Why Speed Training Matters (Even for Ultrarunners)

Running fast is important, even for beginners and endurance athletes. Here’s why, plus four essential workouts to start.

Photo: Getty Images

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For eight long years, I had a running problem. Every August, I became utterly and completely antsy. My legs twitched, my energy was heightened, and my desire to run fast grew day by day. This restlessness always came at the end of my cross country summer base training, which was mostly made of up of running in Zone 2 miles. After months of running steadily and slowly, I was bored and aching to push the RPM’s higher.

Perhaps you’ve felt the same way. After a prolonged period of easy running, you can sometimes start to feel stale. Each run feels the same and you may actually experience a reduction in certain elements of your fitness like coordination, athleticism, and power.

RELATED: Yes, Zone 2 Training Is Important. (Just Don’t Forget the Other Stuff.) 

That’s because even long distance runners aren’t meant to only run slow. If you’re an ultrarunner, speed training offers so many developmental benefits that it can be a disservice to your growth as an athlete to eliminate it entirely.

Below I highlight why long distance runners should incorporate speed workouts even if their goal race doesn’t require them to run fast.

What Is Speed Training?

Speed training can be defined in many ways. If you were to ask 10 different coaches their definition, you might get 10 different answers. For our purposes, let’s define speed training as any workout where you’re running at one-mile race pace or faster. In other words, it’s very fast!

For this reason, you might not be able to complete a high volume of speed training, nor should you. Distance runners should be exposed to a regular dose of intensity, but make sure not to overdo it.

An important concept to internalize is that fast running is not the same as hard running. The workouts that are referenced later include both fast and hard running, but there’s an important distinction: fast running doesn’t necessarily have to be hard, and hard running isn’t necessarily fast.

Many runners are familiar with the concept of the “80/20” rule, which states that no more than 20 percent of your volume should be done at harder efforts. If we were to further subdivide that 20 percent, paces that represent mile pace or faster should be a small fraction of this total. Depending on your volume, that might only be 2 to 5 percent of your total weekly volume.

Consider speed training the “cherry on top” of your training. It can refine your fitness and boost your performances, but just make sure you spend the majority of your time building your capacity. When in doubt, err on the conservative side with less volume at these high speeds.

How Does Speed Training Help Endurance Runners?

Spending a small amount of your training time at high speeds will help your overall development as a runner, but it will also improve your upcoming race performances.

These training sessions have the potential to give you a lot of benefits:

  • Increased running speed (your maximum, sprint, or “top end” speed will be increased)
  • Higher running economy (you’ll be more efficient and use less energy at the same speeds)
  • Better neuromuscular coordination (the communication pathways between your brain and muscles)
  • Increased muscle strength

Most runners think that running at fast speeds only makes them faster. But better economy, coordination, and strength are fitness gains that transfer well to other distances (even the long ones that don’t require much speed).

The two most important benefits are added strength and better running economy, two skills that are in high demand in ultra-distance races. If you can run the same distance with less wasted energy, you’ll end up at the finish line substantially sooner!

Building Speed into Your Program

Runners that want to glimpse their potential are good candidates for more speed training. If you haven’t yet started to “run fast,” there are many workouts that can give you these benefits safely and accessibly, no matter your ability.

1. Strides (uphill or on flat terrain) have you accelerate up to 800-meter or one-mile race pace and then decelerate to a stop for a total distance of about 100 meters. Strides are more like drills than workouts so they are considered “fast but not hard.” They can be added after an easy run or before a workout. Complete four to six reps, two to three times per week.

RELATED: Why and How to Run Strides to Improve Speed On The Trails

2. Hill Sprints are maximum intensity sprints up a steep hill with full walking recovery. They only last 8-10 seconds so they are the most like a true speed development workout a sprint coach may assign. Since they’re so short, they’re not very difficult but they sure are fast. Run four to six reps, one to two times per week after easy runs.

3. Hill Surges are a more traditional hill workout but the repetitions are kept to 30-60 seconds. They are run at about mile race pace and include at least 90 seconds of easy running for recovery. This workout can be done every one to two weeks depending on the other workouts you have planned in your training calendar

4. Short Reps are what legendary running coach Jack Daniels might call “R” work. They’re fast, short repetitions typically done on a track with full recovery. Reps should be kept to 300 meters or less. This type of training session can be done every one to two weeks.

These types of workouts all have three things in common. First, they include running at mile race pace or faster. Second, they require full recoveries. And, third, they are not done in high volume.

Strides and hill sprints can be done most weeks of your training cycle. They’re fundamental ways to “touch speed” without making it too difficult. But hill surges and short reps should be more periodized, coming in the beginning or middle weeks of your season. They form the bridge between easy running and more race-specific workouts you may run.

By adding regular, small doses of speed training into your running program, you’ll enjoy the many benefits of running fast: faster top-end speeds, better running economy, improved neuromuscular coordination, and extra strength. No doubt, it’ll make you into a faster runner, no matter what distance you’re training for.

Jason Fitzgerald is the host of the Strength Running Podcast and the founder of Strength Running

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