“The Need for Speed…”

Posted: January 11, 2012 in Run
Tags: , ,

Sure, it was pretty awesome when Maverick used this on Goose before going all going all uber-hip on the runway and, yes, humans may have evolved to be ‘runners’ specifically, but I’ve said it once before and I’ll say it again: “this body was built for comfort not for speed.”

In fact, the only thing I typically liked to race for was the buffet line, but now I understand that speed workouts are something of a necessity, albeit not altogether pleasant, workout for triathletes.  Originally, I thought that the common understanding about conditioning oneself for events of the Ironman caliber that it’s primarily important to find and work on that sustainable pace which you can keep over long distances, but that notion doesn’t really help me while I’m sprinting around the track.  So why am I running these short quick paced laps anyway if I’m ultimately training to go long?

First of all, to get faster in triathlon, I need to understand that the basis behind faster run times is to increase the speed and efficiency at which my muscles will contract (greater neuro-muscular facilitation).  In essence, I need to be able to recruit all available muscle fibers to go faster.  Whether I’m training for a sprint tri of under an hour or for the Ironman, I still need speed and it is best to do some type of speed training throughout the week.  Speedwork can take precious seconds off your race times, but it can also cause injuries if done too soon, too fast, or too often.  To avoid these pitfalls, you need to first come up with a plan.  Luckily, I have access to a high school running track at the end of my street, so after a quick warm up jog (10 minutes or so) and after a quick landscaping to carefully remove all the frozen dog poo, I have the entire place to myself…well, except the usual stoners behind the bleachers who like to watch in muted fascination that is.  It’s just so much easier to use a running track as it’s easier to keep record of your distances and time, while not being slowed down or hindered by traffic, stop signs, other pedestrians, busy intersections, etc.  After all, a dead triathlete isn’t a very quick triathlete…am I right?

“Speedwork” is a structured workout that uses periods of pacing equal to, or faster than, your usual race pace, sandwiched between easier recovery periods.  This fast training simulates the physiological demands of race efforts, and serves as the ultimate tune-up for your race season.  When done properly, speedwork can improve anyone’s pace over any distance.  The idea is to stress your body just enough to invoke some adaptation to that stress, but not so much as to compromise recovery time between workouts.  Another name for speedwork that you may be familiar with is “Interval training”…which, in my experience, is more commonly regarded as swim or cycle training.  Regardless of what name you prefer, the workout entails repetitions of various predetermined distances with recovery periods based on heart rate or time.  Typical distances I use for my repeats or intervals are from 400m to 1600m for each repeat.  The rest periods are determined either by pulse (you wait for a pulse rate below about 70%  of your maximum) or by a predetermined amount of time…like one added easy lap around the track.  A warm-up and cool-down period is always part of the workout and the total distance running “at speed”  rarely exceeds 5 kilometers.

Now, this doesn’t mean that I recommend going out right now and running a fast-paced Interval session today just because I said so…hell no.  I mean, I appreciate your mindless enthusiasm and all, but don’t.  First, you need to have that plan I mentioned.  There is a certain amount of base preparation required for this type of speed training to be productive and non-destructive to your body’s tissues.  This preparation can only come with a minimum amount of easy mileage leading up to the intensity of the speedwork phase.  If you run consistently year round, at least four times per week, then your body has probably been toughened-up enough over the long term to deal with the rigors of speedwork.  However, if you’re anything like me and prefer to take a brief hiatus after your big race to indulge in all those culinary treats and treasures that you missed out on during the racing season, you will need to establish yourself back into a regular running routine before attempting additional speedwork.  It has therefore been recommended that runners who want to participate in track workouts run at least every other day for a minimum total mileage of 20-25km’s  per week.  This will usually also eliminate any severe soreness the next day as your muscles will have toughened up enough to handle the extra duress imposed on a fast-paced track workout.

Once you get going on these speed workouts, there are some pretty important gains to be made.  Physiologically speaking, maximum efficiency of any movement is achieved when each muscle group contracts at exactly the appropriate moment for application of force in the desired direction, and Lord knows you don’t want your muscles fighting you when you want to go forward.  So when opposing muscle groups contract simultaneously there still may be movement, but energy may be wasted during this process.  Training a muscle to contract with appropriate force at the desired moment requires an electrical impulse to be generated through our nervous system.  This CNS/muscular relationship can only be improved by repetition of the specific movement…hence, quick repeated Interval sessions as the relationship between nerve impulse and muscular contraction is intensified under the stress of relatively fast running.  It’s also obligatory to become as muscularly efficient as possible in order to gain speed when you’re near your maximum effort.  In a sense your body is being “forced” to greater efficiency of movement because it’s using all available power to propel itself.  Therefore during anaerobic efforts, any gains in speed must come from either an increase in power, greater ‘efficiency of movement’,  or both in unison.  Okay, now you might respond, “But I’ve been told (or read somewhere) that my form will fall apart when I train at high speeds.”   Sure, but this is true only if you push too hard, so that’s why you do intervals with breaks in between so you have time to regain our composure.  And, believe me; you will appreciate those short rest breaks.

