Speed Development For Distance Runners
By Jeff Gaudette—As training theory continues to evolve, coaches and exercise scientists are continuing to uncover more effective and efficient ways to train and get results at long distance racing. In particular, coaches now understand the importance of speed development (recruiting maximum muscle fibers per stride, developing neuromuscular coordination and improving efficiency)—even for long distance runners, who race at paces far slower than their top-end speed.
In fact, if you’re a runner who focuses on racing the half marathons and marathons, speed development is even more important than you may realize.
Most marathoners devote a vast majority of their training to logging lots of miles and performing challenging threshold runs, which, of course, are critical components to running your best at the 26.2-mile distance. As a result, most marathoners may go years without running faster than 5K pace in training. Consequently, they lose their ability to generate explosive muscle power, which results in the decline of running efficiency and economy and, eventually, form starts to break down. This loss of speed is even more pronounced with age, as studies show speed is the first of your abilities to deteriorate as you get older.
Therefore, in order to guarantee long-term progress in running, it’s important you incorporate regular speed development work in your training. We’ll explain the difference between speed development and traditional speed work and show you how (and when) to implement speed development work into your training schedule.
—Speed Work vs. Speed Development—
It may seem like semantics, but there is a difference between speed development and speed work, which is what runners traditionally think of when envisioning speed. While some coaches and publications use the terms interchangeably, understanding the difference between the two is important in order to appreciate how speed development workouts will benefit you, especially because they are rather unconventional workouts for a distance runner.
Speed development is training your top-end speed, i.e. the absolute fastest pace you can run, which for most runners tops out at less than 100 meters. For example, most Olympic-caliber 100-meter sprinters reach their top speed between 50-60 meters, with the exception of Usain Bolt, who reached his top speed between 60 and 80 meters during his world-record run of 9.58 seconds.
During speed development workouts, you’re not concerned with improving your metabolic energy systems (VO2 max, lactate threshold, aerobic capacity); rather, the focus is increasing the maximum amount of fast-twitch muscle fibers recruited for each stride and improving the speed at which your brain sends signals to your muscles to fire. Instead of improving your specific fitness, you’re focusing exclusively on the neuromuscular system.
On the other hand, traditional speed work, i.e., 400-meter or mile repeats, is about improving VO2max or anaerobic threshold. While you certainly recruit a greater percentage of fast-twitch muscle fibers during a set of 400m repeats compared to a long run, it’s not the purpose of the workout. Traditional speed work is, and should be, focused on improving metabolic systems.
Understanding this difference is important, especially when you’re performing speed development workouts. Traditional speed workouts are quite challenging because you’re running fast with minimal rest. Your lungs are often burning and you’re fighting hard to finish each interval. Again, this is because the goal is to improve your VO2max.
On the contrary, speed development workouts are alactic, which means you do not need oxygen for energy and don’t produce lactic acid when running them. Consequently, speed development workouts won’t have you panting or clutching your knees after each interval because they’re only 50 to 150 meters long. Moreover, you will also have a complete and full recovery between each repeat. In order to recruit maximum fast twitch muscle fibers, you must be fully recovered before each interval.
—How does speed development benefit you?—
Now that you understand the difference between speed work and speed development, how does speed development make you a better marathoner? After all, you won’t be racing Usain Bolt anytime soon, right?
The main goal of speed development workouts is to improve your running economy and efficiency. In layman’s terms, this means being able to run faster and farther with less effort and while expending less energy. For a marathoner or half marathoner, this means race pace will require less effort (making it feel easier, especially in the latter miles) and you’ll be able to conserve precious carbohydrates in the process.
As discussed earlier, speed development workouts train the body to activate a greater percentage of muscle fibers with each stride. In doing so, you’re able to make each stride more explosive and generate more power without increasing effort. This increased power is what makes your stride more fluid and allows you to propel yourself farther with each stride, making you faster.
In addition, speed development improves the efficiency of the neuromuscular system, which is the communication system between your brain and your muscles. Improving the efficiency of the neuromuscular system allows your body to increase the speed at which it sends signals to the muscles and, more importantly, contributes to the activation of a greater percentage of muscle fibers.
