Classic Speedwork

Speedwork must form part of every runner’s programme, because at some stage in a race you have to run fast, and to win races you usually need to finish faster than the other runners. The questions are what you should do and how much you should do.

First of all there is real speed, sprinting speed. This depends on muscle power, good coordination, proper form and sufficient flexibility. It requires both a rapid cadence and a long stride.

Secondly, there is 400m speed. To be good at the 400 you need a pretty high sprinting speed and also a high degree of lactate tolerance. You can’t sprint flat out for much over 200m, because the energy comes entirely from anaerobic sources and there’s a limit to how much blood lactate the muscles can stand before they start to seize up.

Thirdly, there is distance runner’s speed. The marathon runner may say, “he’s got more speed than me – he can run sub-30 minutes for 10K”. This relates to the runner’s oxygen intake.

We can only start with what we’ve got, and those of us who run distance usually do so because we’re too slow to win sprint races. One of my favourite characters is Juha Vaatainen, the Finnish runner who started out as a junior 100m champion, with a PB of 10.8, and then moved up and up the range, just on the fringe of the national team until, by training 30 miles a day, he became European champion at 5000m and 10,000m.

The natural-born sprinter has a high proportion of fast-twitch fibres and middle-distance runners probably have about equal amounts of fast-twitch and slow-twitch, but there are also intermediate fibres which are affected by training. Sebastian Coe can move down to being a sub-47-second 400m runner or up to being a sub-50-minutes 10-miler. Rod Dixon moved up from being a world-class 1500m runner to winning the New York Marathon. Moves in the opposite direction are rarer, because it is easier to gain endurance and lose speed than the other way round; however, Todd Bennett, with the help of a good coach, moved from being a steeplechaser and cross-country runner to being a national champion at 200m and an Olympic medallist in the 4 x 400m.

What to do

“If you don’t want to lose it, use it.” Any good coach will say that you should develop as much speed as possible when you are young, but that doesn’t mean that you should neglect it as you get older. One of Peter Coe’s most memorable mantras is: “The runner should never be too far away from speed.”

Muscle power
The best way to build up power is by weight training, but using heavy weights as sprinters do may have a detrimental effect on your endurance abilities, so some form of compromise is necessary. Middle-distance runners who are not taking their winter season too seriously will often do weight training twice a week in the December-March period, decreasing the load as they switch over to track training in April and May. The emphasis is on squats and leg extension exercises, but it’s better to follow an all-round programme, including work on hamstrings and quadriceps, to maintain a balanced musculature. You need upper body strength to balance your hip rotation, and strong back and abdominal muscles to provide a framework for the thigh muscles to pull on.

Circuit training is preferred by many distance runners, using light weights and a variety of exercises, but this tends to retain muscle power rather than develop it.

Resistance running has the advantage of increasing the load on the body while using a proper running action. You can run while wearing a weighted jacket, or ankle weights, or while wearing a belt and pulling against a resistance. Like weight training, this has the advantage of being quantifiable, so you can see your progress. You can measure the load, the number of repetitions and the speed of the runs.

Hill running and sand-dune running are also time-honoured ways of improving leg strength while getting other benefits at the same time. For leg power it is best to use a steep slope, eg 25 per cent, and keep the duration of the run under 30 seconds, with a walk recovery. If you use longer runs, one to two minutes for example, you will gain in leg strength and muscular endurance, but it is more of a cardiovascular session.

Coordination
Sprint drills (see below) will certainly help your coordination, but so will circuit training and plyometric exercises. In circuit training the emphasis should be on variety, performing 8-10 exercises in a set, performing them fast and moving quickly from one exercise to another.

Plyometric exercises, which may be included in circuit training, involve some sort of hopping, bounding or springing; for example, jumping down from a three-foot box onto the floor and bouncing up to an 18in one. They should always be done under a coach’s supervision. The effect is to improve both coordination and your ability to store energy in the elastic components of the knee and ankle joints. This effect, rather reminiscent of a pogo-stick, increases the efficiency of running.

Correct Action
Sprint drills form part of the essential training of everyone who races at distances of 400m or less. They are also done by most top-class middle-distance runners, but are often neglected by those who race at longer distances. Correctly performed drills help you to become a smoother and more efficient track runner. As with weight training, they should really be performed under the supervision of a coach, but if you can’t manage that, the best illustrations are in David Hemery’s book Athletics In Action – Track (Stanley Paul, 1987). The basic set of drills consists of:

  1. High knees
  2. Alternate high knees (high skipping)
  3. Leg extension and pull down
  4. Heel kicking
  5. Bounding
  6. Fast arms
A normal session, done as part of the warm-up for a track session, would involve 4 x 30m of each drill plus 4 x 15 seconds of fast arms.

