Thursday: 5 miles
Friday: OFF
Saturday: 8 miles w/ 10 min progression
Sunday: OFF

Week 7

Monday: OFF
Tuesday: 5 miles w/ 10-15 x 15-60 sec surges w/ 1 min easy run recovery within run
Wednesday: OFF
Thursday: 5 miles
Friday: OFF
Saturday: 10 miles w/ 15 min progression
Sunday: OFF

Week 8

Monday: OFF
Tuesday: 5 miles w/ 5-10 x 15-60 sec surges w/ 1 min easy run recovery within run
Wednesday: OFF
Thursday: 3 miles
Friday: OFF
Saturday: 8 miles w/ 20 min progression
Sunday: OFF

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