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Trail Tips

5 Speed Workouts To Get Faster

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Put athletes under the microscope, and you’ll see some shocking variation. An incomplete list of variables that can be wildly different among athletes that seem similar from the outside: muscle fiber composition, VO2 max, aerobic threshold, musculoskeletal proportions, bone density, lactate threshold, biomechanical patterns, whether they enjoy Taylor Swift or whether they have bad musical taste. The craziest part of training is that athletes can complete the same exact training, from very similar starting points, and all those variables can evolve differently.

Training is chaos. There are thousands of variables interacting in non-linear ways across time, with cause-and-effect dependent on plenty of things we can measure and even more things we can’t. You know that old chaos theory illustration of a butterfly flapping its wings and causing a hurricane a couple weeks later? For training, the same rules apply. (Here, chaos theory is just being used as an analogy, not as a mathematical principle, since I still sometimes have math-class-related stress dreams).

Long story short, if someone tells you that there’s one way to train, or criticizes your training, then you can probably tune out that advice and shake it off, shake it off. The only universal rules are death, taxes and the everlasting brilliance of Taylor Swift.

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But it’s easy to lose sight of that uncertainty. If B training follows A starting point, which leads to C race result, it’s easy to think that B caused C. However, there could be dozens of approaches that would have led to C. Long story short, if someone tells you that there’s one way to train, or criticizes your training, then you can probably tune out that advice and shake it off, shake it off. The only universal rules are death, taxes and the everlasting brilliance of Taylor Swift.

While the specifics are impossible to pin down, I think there is one general piece of training that many trail runners don’t adequately focus on: speed. Every athlete I coach trains differently with that individual-dependent uncertainty in mind, but with the general rule that we try to develop and reinforce adaptations related to top-end speed and power output almost year-round, even for athletes racing 100 miles.

In practice, that usually means short, fast strides or intervals focused on smooth speed, rather than grueling intervals or tempos. Tons of different things can work for training, but when it comes to speed, it’s often use it or lose it (with exceptions that make it interesting).

The Art and Science of Getting Fast

The reasoning is too complex to fully explore here (it’s a whole 25-page chapter in our book). But a few recent studies illustrated how developing speed endurance, or the amount of time a runner can hold close to maximal speed, can distribute to faster running at every effort level. “Speed endurance” itself is a controversial term, so I’m using it just because it’s the shorthand used in most studies.

When I saw this study design for the first time, I nearly jumped out of my chair in excitement because it was exactly the question I would have wanted to ask. Do you even need to run long and hard to get faster?

A 2018 study in Physiology Reports had 20 trained runners complete 10 speed endurance training sessions over a 40-day period, dropping total training volume by 36 percent from pre-study levels. The study measured 10K performance and running economy at high and low intensities.

When I saw this study design for the first time, I nearly jumped out of my chair in excitement because it was exactly the question I would have wanted to ask. Do you even need to run long and hard to get faster?

Over the six-week study, running economy at 60 percent of VO2 max (low intensity) and 10K pace (high intensity) improved by ~2 percent. Time-trial performance at 10K improved by ~3 percent, and more for athletes in a glycogen-depleted state (possibly indicative of changes in expression of proteins in slow-twitch muscle fibers). A 2018 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found significant speed increases with just six sessions over a couple weeks, and other studies have duplicated the findings.

Of course, training is way more complicated than that snapshot might make it seem. It’s possible that subsequent interventions would be less effective (see this 2017 study in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports) or possibly counter-productive (see this 2016 review in The Journal of Physiology, which also goes over some of the physiological basics underlying the response). The key is allowing speed development (like in the studies, focused primarily on neuromuscular/biomechanical improvements) to form a positive feedback loop with aerobic development/periodization (mileage, longer workouts, races, rest periods) to get stronger and faster over the course of years. Heck, speed may even make you a faster climber.

Time For The Workouts

I am practically James Madison with the length of that preamble. Let’s get to the workouts! There are many ways to develop your speed. My general rule is for athletes to do one or two sets of fast strides per week most of the year, which can be as simple as 4 x 20 seconds fast in the context of normal runs, on hills or flats. But to make those strides maximally effective, it seems to help to periodically do more focused speed workouts that reinforce adaptations like those from the studies.

There’s no magic to the exact distribution of these workouts, but make sure you have a solid aerobic base, and do no more than two workouts a week unless you have a compelling reason to do more. For the “fast” running, I like athletes to think of it as the fastest pace they can go while staying relaxed, not using sprinting form, and probably not going to exhaustion—possibly equating to something around 800 meter to 1 mile race effort (faster for beginner athletes, slower for advanced athletes). If you look like Tom Cruise trying to defuse a nuclear bomb in Mission Impossible, you’re probably trying too hard.

Don’t get too caught up in the specifics, though. The main idea is to get comfortable going fast, not to hit certain paces or lock in to exact efforts. Here are five speed workouts to supercharge your performance.

