Words of occasional wisdom from Bruce Oakley

We need more speed

Posted by boakley59 on May 2, 2012

Getting up to speed found some of you reaching for the gas pedal and others wondering how the brakes work. So, let’s check under our hoods before we step on it.

The basic idea of speed work is that you cannot run fast unless you run well: Smoothly, efficiently, gracefully. Most of us past a certain age (10 or 12!) have to learn how to do that. Children are natural, efficient athletes, but as we get older we learn to strut, shake, rattle and roll—anything but move straightforwardly. So we go to the track to retrace our baby steps.

Tracks in America used to be measured in portions of a mile—the standard being 440 yards or a quarter mile. Tracks were usually built around football or soccer fields, and football fields are 100 yards goal line to goal line (120 end line to end line), so track straightaways are 100-120 yards. A 220 is half a lap, an eighth of a mile; 880 is two laps, half a mile. The world measures distance on the metric system, though, and tracks have shifted to international measurement. One lap is 400 meters, just a little shy of 440 yards. But now we talk about distances in multiples of 100: 100 (still a straightaway), 200 (half a lap), 400 (single lap), 800 (two laps, roughly half a mile), 1200, 1600 (almost a mile).

In speed work, you run these shorter distances hard to teach yourself to run well. You can vary the speed, the distance, the recovery and the number of repetitions to teach your body different lessons. We’ll take a run at each of these ideas.

The faster you run (the shortest repeats), the more your body will insist on efficiency so as not to rip itself up. The fastest humans can run about 22 miles an hour for about 20 seconds, 15 miles an hour for about four minutes and 13 miles an hour for about two hours. We are built for long cruising at something like 2/3 our maximum effort. Training at these maximum bursts over short distances makes it easier to maintain the more modest cruising speed—you raise the level of your mediocrity.

As you stretch the distance, you lower the speed some, still teaching yourself efficiency at better than cruising speed and also teaching yourself where your comfort level will be. You learn to persevere through a degree of suffering and you train your system to carry on at a deficit.

Changing the recovery period helps you fine-tune the lessons. A shorter recovery teaches your body to work faster to restore itself and to tolerate a deficit, but this must be done judiciously to avoid breakdown. A longer recovery allows you to run closer to maximum, which optimizes your mechanics, but doesn’t help as much with lung capacity and circulation.

Last, the number of repeats lets you push toward your total race effort, giving you the feel of a race day without the same toll on the system. More repeats give you the confidence that you can last a whole race at a given speed, let you know how close to the end you can ask yourself for overdrive, teach you how to relax when stress piles up and bring you up to a much happier medium.

So, how fast do you sprint for how long with how much rest and how many times? (Remember to warm up first and to cool down after.) The answers vary with your goals and fitness.

To begin, sprint hard for short distances (whatever that might mean at your fitness level: 20 yards or 120) and recover for an equivalent time or an equivalent distance. If you run 100 yards in 22 seconds, walk or jog either 100 yards or 22 seconds and go again (beginners may find you have to rest for twice the time of your hardest sprint; I think equivalent distance is easier to manage). Repeat five to eight times. Do this for one workout a week, and as your fitness progresses you can throw in longer sprints at manageable speeds faster than your target pace in your target race.

Say you run a 5K in 33:00, but want to get to 30:00; that’s 10:40 a mile now, aiming for 9:40 a mile. That’s 2:40 now targeting 2:25 for a quarter mile (440 yards, about 400 meters). Raw speed now to teach mechanics might mean a few 400s at 2:30, with a long recovery (walk 400 meters or 3:00). Pace work would be 8-10 repeats at 2:35 with less rest (walk 200 or 2:45). As you progress, your raw speed 400s would drop toward 2:15 with 400 or 2:30 walk, and your pace work would be 2:20 with 200 or 1:45 walk.

The pace chart below does the math for you, with workout paces for shorter repeats to take you to your target mile paces. You can also do this all by feel: Your repeats are generally faster and much shorter than your race pace, at a number of repeats that is just barely manageable. You should generally be “not quite ready” for each repeat, and the last repeat should leave you feeling like the cooldown jog is all you could handle. As the weeks pass, you will be working out faster and you’ll get closer to your goal.

A final caution: all things in their season. You can’t train hard all the time. Once a week is plenty (perhaps twice a week in peak season when you become highly competitive) and only for a few months at a time toward a target race. Then you should back off for a few months and do gentle maintenance mileage.

Now, if there are no further questions (and even if there are), let’s make tracks!

Pace chart


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