Speed Work | July 19, 2010
Speed work? Seems like an odd suggestion for ultrarunning when just about everyone agrees that the long slow run is the bedrock of our training. But many ultrarunners swear by speed work, both frontrunners who are trying to win and back-of-the-packers who are just trying to run a solid ultra. The beauty of speed work is that it is a very adaptable training technique and it benefits everyone no matter what ability level the runner may be at the outset.
Speed work works for runners of all abilities because it eventually forces every runner into a state of anaerobic metabolism. As long as you maintain a slow, steady effort, you are burning primarily oxygen for fuel, that is, you stay aerobic. A long slow run depends on aerobic running because as long as you are aerobic, you stave off muscle fatigue and the build up of lactic acid. Aerobic running is the non-running equivalent of lying on the couch and watching TV. Anaerobic running is when your wife tells you to get up and go build a garden shed. The fun is over. Work begins. As you speed up, your muscles need to resort to other means of producing energy. You go anaerobic. Fatigue sets in quickly and lactic acid builds up in your muscles faster than it can be eliminated. Continuously entering this anaerobic state, which is the point of speed work, causes your muscles to adapt and become more efficient at operating in that state. The result is that no matter where you started, you become capable of running farther and faster with less fatigue. If you train strictly aerobically, you get little of this adaptation.
Speed work comes in many flavors. Probably the most enjoyable and adaptable form of speed work goes by the unfortunate name of fartlek, a Swedish word meaning “speed play.” A fartlek workout can employ one of your standard running routes, but instead of going at a steady pace and effort, you want to run a series of “pick ups” along the way. These pick ups can be short bursts of speed lasting less than a minute or a moderately fast pace held over several minutes. The idea is to play with the workout, picking out a landmark and running to it, dialing back afterwards until you’re recovered, and then running hard to the next landmark. The intensity, duration, and difficulty of the workout are all up to you as you can vary the speed and length of the pick ups at will. As with any speed workout, be sure to run an easy mile or so at the beginning and end of the routine to properly warm up and cool down.
Another speed workout easily adjusted to your own desired level of intensity is hill repeats. The length and steepness of the slope you pick for your workout will dictate how difficult your run will be. Attack the hill with enough speed to rapidly move into anaerobic territory. Take a few bounding strides near the top of the hill to really intensify the effort. Then take an easy recovery jog to the bottom of the hill before repeating. Overcoming gravity to climb the hill each time will blast your legs as if you were doing weightlifting repetitions. Be sure to ease into these big workouts slowly at first, only building the intensity as your body adjusts to the extra stress.
A more difficult alternative to the on and off intensity of fartlek and hill repeats is the tempo run. A tempo run consists of a mile or two warm up followed by an extended period of running at or near marathon race pace with a final cool down of another mile or two. This should put you at marathon race pace for about five miles, well out of your comfort zone, and well into an extended period of anaerobic running. Forget holding a conversation. Focus on keeping good form as the fatigue sets in and relaxing as much as possible. One tempo run a week added to your schedule, or substituted for a less vigorous workout, can make a difference in your race times after just one or two months.
Finally, the monster speed work routine you might want to try if you’re really interested in improving quickly is intervals. Usually done on a track, intervals involve running a series of timed distances with a short recovery jog between each distance. For example, you might run six half miles in a row with each half mile at 10K race pace or even faster with a half lap recovery jog between each half mile. Or you could do some kind of “ladder,” such as a quarter mile, followed by a half mile, followed by a mile, a mile and half, and a two mile and then back down in steps to the quarter mile. Try to keep your final laps at the same pace as your beginning laps. These are very intense workouts and you should work up to them slowly, starting with more moderate distances and speeds. Warm up and cool down thoroughly and plan to follow your hard interval day with a rest day or an easy recovery run. As with the tempo run, one set of intervals a week is already an ambitious schedule. Overdoing intervals or any of the speed workouts can lead quickly to injury so monitor yourself carefully as you advance into these routines.
The great Tanzanian marathoner Juma Ikangaa has said, “The will to win means nothing without the will to prepare.” It is a fact that your performance in a race is largely dictated by your training. If you never venture beyond slow aerobic running in training, you will find yourself quickly tiring if you try to run well beyond your normal pace in a race. Add a little speed work to your weekly routine and when you show up for your next ultra, you’ll be prepared for your best race ever.