Hard works

What’s the most important session of the week? If you’re a marathoner, it’s your long run. For anyone looking to improve at any lesser distance, though, it’s the speed session that yields the greatest results – and even marathoners should include it in their training regime. Speed work-outs (or ‘intervals’) aren’t easy, and if you want to succeed you have to run out of your normal comfort zone, but working hard over a range of distances will yield improved results in your fitness and race performances.

Speedwork is not for you if you’re a total beginner. But once you’ve progressed to running 30-40 minutes or more, three or four times a week, you’re ready to start easing into it in the form of gentle fartlek (short, slightly faster bursts during a normal run).

Run relaxed
When you are ready to attempt some structured sessions, prepare your body each time by jogging for at least 10 minutes, followed by some easy stretching and gentle strides (four loping sets of 100m at a faster pace – not sprinting). Then start the speedwork gently, concentrating on running with a relaxed body. The idea is to go faster than normal – not to sprint or to run so hard that you can never face a speed session again. Begin with long recoveries and steady speeds until you have gained the confidence and fitness to increase the efforts. After the session, run at least 10 minutes easy to warm down.

The sessions do not have to be on a track. A roughly measured grass or road circuit is acceptable, or you could just run to an approximately equivalent time (eg 90 seconds instead of 400m, three minutes for 800m, or six minutes for a mile).

Run evenly
Apart from dedication, the key to speedwork is consistency. It is more important to put together a full set of moderate to good repetitions during a speed session than just one brilliant one. Your aim should be to finish the last repetition of the session as strongly as the first one, yet with the feeling that you have used up almost all the energy you have.

Run varied
While there are thousands of speedwork variations (top British coach Alan Storey claims never to set the same session twice), most runners tend to stick to their tried and tested stock sessions. One week 400s, next week 800s, the following week miles. While the pace may vary depending on the distance run, the repetitions are usually pretty much at the same pace.

Many find this both physically and mentally daunting, and yet take solace from the familiarity. If that’s you, we’re going to show you how to keep the distances familiar, but to vary the number of repetitions, the recoveries and how fast you run them. That kind of training across a range of intensities is crucial to a versatile development of speed and speed endurance.

We’ve based the speedwork targets over the next three pages on your best recent 10K time, to give you the most accurate sessions possible. If you’ve never done a 10K, don’t worry: just use the principles below, along with the rough guideline of taking a recovery as long as the efforts. Your speed will soon rocket.

The paces and distances you choose in speedwork depend on your goals and your levels of fitness, your experience and your natural ability to recover. Beginners take long recoveries and run medium distances, for instance, to build strength and speed equally. If you are looking to improve speed specifically – as in the summer months, or in the final build-up to a race – do fewer repetitions and increase the rest intervals. For more strength (or stamina), you would increase the number of repetitions and reduce the interval between efforts. Finally, as you get fitter, you should gradually be able to go faster over a given distance, or further at the same speed.

Over each distance, we give you options for focusing on strength, speed, or a combination of the two (that’s the option labelled ‘standard’).

Ideally, though, try to strike a balance, depending on your needs and fitness.

Ultimately, the more you can condition your body to function on shorter recoveries, the more effective your racing will be. Remember, a 10K race is effectively 25 x 400m with zero recovery. Now can you see why speedwork is the most important session of the week? We’ve divided our definitive speedwork guide into four sections:

They're all based around your 10K pace, and they're all full of examples and variations.

Group Running

Many clubs have track nights on Tuesdays and Thursdays and many will allow you to join in even if you aren’t a member. It’s easier running in a group, sharing a common aim. However, it is important that you run at a pace that is of benefit to you, rather than someone else. And if you find that you are killing yourself to stay in touch with faster runners from the start, ease back. If you don’t, you will run a worse session than if you ran it solo, and also not enjoy the experience.

Runners of different speeds can run together. At the RUNNER’S WORLD weekly training sessions in Regent’s Park, we use three different grass circuits: one of 1100m, one of 1300m and one of 1400m. Each runner’s speed determines the loop that they do, and if the session is, say, three laps, two laps, one lap, the faster runners run the longer distances but the interval time is virtually the same for everyone.

Another option for varying speeds is to handicap the participants. For example, if two runners normally run their 400m repetitions in 80 and 90 seconds respectively, the slower runner sets off 10 seconds ahead. This way the slower runner has a target of staying ahead, rather than trailing some way behind, and the faster runner has a target ahead.

A different option if one runner is doing 1600m repetitions is for the slower runner to do 1500m repetitions and start 100m further round the track, but at the same time. Alternatively the slower runner could simply run the first and last 400m of each repetition.