Speed: what really works?

We all have a surpassing faith in the ability of training programmes to help us become fitter and faster. In our endless search for the best regime, we scour the internet, buy books and magazines, and attend clinics staffed by Olympic medallists and their coaches. The goal: to find programmes that provide the greatest return for the effort we are putting in.

If the following three programmes were all guaranteed to improve your marathon time by 20 minutes, which one would you choose?

(A) Run 100 miles a week and spend six hours in an ice bath;

(B) Run 100 miles a week and accompany it with six hours of sports massage at £50 an hour; or

(C) Run 50 miles a week and have plenty of time for The Apprentice.

Here's the twist: scientists don't know for sure whether A, B, or C is the "right" answer – the path to greatest improvement. That's why, two years ago, New Zealand-based researchers Carl Paton and Will Hopkins, began digging through 20 years of research on sessions that boost endurance performance. They wanted to see if they could gain some clarity on the subject.

In their investigation, Paton and Hopkins looked only at studies with veteran endurance athletes. That's important. "If you look at non-exercisers, it's too easy to find training programmes that produce big results, because it doesn't take much to make the first fitness gains," says Paton who works at the University of Waikato, in Hamilton, New Zealand.

Paton is a former international cyclist who gave up his dream of the pro tour when he realised he'd starve to death before breaking away from the peloton. Today he enters triathlons and manages a 1:25 half-marathon. Paton was surprised by the relative lack of high-quality papers he and Hopkins found. "Given the many stories we've all heard about great training programmes, you'd think there'd be lots of good research," he says. "But there isn't."

Quick thinking

Eventually the investigators settled on the 22 best studies, which were then analysed and compared by Hopkins, a statistics whiz. Their findings were published in 2004 in a paper titled "Effects of High-Intensity Training on Performance and Physiology of Endurance Athletes."

The clear winner among workouts: "maximal" interval training. It produced the most and biggest performance improvements, often four to six per cent. No surprise there. Interval training has been a favourite of top coaches and runners since the end of World War II. This type of training involves fast intervals of two minutes to 10 minutes at about your two-mile race pace – precisely what many runners do when they run intervals of 800-2,400m. Interval training should be the first weapon in your speed arsenal.

Paton and Hopkins found that "supramaximal intervals" (fast intervals that last 30 seconds or less) also led to good improvements, two to four per cent. They could find only one study of what we would call tempo training, and it produced improvements of about three per cent. So both very-fast running and controlled tempo sessions should also be part of your training regimen.

You might as well skip the upper-body strength training because it doesn't do any good. In fact, it could have a negative effect. It tends to add extra bulk without enhancing oxygen transport, or building power in your leg muscles. However, "explosive sport-specific strength training" for the legs was surprisingly effective. It produced endurance benefits of two per cent all the way up to eight per cent in some studies.

Paton believes this form of training may be the newcomer to the endurance-training dance, waltzing on to the floor well behind interval training and tempo training. Explosive sport-specific strength training increases your endurance by improving your running economy. With better economy, you consume less oxygen at a given running speed, so you can continue running longer. "The explosive training helps you train more of your muscle fibres," says Paton. "That means you can spread out the work load when you're running hard. You can divide it among more fibres, which reduces your oxygen consumption."

In an original running study of their own design, Paton and colleagues manipulated the training of 20 veteran distance runners capable of an 18-minute 5K. Those who continued their normal competitive-season training for seven weeks cut 11 seconds from their 5K times as they became fitter. Those who switched to a programme that eliminated 30 minutes of running several times a week and substituted that time for explosive leg-hopping exercises had better results – they managed to slice 24 seconds from their time. The regime wasn't easy: the runners hopped onto a 16-inch box, landing on the same foot, and then immediately jumped as high as they could from the same foot.

Jump to conclusions

The jumping upward makes a difference. When you run or jump downward, either on the down side of Snowdon or while doing plyometric-type bounding, your leg muscles are forced to contract eccentrically to absorb the landing shock. These eccentric contractions cause muscle soreness – often enough to limit your training the next couple of days. Since distance runners hate to lose training time, they naturally avoid eccentric training. However, you can eliminate the eccentric contractions, and still have a great sport-specific explosive strength workout, by exploding upward rather than downhill. Some of you will recognise uphill bounding as a favourite training tool of the legendary New Zealand coach Arthur Lydiard, who died last year.

This is an area that biomechanist Peter Weyand, has been studying closely for several decades, and in at least 20 species of animals. His favourites are the wallabies and kangaroos that actually consume less oxygen when running fast than when running slowly.

Weyand has run more than 60,000 miles himself, with a best 5K of 14:41, so he also knows a fair amount about the human side of running. And his research consistently points to one simple conclusion: to run faster, you need to apply more force more quickly with each stride. This will increase your stride length while you maintain or increase your stride frequency. "The Force Hypothesis, as we call it, is basically true for all animals," Weyand says. "The goal is to spend less time on the ground and more time in the air. And the only way to do that is to apply more force with each footfall."

The improvements can be small, often just a per cent or two. But remember that the marathon world record holder Paul Tergat has won only two marathons, in each case by a second or less. In his world-record breaking marathon run in Berlin he ran 2:04:55 to beat his compatriot Sammy Korir by just a single second. If Korir could have improved by one per cent, he would have crossed the line over a minute ahead of Tergat, earning himself a six figure payout and a place in history. Surely Korir would have been willing to jump on a few boxes for that.