Benefits of Speed Training
By: James Williams
Lately I've been asking myself about my own training: How can I make the most of my training time available? Can I actually improve my performance? How can I keep myself motivated to train hard, with no clear end goal in mind? What are some aspects of my training that usually get neglected?
One of the things I’m focusing more on at the moment is improving my speed. I’m doing a lot more shorter, faster sessions than I’ve done in a long time. I’m finding it’s a great use of my time and is very effective at improving my performance. I’ve seen almost immediate results!
Here are the benefits of speed training and how to incorporate it into your training regiment.
Your Slow and Medium Paces Should Improve
Many top athletes, including ultra-running legend Ian Sharman, say that one of the keys to improvement is to increase your slow and medium pace. This is because most of the running that you do for longer events will be at a slower pace. By doing speed workouts, your body becomes used to training at a higher pace. It also has a positive knock-on effect on your slower paces.
They Are An Effective Use of Your Time
If you don’t have as much time to train as usual, then these sessions can be a very efficient way of improving fitness. You can squeeze in a lot more high quality training into a shorter space of time. As an ultra-runner, you still need to do the longer distances, but if you only have 20 - 60 minutes for a run, then these are a good option.
Your Form Should Improve
Speaking of efficiency, working on your speed should improve your running form and running efficiency. This is partly because running at a higher speed forces your body to run in a different way compared to when you are running at a very slow pace. Even if you don’t know you are doing it, your form will probably improve as a result of doing these faster workouts.
They Keep Your Training Interesting
Ultra-runners have a tendency to churn out week-after-week of long, slow workouts. Which is important! Your races will require you to run for a long time and quite slowly, which results in training that can be repetitive and boring. Mixing your training up with one to three harder, shorter sessions during the week can give you a different psychological stimulus. This will keep you more motivated over a long run.
What Specific Speed Workouts Can You Do to Improve Your Ultra-Running?
So, it’s clear that there are a lot of benefits for running at a faster pace in training. Now you need some ideas for how to actually do them. There are hundreds of varieties of workouts you can do, and you can make up your own too. Here are some training sessions that I’ve been doing recently.
This is a session that is a favorite of 100-mile world-record holder, Zach Bitter and it’s very simple! After a good warm up, you do repetitions of three minutes at very hard intensity. They should be at around your 5K pace. After each rep, you will have a very easy recovery of about two minutes. This can be a very easy jog or even a walk. It doesn’t matter how slow you go for these. Repeat this between 6 - 10 times. Your aim is to get to the same distance for each rep, from the first to the last. Consistency is key, rather than fading off for the last reps.
Yasso 800’s were originally designed for marathon training, however, I’ve found that they are great for ultra-running too. This is a similar session to the 3-minute repeats, but based on distance, rather than time. Because of that, it can be easier to run them on a track, but I often do them around a loop in my park just as easily. After a warm up, you do 10 repetitions of 800 meters. Keeping an even pace from the first to the last rep. Just like the 3-minute repeats, consistency is key. Have 400 meters of rest between each rep, walking or very easy jogging will do.
This is the most complicated, but the most fun of the three sessions. A pyramid session includes starting at a low distance, and then increasing it with each rep. After you get to a certain distance, you reverse down the same reps as you did when you were increasing them. For example, you’d start with a good warm up. Then your first rep of hard work might be a 200 meter effort. You’d have a good rest, possibly 2 minutes of very easy jogging. Then you’d do 300 meters. Another rest, then another rep of 400 meters. You can do as many reps as you like, until you get to a desired distance.
I usually go up to 800 meters. Then I do another rep at 800 meters, and reduce the reps each time. So I’ll do 800 meters hard, rest, 700 meters hard, rest, 600 meters hard, rest, until I get to my last rep of 200 meters, back where I started. The objective of these sessions is to do the second rep in the same time as the first. For example, both reps of 200 meters should be the same. Even though one is at the start of your workout and the other is at the end. This is a difficult workout to get right, but it can be a lot of fun. The variety in the session makes you stay on your toes and keeps you motivated.
What Else Should You Consider When Doing Speed Work?
As with anything new that you’re introducing to your training plan, there are a number of things to think about.