There is also a pretty significant psychological aspect of speedwork as well, namely, the faster you run, the more lactic acid is produced by your body so being able to push through this discomfort is absolutely key for triathletes.  Lactic acid is the single most limiting factor that deters us from running even faster so when we subject ourselves to the burn of lactic acid repeatedly, we build-up a tolerance for the sensation.  This is what is known as “mental toughness”.  There is another popular thought as well that speed is perhaps more of an “addiction.”  It feels good to move really fast under our own power, so we crave more and more.  Personally, I call ‘horse shit’ on this notion.  Where I will admit that I feel pretty good and my confidence skyrockets after I see improvements with my over all lap times, the only “speed addiction”  I’m ever likely to experience will be behind the wheel of a luxury model Maserati, but I digress…

So, without further ado, here are a few random samplings of the recommended speedwork sessions for this 2012 training season as given to me by my coach (task master that she is).  They might not be fun, but I’m banking that they will help propel me to some respectable Half Marathon and Ironman run times come September.  Hey, when you’re as desperate and scared shitless as I am, you’re willing to try just about anything…even this whole “going fast”  shit.

Speed 1:

  • w/u: 10 minutes easy jog
  • 8 x 800m @ 10k race pace w/ 90 second recovery jog between intervals
  • w/d: 10 minutes easy jog

Speed 2:

  • w/u: 10 minutes easy jog
  • 400m @ 5k pace w/ 30 second rest
  • 800m @ 10k pace w/ 90 second rest
  • 1200m @ 10k pace w/ 120 second rest
  • 1600m @ 10k pace w/ 180 second rest
  • 1200m @ 10k pace w/ 120 second rest
  • 800m @ 10k pace w/ 90 second rest
  • 400m @ 5k pace
  • w/d: 10 minutes easy jog

Speed 3:

  • w/u: 10 minutes easy jog
  • 3 x (1200m @ 10k pace w/ 1 minute rest, 400m @ 5k race pace w/  3 minute rest)
  • w/d: 10 minutes easy jog

Speed 4:

  •  w/u: 10 minutes easy jog
  • 4 x 1600m @ 10k race pace w/ 3 minute recovery
  • w/d: 10 minutes easy jog


But, alas, there is yet another type of speedwork that comes highly recommended as well and for which I will also participate regularly.  This beast is known as the “Tempo Run”.

This is hands-down the least complicated variety of speedwork. There are no distances to keep track of, no split times to remember; no hassles at all really.  All you have to do is run faster than your usual training pace, somewhere right around your 10K race pace. Unlike most speedwork which consists of relatively short bursts of high effort, tempo runs call for a single sustained effort.  The result is that your body learns ‘race economy’:  running at a fast pace for relatively long periods of time.  Tempo runs will give your top speed a boost, too.  By running nearly at race pace, your body becomes accustomed to running close to its upper limit (though not exceeding it).  In doing so, you actually increase that upper limit, and you become gradually faster.

After your usual warm-up routine, run at your easy training pace for at least ten minutes.  Then pick up the pace.  As mentioned above, this speed should be right around your 10K race pace (around 80%-85%  of maximum heart rate, if you use a heart rate monitor).  The time, distance and pace of your tempo run, as with all phases of your running, depends on both your ability and your goals…for me, we’ve decided that the 10k distance is most optimal.  You don’t really have to worry too much about figuring out the exact distance of your tempo run though as it’s really not terribly important.  The one value of knowing how far you are running, though, is that you are able to gauge your improvement over time.  Still, this is easily done by doing most of your tempo runs on the same route.  You may not know the specific distance, but you can still compare your times for that same fixed route.  But, for whatever distance you do choose, find a pace that is not so fast that you cannot sustain it for the distance, but not so slow that you do not feel challenged toward the end.  Tempo runs should be tough, but not impossible.  Depending on how you feel on any given day, how much spring is in your legs, and how far you are running, your tempo pace may vary from session to session.  That’s fine…don’t panic…you don’t suck.  The consistency that really matters is the pace within each session, so try to keep your speed level up for the full length of each tempo run.

Usually, after my own tempo runs my heart is a-beating like a rabbit on crack.

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