Flexibility
Lack of flexibility and lack of adequate hip rotation often prevent runners from obtaining the optimum stride length. As your right leg comes forward, your left leg acts as a rigid support. The length of your stride will be greater if your right knee can come well up and your right leg can swing across without causing any twisting of the left side. Stretching and mobility exercises for all the main joints and muscle groups should be a regular part of your training and you must do them when your muscles are warm. Serious runners stretch after their warm-up and after their run.

Sprint training sessions
These are the types of sessions that can be used as speed training for middle and long distance athletes. The speed is between 90 per cent and 100 per cent of maximum effort, and the overall object is to improve the technique of running at speed, trying to develop the skill of sprinting, so that you can be as efficient as possible. Progressive speed training sessions would be along the following lines:

  1. 3-6 sets of 4 x 60m, with 30 seconds between each effort and 2 minutes between the sets.
  2. As above, but with 15 seconds recovery or simply doing turnarounds between the efforts and 2 minutes between the sets.
  3. 3-6 sets of 4 x 100m with 30 seconds between efforts.
  4. 3-6 sets of 4 x 100m with decreasing recovery time.

Lactate tolerance sessions
These follow on from the speed training sessions. The distances are longer, but the emphasis is still on improving the technique and skill of running at speed – ‘running tall’, up on the toes with a good knee lift, which gives a long stride. All the running is done at 95-100 per cent effort, with long recoveries. Try the following sessions:

  1. ‘Pyramid’ sessions, starting with 150m and moving up to 170m, 190m, 200m and down again, with a walk-back recovery of 90 seconds to 2 minutes.
  2. 2-3 sets of 4 x 200m, with 60 seconds between the efforts and then 5 minutes between sets.
  3. 6-8 x 300m, with 3 minutes recovery.
  4. 4 x 400m, with 5 minutes recovery.
  5. Flat-out efforts over longer distances, if proper races are not available. David Moorcroft got down to running 4 x 600m in 82 seconds each.

Oxygen intake sessions
Much conventional interval training includes both aerobic and anaerobic elements. In my view you do your most effective training in the range of your 10K pace and your 5K pace, in sessions like these:

  1. 15 x 400m at 5K pace, with a recovery time of 60 seconds.
  2. 5 x (800m with 2 minutes rest, then 400m with 1 minute rest) at 5K pace.
  3. 6-8 x 1000m at your 10K pace, with 2-minute recoveries.
  4. 4-6 x 1 mile at your 10K pace, with 3-4-minute recoveries.
  5. 3 x (4 x 400m), doing the first set at 3K pace, the second set at 1500m pace and the last set faster, with 90 seconds between efforts and 3 minutes between sets.

When to do it

November-February: Weight and/or gym work, plyometrics, circuit training, flexibility work, plus some fast running on the treadmill. Oxygen intake sessions and/or hill training outdoors.

March-May: Start to phase out some of the gym work and replace it with a combination of sprint drills and short, fast running when the weather is warm enough. Continue with flexibility work, oxygen intake training and hill or resistance running (but look for variety and challenge).

April-May: Move on to lactate tolerance sessions, but maintain drills and oxygen intake sessions. Keep on with flexibility training, but cut down weights so that you are just maintaining strength.

Pre-competition training: Running flat-out 200s two days before your race is not the best way to prepare, because it may leave you stiff. Your last serious session should be at your race tempo, three or four days beforehand, but I do recommend a set of fast strides at 1500m pace, eg 6 x 150m, 24 hours before your race.

Three Killer Speed Sessions

Brendan Foster 50s
Run four laps of the track, alternately sprinting 50m and jogging 50m. Jog for 5 minutes and then do it again. Record the time for each mile.

Bondarenko sessions
Run 400m at your 5K pace and keep running steadily for 400m; then run 300m at your 1500m speed with 300m steady; then 200m at 800m pace, 200m steady; sprint 100m, 100m steady; and then go straight into the fast 400m and repeat the whole thing. Record your time for the total 4000m, as well as the individual section. Have 3 minutes recovery and then do another 4000m.

Sebastian Coe’s acceleration runs
Run 200m at your average 1500m pace, then 220m; 240m; 260m; 280m; and 300m, getting faster each time, so that you finish with 300m at your 800m pace or faster. Have a walk-back recovery and repeat twice more. You will need to work out your target times with a calculator before the session. To make it even tougher, try walking on in the same direction, so that the recovery interval is 20m shorter each time.