Training Effectively Part 3: The Need for Speed


In this latest installment on effective training, I’d like to address a critical but often neglected topic among distance runners. As runners age, some move towards longer and slower races, reasoning that since they no longer have the speed of their youth, it’s therefore better to focus on a different type of challenge. Thus, rather than trying to run “fast”, they seek to run far. I must begin by saying that I have the utmost respect for ultrarunners and can understand the scintillating challenge which is inherent in going very, very long over rugged, beautiful terrain with like-minded individuals. In fact, I deeply admire those who overcome extreme altitude, weather, course difficulty, mental and physical fatigue, sleeplessness, and gastro-intestinal challenges in long endurance races. I would still argue, however, that even these hardy souls, right on down to the masters miler, still need speed.
When we focus almost exclusively on long, slow distance running and we skip the speed (and strength – to be addressed in a subsequent blog), the following occurs:
“-Atrophy of intermediate and fast-twitch fibers
-Decrease in neuromuscular recruitment and efficiency
-Increase in lactate accumulation during high-intensity exercise (and corresponding rise in acidosis)
-Decreased muscle buffering capacity” (from “The Dirty Dozen”, by Pete Magill)
Speed development workouts help milers to ultra marathoners because these workouts improve both biomechanics and running economy (and therefore running efficiency). If you are a more economical runner, you can run a faster marathon, even if you don’t make metabolic improvements.
Before I go any further, I’d like to differentiate between various types of training and therefore what exactly I mean when I say “speed development”. As we’ve stated many times in training, there is a specific purpose for every workout. In a particular workout you are seeking to stimulate one or more metabolic energy systems. These include VO2 max, lactate threshold, aerobic capacity, etc. Many long distance runners who think of “speed” training think 400 meter repeats. But a 400 meter repeat session is not a speed development workout. Rather, in 400’s, you are working to improve one of your metabolic systems (in this case the improvement of VO2 max). While you do recruit some fast twitch fibers during a set of 400 meter repeats, the primary purpose of that workout is to improve VO2 max.
True speed development workouts are alactic, meaning you do not need oxygen for energy and don’t produce lactic acid when running them. These are short, fast repeats with full recovery with the purpose of recruiting fast twitch muscle fibers. “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 further 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.” (from “Speed Development for Distance Runners” by Jeff Gaudette)

Each of us has a unique muscle make up which consists of slow, intermediate and fast twitch fibers in varying proportions. Speed training works the full range of your muscle makeup. This is critical because even in long races you will need every available fiber to be fully developed. As slow twitch fibers fatigue, fast twitch muscles are called into action, especially in the latter stages of long running events (such as the marathon).
Speed development is complementary work and won’t compose a majority of your training. However, it should be an ongoing component of your regular training, done year round so that you’re never too far away from your top end speed. It consists of short (30-50 meters), fast repeats with full recovery (2-3 minutes) done either on a hill or flat. “In and out” strides are another way to address speed development. These consist of 150 meters of acceleration in the first 50 meters, the second 50 meters as fast as possible, and deceleration in the final 50.
Athletes should ease into these types of workouts, supplementing this work with strength development to support the added demands on the body. Your muscles will gradually become more and more conditioned to these types of workouts. Because speed development workouts are alactic you can do them on the day before a tempo or long run. They should not feel hard in the traditional sense of training. You won’t be gasping for breath, bent over, hands on knees. The long recovery periods are critical in allowing regeneration of ATP stores before the next sprint.
It is imperative that you have no existing injuries and have done core and strength work before starting speed development workouts. Running at top end speed is demanding and will challenge muscles that you may not have used in a while. A good place to start is with short, explosive hill sprints on dirt or grass to ease your body into the demands of this work. Also, be sure to warm up thoroughly (jogging, drills, strides) before doing this type of workout.
Hopefully these workouts will feel fun to you! I like to think of them as “fun fast” and a good reminder that, even as we age, we don’t necessarily have to become slow!

One Response to “Training Effectively Part 3: The Need for Speed”

  1. Doug Says:

    Excellent job spelling out the different systems! I just need to force myself to do sprints.

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