RW's 60-Second Guides: Speedwork

If 500 words is 400 too many, you need our 60-second guides. Shallow but helpful, with five articles to print and read...


Posted: 24 October 2005

Speedwork is the single most effective way to move your running up a gear, once you've been training for half an hour three or four times a week for a month or two.

It helps you to run smoother, faster, stronger and with less effort - not just at your brisker pace, but also in your daily runs (so 40 minutes will start to feel like 30 minutes, or 9:30 miling like 10-minute miling).

Don't worry if you're not 'fast'. Your session should just be faster than usual. Here's how to start - just do one session a week:

Five simple speedwork tips

  • Just try slightly faster-paced bursts in a normal run to start with - to the next lamp post, and so on; anywhere from 15-90 seconds each. Aim for three total minutes of bursts the first time, then five, then seven. This is called fartlek, or 'speed-play'. Focus on staying in control.
  • After a couple of weeks, set yourself a lap that takes one to three minutes. Start with three, four or five repetitions, depending on your fitness. Your first goal - as for all speedwork - is to run the final fast stint as strongly as the first one.
  • If you have a race in mind, try to build up to running each repetition at race pace (or faster for half-marathons, marathons and very fit runners).
  • A simple session is to have equal-length efforts and recoveries eg: two minutes hard running, two minutes walk, repeated three to five times. Then, as you progress, you can increase the effort, or decrease the recovery, or add more repetitions.
  • Finally, take a watch. You'll improve quickly, and it's great to see the evidence.

Four good sessions

From week to week, introduce enough variety to keep things fun, but enough consistency to see real progress.
  • Maybe 5x400m one week, 3x800m the next, 400-800-1200-800-400 the next, then back to 400s. For simplicity, have two-minute walk recoveries between each effort.
  • If you don't have an obvious lap to do - or you're running with friends of different speeds, try out-and-backs. Run briskly out for a set time (say 60 seconds), then turn immediately and run back faster. One runner with a whistle can help everyone turn together.
  • Threshold sessions - sessions of just one or two longer reps - help you sustain faster paces for longer. Try a 10 minute jog, then 10 minutes at a steady, brisk pace, then 10 minutes jog. More experienced runners would run the fast section between 10K and half-marathon pace, and may do two sets of 10 minutes with 5-10 minutes jog between; or one 20-minute effort.
  • Try hillwork. Warm up with a 10-minute run to the base of a hill that has a steady slope. Run up at a constant pace for up to 45 seconds, then jog back down and repeat four more times. The hill will present resistance; your job is to be steady and in control, focusing on form.

Three rules

  • Ease into it. Warm up and cool down with at least 10 minutes' light jogging and gentle stretching or striding, and take the first few reps particularly cautiously.
  • Always follow a speedwork day with a rest or easy day. And just start with one a week.
  • You don't need to go to a track, but do speedwork on a soft surface, such as grass, if you can
  • (Plus: be consistent. Five or six weeks of modest weekly speed sessions will make a noticeable difference. Two weeks of macho nonsense and a month off won't.)
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