PUT EVERYONE’S HEALTH AND SAFETY FIRST
Now, more than ever, we need to prioritize our health, most importantly, the health of others around us. Please make sure that you are allowed to go outside in your location, and that you choose a location where you can do all of the things that we’re being advised to do at the moment. That includes practicing social distancing, which is especially important if you're doing a session where you will be breathing heavier. Remember to move at a pace that keeps at least six feet of distance between you and strangers. If you can’t safely go outside, it’s time to think about what workouts you can do at home.
DON’T DO TOO MUCH TOO SOON
Just like with building up running distance or introducing weight training, you need to ease into speed training over time. Don’t suddenly go from doing no speed-focused training at all, to doing three or more workouts per week. When first starting, I’d advise to only do one or two workouts a week, but make sure that you leave enough days in between to recover. When starting, that means at least two easy days. You can still do some exercise on those days, but make sure it is very easy. Once you’ve done a few months of this type of training, you can increase the amount you do. Which leads me to the next point…
DON’T DO TOO MUCH IN A SPECIFIC TIME PERIOD
Once you’ve gotten used to speed training, you may want to increase the amount you do. Which is absolutely fine and what you should be doing to see improvements. The big danger with this type of higher intensity training is that you end up trying to do too much of it.
These sessions should push you much harder than your average run. Your body needs time to recover from them. That means that you can’t do too many workouts in a week. Even the most successful athletes rarely do more than three hard sessions a week, with usually at least one day of rest in between.
The 80/20 principle is a good way to measure how much hard training you should be doing. This is where 80% of your training should be done at an easy, comfortable level, with the remaining 20% at a higher intensity.
The other thing to be careful of is doing too many of these workouts in a complete ultra-running training cycle. This is because you want the majority of your training to be specific for your event. These sessions aren’t that specific for ultra-runners as they are run at a much higher pace than in a race. They should be used few and far between.
DON’T PUSH THROUGH SESSIONS REGARDLESS OF OTHER FACTORS
Most of us ultra-runners love sticking to a plan and we hate changing direction from that plan. Especially if it means missing a session or doing less distance in a session. When thinking about harder training sessions, however, it’s even more important than usual to listen to your body. If you have a small injury or are generally not feeling well, then it’s wise to skip the session. If not that, at least reduce the volume of work that you’re going to do.
Again, because of the high intense nature of these workouts, trying to push through a small injury is more likely to lead to a bigger problem later.
I learned this the hard way in a workout I did in August 2019. I pushed through the final few kilometers of a particularly tough session. I could feel that I had developed a small injury, which was getting worse as the session went on. I didn’t listen to my body, pushed through the session… and ended up injured for more than three months. I had to pull out of two main races and my fitness dropped significantly. Stopping a session early is rarely a bad decision. You can always make it up on another day.
If you get injured from pushing too hard, that could end up being a poor decision that lasts for weeks or months afterwards. You can actually end up missing races, or not performing as well as you should have.
Focusing on improving your speed, even as an ultra-runner, has lots of benefits. Luckily, there are some easy ways to do it! Just remember these three things.
Benefits of Focusing on Speed
It can improve your top pace, but more importantly for ultra-runners, your average and easy pace. It also improves your running form and efficiency. It can be used when you have limited time, and will keep training sessions fresh and interesting.
Specific Types of Sessions
There are many types of sessions you can do, including Yasso 800’s, 3-minute repeats and pyramid sessions. Try them out and see what you enjoy. Make adaptations to the sessions when necessary. Creating your own sessions is half the fun!
Things to Watch Out For
As with any type of training, there are some other things to consider. First, ensure that everyone’s health and safety is prioritized, not just your own, but also those around you. Second, don’t do too much too soon in a short amount of time. Your body needs more rest than usual from these sessions.
With all these things in mind, you'll have an effective and efficient way to improve your speed and stay in shape.
About the Author
James Williams is a father of two, husband, and runner with race victories at 100 miles, 100km, marathons, half-marathons, 10k's and 5k's. Most recently, he attempted to break a world-record by running more than 800 miles in 9 days from the bottom of the UK to the top. He writes informative articles to help other runners improve their own performance and achieve their dreams on www.JamesRunsFar.com