The Only Way to Run Faster Is….

…to run faster.

Sage advice, I know. But how often is the truth so simple that we overlook it in order to try to find a “better” way. For us runners, we want to get faster so we try the newest shoes, the fanciest sports drink, different energy chews/gels, and whatever else is new and flashy and endorsed/promoted by Usain Bolt, Kara Goucher, or Runner’s World magazine.

But the only way to get faster is to simply run faster.

Every Tuesday, various factions of the Lakeland Runner’s Club gather at different places and times (5:30 am at First Pres, 6:30 pm at LHS Track) for our weekly speed work sessions with a common goal–let’s get faster.

What Is Speed Work?

Don’t over think this one folks.

For runners, speed work (also known as intervals or track workouts) involves running a certain distance at a near maximal intensity level, having a predetermined recovery period, and repeating the process.

There are an infinite number of variations of speed work (repeats, ladders, pyramids, negatives, to name a few) but all follow the run hard, recover, repeat pattern.

And all are really tough if done correctly.

What Are the Benefits of Speed Work?

Well, you get faster.

Contrary to what you may think, there really are only two ways to increase your running speed. Any guesses? Here they are: increase the distance covered per stride (stride length) or increase the number of strides taken in a given amount of time (stride frequency).

That’s it. (Disagree? Leave me a comment and I’ll explain to you why your example proves that I am, in fact, right 🙂 )

Speed work doesn’t help much with lengthening your stride, but it does help you to improve your stride frequency.

Here’s how:

Improve Your VO2 Max-Your VO2 Max is a formula that exercise physiologists use to determine how much oxygen you are able to take and use at near maximal levels of exertion. The higher your VO2 Max, the more you can do at a higher level.

Speed work actually impacts two of the components that make up your total VO2 Max, which are stroke volume and arteriovenous oxygen difference.

Stroke volume is the fancy term for measuring how much blood is pumped each time your heart beats. So, a larger stroke volume means more oxygen rich blood is making its way to your muscles to be used for energy production.

The more blood transported to the muscles, the harder your muscles can work, and the more steps you can take in a set amount of time.

Arteriovenous oxygen difference is the actual amount of oxygen that is transferred from the blood to the muscles with each heart beat. The more oxygen that is transferred, the better as it can be used to create more power for the muscles to fire and your stride rate to increase.

The impacts of speed work on VO2 Max, and the impact of VO2 Max on the ability to run faster, are unquestioned.

There is another possible way that speed work can help you to run faster that is yet to be empirically proven which is that it may lead to an improved lactate threshold.

When you are working out at high intensity level, your body’s energy creators (mitochondria) are working overtime. And one of the by-products of your mitochondria cranking out the needed energy quickly is an accumulation of the waste product lactic acid. At lower intensity levels, your body is able to rapidly break down the lactic acid. But as exercise intensity increases, your body is unable to break down the lactic acid as quickly as it builds up, and the excess lactic acid causes muscle failure.

Image from The Fitness Grail

Image from The Fitness Grail

Many exercise physiologists believe that by training your body in a way that causes lactic acid to accumulate, quickly be broken down, accumulate again, be broken down again, etc. etc, (hello speed work) you train your body to not only break down lactic acid quicker, but to also be able to continue to function at a high level once the acid levels start getting higher.

If this is true, speed work is a great way to train your body to be able to sustain a quick, albeit short, burst of energy when you need it most, like at the end of a race and you’re pushing for a new PR or when you’re trying to maintain speed going up a hill.

So Who Should Do Regular Speed Work?

The simple answer, anyone who runs regularly and wants to get faster.

On the surface, it may not seem like those who run really long distances (half marathon, full marathon, ultra) would benefit from speed work, but that isn’t true at all! As I mentioned above, the VO2 Max improvements are a huge benefit of doing speed work, and for those of us that run long a better VO2 Max is a great way to help prevent hitting the dreaded wall as hard. (You’re still going to hit it though. Somewhere between mile 17 and mile 24. Guaranteed.)

But by doing regular speed work, distance runners are able to gradually increase their long run speed, improve their foot turnover, and likely improve their kick for the last few hundred meters.

Obviously, for those that regularly run shorter distances, speed work is a great component to your training for your event. While you might not be able to run a 5k at your quarter mile repeat pace (at least you shouldn’t be able to), those speed sessions will help you turn in shorter and shorter race times as you add them into your regular training regimen. (You do regularly train for your 5ks right? Right?)

Really, the only people that shouldn’t do speed work are those that have just started running recently. New runners need to give their bodies time to adapt to the demands of running by strengthening their muscles, tendons, bones, and joints before you get into speed work. Stick to running 3-4 days a week for a month or two, and then slowly wade into the speed work pool.

Is Too There Such Thing as Too Much Speed Work?


Speed work is hard, which is why a lot of runners (especially us distance runners) don’t like doing it. And not only is it mentally difficult, but it takes a toll on your body physically.

The general rule of thumb for most of us normal runners (read:not pros) is no more than one speed workout per week, with at least a day off between other hard workouts or long runs. Personally, I like having 2 days between a speed workout and either a tempo run or a long run. After a speed session, my legs are completely shot and it’s all I can do to keep up with my dog for a few miles to get her a little exercise. (Though let’s be honest, she’s  fast! She can run sub-7 pace for 20 minutes if it’s not too hot out!)

After a speed session resting, cross training, or going for a really easy run  is important to allow your body to heal after the speed workout. Running at or near top speed, even for shortish bursts, causes muscle micro-tears and intracellular inflammation, and your body needs a chance to do the necessary repairs before you push to the limit again. By doing an easy workout the day after, you are increasing your heart rate which helps bring more blood to the area delivering the raw materials your cells need to do the required repair work.

Likewise, for must runners speed work puts a lot more force on your bones and joints, so by giving them a break for a day or two after a tough speed workout you are decreasing your chances of suffering from extra achy joints and the possibility of a dreaded stress fracture!

If done properly, regular speed workouts are a great way to make you a faster, stronger, and more efficient runner. Since I started doing speed work semi-regularly, I’ve PRd in 5 races (1 half, 4 5ks) and I don’t even do speed work all of the time. If I make myself do it on a regular basis, I’m fully confident that my 5k unicorn (the sub-20) will be caught soon, hopefully at the last Watermelon Series race of the year.


Damn those 21 seconds!

Do You Regularly Do Speed Workouts? Do You Like Them or Do You Do Them Because You Know You Should? Let Me Know Below!

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