Quick As You Like

Yes, I know, you don’t do speedwork. You run for fun, relaxation and fitness, not to induce pain. You’ve seen those interval training articles before, but you turn over the page because that just isn’t what you and your running are about. You’re probably ready to skip this one, too.

Before you go, though, at least take a minute to meet Sally Lavin, a 44-year-old runner who, until two years ago, was just like you: no speedwork. And that was with 17 years of consistent, year-round running to her credit. “I thought, ‘Why would I want to go faster?’” says Sally. “‘I’m content with what I’m doing.’”

I can vouch for this because she’s my sister-in-law, and I’ve known her all that time. I would watch her run with relative ease, finishing well enough in most races but, to my mind, far behind where she could have been. I would urge her to add a little interval training – speedier running for short distances, interspersed with recovery jogs – to her daily work-outs, but my advice always fell on deaf ears. “It didn’t sound like fun,” admits Sally. “Running was something I did for relaxation and fitness, and speedwork doesn’t exactly fit that mould.”

All of that changed for Sally when she started coaching the running team at the school where she teaches. Mostly she ran easy miles with the team, helping newcomers adjust to basic running. But to set a good example, she also participated in speedwork sessions. And before long, she noticed that she was running smoother, faster, stronger and with less effort. Not just on the track and in races, but also in her daily runs. “I hate to admit it,” says Sally, laughing, “but speedwork definitely makes you a stronger runner.”

No surprise there then. The body, after all, has an uncanny ability to adapt to physiological demands: train at the same pace day after day, week after week, year after year, and that’s the kind of running the body adapts to.

But if you break out of that comfort zone with a little speedwork now and then, the body will learn to deal with the new demands. The heart will get stronger, the cardiovascular system more efficient, the muscles better able to function at full force. And all this will translate into greater strength, faster times and easier daily runs. And you’ll simply feel better.

The first question you should ask yourself is: are you ready for faster-paced running? A certain amount of basic training is necessary before you should undertake speedwork – even the easy variety which is outlined here.

“You should wait until you’ve run for a while,” says Benji Durden, a former Olympic marathon runner who now coaches runners of all abilities. “You need to get your running legs under you.”

But what exactly does that mean? Novice runners come in all shapes, sizes and pre-existing conditions, so there’s no magic formula for determining exactly how much basic running is needed before you start speedwork. Most experts recommend three or four months of preparation.

You want to make sure all your bones, ligaments, tendons and joints can handle the stress, so you need at least 12 weeks of building up – from being out of shape to being able to run three miles comfortably non-stop three or four times a week.

Keep it simple

Okay then, let’s say you’re at this stage. You’re doing at least three or four runs a week, and you feel pretty good. You’re just not sure how to step it up from there. Maybe speedwork seems too complicated with all those distances to reckon with, times to record, heart rates to monitor and rest intervals to pay attention to. There’s also this business of going to a track and acting like an elite runner. That whole arena is for the serious-minded Olympic aspirant – isn’t it?

Well no, not really. Most tracks are public facilities which are open to any runner. But coaches know that beginners are often intimidated by the track setting, so most have devised ways to nudge their charges into faster-paced running without leaving their more familiar venue.

Pick up on pickups

Pickups, which are segments of faster-paced running injected into an existing run, are probably the easiest way to slip speedwork into an exisiting programme. On a favourite three-mile course, for example, begin choosing landmarks and running to them at a quicker-than-normal pace. “It might be the next street light, it might be the top of a hill,” says coach and author Bob Glover, who uses pickups extensively with his beginners’ running groups. “I tell them to do six or eight of these during the run.” Same loop, same scenery, just the occasional decision to run slightly faster for a while. “This takes away the stress of going to a track,” says Glover, “because in the minds of many people, you don’t go to the track unless you’re good.”

Glover isn’t alone in using this approach. Many coaches use it as the first step to faster running. Durden urges his runners to use lamp-posts as targets, running to the first, second or third one up the street, then jogging an equal distance to recover. “Run a little harder between posts,” he says, “but not so hard that you’re dying and can’t do another one.”

Pace yourself

Pace is one of the trickiest parts for new runners in an unstructured system like this. Beginners almost always start too fast and end up breathless after only one or two pickups. If you have racing experience, you could aim for an effort equivalent to a 5K pace; if not, the advice is more general. “I tell my athletes to run at a controlled faster pace,” says Glover, “a pace they know they can hold the whole way.”