—When is the best time to do speed development workouts?—
Speed development work is a complementary training element and isn’t something that should compose a majority of your training schedule. Instead, you should make it an infrequent, but ongoing component of your regular training or dedicate one or two short speed development phases to your yearly training schedule.
It’s imperative that you have no existing injuries and have done some core or basic strength work before starting speed development workouts. Running at top end speed is demanding and, in some cases, challenges muscles that you may not have used in years. If you’re unsure about your body’s ability to handle sprint work, start with core workouts and short, explosive hill sprints for three weeks to help you get ready for more intense speed development work.
Ongoing, Year-Round Speed Development
One way to incorporate speed development work into your training is to schedule a speed development workout every 12-14 days, year-round. In doing so, you never get too far away from your top-end speed and you can continuously improve as your training progresses.
At first, speed development workouts should take the place of your normal workout day (preferably replacing a speed workout or hill session). After your muscles get well conditioned to speed development workouts, you can do them the day before a VO2 max session or a lighter threshold run.
The downside to incorporating speed development this way is that you potentially sacrifice a race-specific workout every 12-14 days. If you race often or you are a new runner, this may make it difficult to get in all the longer tempo runs you need to race well in that particular training segment.
Speed Development Phases
Another approach is to dedicate a specific 4 to 6 week training block purely to speed development. This is the preferred approach for marathoners who want to race a spring and a fall marathon. After you recover from a marathon, you can begin a speed development phase, which is a good way to ensure you’re working on all your energy systems and changing up the stimulus between races before jumping back into marathon training.
The negative to the speed development phase is that you won’t be able to race very fast during this 4-to-6 week block. Your training will consist primarily of sprint work and you won’t be doing race-specific workouts or lots of tempo runs, so your race-specific fitness won’t be as high as it will be when fully focused on one event. If you’re not the type of runner who can see the forest through the trees, the ongoing strategy may be a better way to incorporate speed development workouts into your training schedule.
Examples Of Speed Development Workouts
The most important thing to remember about speed development workouts is that they will not feel hard in the traditional sense of training. You won’t be gasping for breath after you’re done. The long periods of rest between each repeat are designed to allow for full recovery. This is where most runners get the concept of speed development wrong. It takes 2-3 minutes to fully recover from a 30 to 50-meter sprint. Don’t try to shorten it – if anything, err on the side of caution and take a longer break than you think you made need.
Full, lengthy warmup of 2-3 miles, followed by 3 x 150-meters at 90% effort (90 seconds recovery between reps), 6 x 50 meters at 100% (2-3 minutes recovery between reps), 3 x 200 meters at 85% effort with full recovery (90 seconds recovery between reps), 2 miles at 10K race pace, 2-mile cooldown.
This is a session that works well if you’re doing speed development work throughout your training cycle in place of another workout. While the 150m and 200m repeats aren’t technically alactic, they will help you improve your ability to relax while running fast. The 50m repeats are definitely alactic and are the real speed development portion of this workout. I’ve added the 2 miles at 10K pace at the end to add a little tempo effort and keep the workout at a reasonable mileage level. This session is definitely a fun change of pace in the middle of marathon training if done once every two weeks.
Full, lengthy warmup of 2-3 miles, 8 x 150 meters (Accelerate to 90% effort in the first 50m, run the second 50m as fast as can, decelerate in the last 50m). Take a full recovery of 2-3 minutes jogging between each rep, then perform 5 x 8 second sprints at fast as you can with 3 minutes WALKING rest between repeats. Finish with a 2-mile cooldown.
This workout structure was popularized by Jay Johnson and is a true speed development session. The first part of the 150-meter reps is to get you up to speed and helps prevent injuries. The later half of the workout maximizes muscle fiber recruitment and explosive speed.
Try incorporating these or other speed development workouts into your training cycle, whether it be ongoing or as a specific-speed phase, and experience the difference improving your top-end speed can have on your long distance racing.
Jeff has been running for 13 years, at all levels of the sport. He was a two time Division-I All-American in Cross Country while at Brown University and competed professionally for 4 years after college for the Hansons-Brooks Distance Project. Jeff is certified by the USATF, the RRCA and has been featured in Running Times magazine, Endurance Magazine, as well as numerous local magazine fitness columns.