The Royale With Cheese: 5-10 x 30 seconds fast with 1 to 2 minutes easy recovery

This is the staple, the default, the all-the-toppings-but-hold-the-pickles speed workout. In the studies mentioned above, most of the protocols involved 5 to 10 x 30 seconds fast, often with a bit more recovery. Given that I don’t want athletes sprinting all-out, 1 to 2 minutes recovery has seemed to work well over the years.

On a normal easy run, do the first 30-second stride relaxed and smooth. On subsequent strides, you can push a bit more, focusing on power output in your strides, high knees and a short arm carriage (avoiding swinging your arms like Mr. Cruise). By the end of the workout, you may feel some resistance starting to build. If you want to avoid making things complicated, you can stop reading now. Just do these on flats or hills every week or two, and use the time you saved by not reading the other workouts to watch this video of a puppy falling asleep.

Advanced: do the strides on a slight downhill of 1-2 percent for an extra dose of recess-style speed. Do them on 6-8% grade uphill for a focus on power output and lower impact forces, which is especially useful for injury-prone athletes or athletes over 40. Doing 4 x 30 seconds is a great way to finish off tempo or interval workouts too, and that’s a staple of Coach Tom “Tinman” Schwartz’s training philosophy.

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The Gym Class Hero: 10-20 minutes of fast diagonals on soccer/football field with easy jog recovery along goal line

Diagonals are a staple of some East African training camps, and I have heard athletes say they get giddy with joy when they show up on the training log. Diagonals emphasize the “play” element of training, and the shorter rest periods provide a bonus aerobic stimulus that means athletes spend more time at velocity at VO2 max (a bit slower than the strides above).

On a grass or turf field, start at one corner and run to the opposite corner efficiently fast. Gently turn and jog along the goal line until you get to the next corner. Repeat so that the route looks like an infinity sign, which is appropriate because you are infinitely awesome.

Advanced: do 30 minutes of diagonals for a hard workout where speed endurance meets VO2 max.

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The Dirty 30s: 6-12 x 30 seconds fast/30 seconds easy

Like diagonals, 30/30s are a good way to combine speed endurance with velocity at VO2 max. Tons of track runners do them, but perhaps all you really need to know is that Kilian Jornet is known to do them as some of his speed work. Fact: if Kilian does something, it’s probably worth a try (for his cool-down, he turns water into wine).

In the second half of an easy or moderate run, accelerate gradually, reaching peak speed after 5 to 10 seconds. For the easy portions, go normal easy pace rather than a total jog. If I could only give an athlete one workout for all of their athletic lives to combine with unstructured trail running, it would probably be this one (or 1-minute intervals).

Advanced: in the easy portions, do “float” recoveries around aerobic threshold. That will make the fast portions a bit slower, and it’ll really take the aerobic stimulus to another level.

The Mathlete: 10/20/30/40/50/60/50/40/30/20/10 seconds fast with double recovery after each

There is no secret in pyramid-style workouts, but they are common in many training systems. My guess about why they are effective is that they break the work into manageable chunks and the “descending” part of the pyramid is fun. Also, they look cool. And as we all know, looking cool is 64 percent of the goal of workout design.

The Mathlete involves lots of numbers, mixing up the stimuli and serving as a good bridge to longer workouts. Don’t get too hung up on exact paces, just think playfully fun. After each interval, double the recovery at a purely easy effort (so 20 seconds after the 10-second interval, 120 seconds after the 60-second interval). Similar to Lindsay Lohan in the mathlete scene in Mean Girls, by doing this workout, you may find that it was your limit that did not exist all along.

Advanced: do the recovery portions as floats and you may run a really fast tempo overall, getting a bonus aerobic stimulus. Or do the intervals on a hill for a muscular power and endurance focus.

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The Like A Boss: 8-12 x 1 minute fast/2 minutes easy to easy/mod recovery

Bridging from developed top-end speed to sustaining faster paces for longer distances is one of the hardest parts of being an athlete. At some point (in my experience, right around 30 seconds), the brain and body can start sending signals that it’s more fun to jog and eat pancakes. That inflection point may have something to do with muscle-fiber recruitment and energy systems being used, and it’s why I call anything 30 seconds or less a stride, and anything over 30 seconds an interval or repetition. I don’t want athletes to try to sprint an interval or rep, which can have some counterproductive side-effects. Instead, the goal is to run smooth.

This is the workout when you feel like a smooth boss and see how to apply your speed to longer distances. I like athletes to think 5K to start, progressing a bit as they go, constantly trying to find the fun in the motion. The workload isn’t massive, but the benefits for running economy can be. This workout (or a similar variation) is almost always the first longer workout an athlete I coach will complete after a big race, rest period or aerobic base period.

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Advanced: do the fast portions on a slight downhill, with the recovery portions back to the start, to emphasize the smooth stride

Kurt Vonnegut said “we’re here on Earth to fart around, and don’t let anybody tell you different.” These speed workouts without pace feedback or benchmarks are the ultimate version of farting around on the run.

Embrace the farts! Don’t worry about how fast you go or the specific training goals, just try to have fun going fast. Do that, and you might get even better at farting around, which I think should be a primary goal for all of us.

—David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. His book, The Happy Runner, is about moving toward unconditional self-acceptance in a running life, and it’s available now on Amazon.

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