Sports scientist Owen Anderson, another advocate of such modified fartlek sessions, advises running slowly enough that your breathing doesn’t become laboured. To keep his runners at that effort level, he tells them to do shorter segments, sessions that improve form without risking injury. One such favourite he calls ‘stopwatch fartlek’, which involves 15 seconds of quicker running alternated with 45 seconds of jogging. His runners do three to four laps of this on the track, or about a mile on the roads. If a runner doesn’t want to use his or her watch, he advises counting footsteps while limiting each sprint to 20-24 strikes of either the left or the right foot, a rough equivalent of 15 seconds. Anderson believes that it’s almost impossible for someone – even sprinting all out – to get into trouble in just 15 seconds.

If you can resist the urge to run too fast, longer versions of stopwatch fartlek are also possible. I’ve alternated one-minute repetitions during my own training to make the transition from easy winter running to more elaborate, faster work-outs in the spring. It’s a great way to start claiming – or reclaiming – some leg speed after a long period of mostly easy running.

All coaches agree that a good warm-up is mandatory before fartlek or any kind of faster running: 10-15 minutes is the standard, followed by a couple of minutes of light stretching if it doesn’t disrupt the flow of the work-out.

Head for the hills

That kind of warm-up also goes along with another favourite introductory speed work-out – hill repetitions. Hillwork can be difficult, but the natural resistance inherent in uphill running provides another way for beginners to adjust to harder efforts. “It might be a bit scary the first time,” admits Durden. “Still, a set of three or four moderately paced uphill runs of 45-90 seconds each can be a great work-out for speedwork novices.”

A gentle climb is the key. “The hill should have enough of a slope so that there’s a little bit of work involved,” says Durden, “but not so much of a slope that you’re developing mountaineering skills.”

Anderson always stresses the importance of a controlled pace in hillwork. His recommendation is a set of six repetions, with the first two at 45 seconds, the next two at 30 and the final two at 15. “That enables you to avoid that terrible multiplier effect of fatigue when you’re just dragging during the last few reps,” he explains.

Make strides

Fartlek and hills are good ways to ease into speedwork, and strides are another. Basically, this is what Anderson’s alternating track work-out of 15 seconds fast, 45 seconds easy is all about. Striding is a kind of controlled high-speed running – not quite sprinting, but certainly fast and short in duration.

Strides can be incorporated into the middle of a run or tacked on at the end. Either way, the goal is the same – to get the body moving in a quick, fluid motion, rehearsing fast running so the muscles and nervous system adjust to it. The key is to enjoy the pure movement of flying down the road – that wonderful rush you get when you run fast.

Not a bad goal for speed training in general. We don’t invent new stresses so we feel bad, but rather so we feel better, at least eventually. That won’t happen immediately, of course. The human system needs stress to improve, but it also needs rest – time to recover and rebuild.

“If you do any kind of speedwork,” says Anderson, “you definitely should follow it with an easy day.” This may not seem necessary, but gearing right down on the day after working hard is the key to avoiding injury.

Using the sessions already mentioned, and following every fast day with a day or two of easy running, should allow you to develop speed without undue risk of injury. At first, one speed day a week will begin gearing up the system. Once that adjustment is complete, you can add a second day. From there, gradually increase the number of your speedwork intervals, as well as the distance and pace of them, for greater effect. But never do more than two speed sessions per week.

In this first step, the initial introduction of the body to speedwork, remember that you’re nudging your body along, getting it to make the necessary adjustments. “I think the key word is transition,” says Glover. “A transition from running at a comfortable pace, just for fitness and recreation, to running a speed session.”

Two simple, faster-paced sessions a week will make a big difference. So will occasional racing. A 5K or 10K race every month or so, especially if you carefully monitor your mile splits, will help you in learning to run a controlled pace over a longer distance. Racing will also help you to learn the benchmarks – your current 5K and 10K pace – that are commonly used to develop more individualised work-outs.

Even for runners who never make the transition to more sophisticated work-outs, easing into speedwork will lead to more enjoyable running. “You’ll get a marked improvement in leg strength,” says Anderson, “which is going to translate into easier running on normal days.” That, for most, is well worth the effort.

“Doing speedwork automatically strengthens you,” says my sister-in-law, Sally, now a true believer after all those years of same-paced training. “And it’s actually a lot of fun, too.”