How to run faster – whatever your race distance, age or running level

·13-min read
Photo credit: Getty
Photo credit: Getty

Whatever distance you race, whatever your age or running level, working on your speed can play an important role in your training. And this doesn’t always mean running big interval training sessions – sometimes it’s about learning exactly how to run faster.

If you’re chasing a PB over 800m to 5km, the benefits might seem obvious. However, they also extend to longer events, including marathons and ultra distances. It’s important to stress your body beyond its current comfortable capacity, and speedwork in its various forms can give you the controllable dosage of stress and training stimulus that is required to allow your body to adapt and build fitness.

The benefits of speed

Cardiovascular

Higher-intensity training can increase your stroke volume (the amount of blood your heart can pump with each beat), increase your production of myoglobin (which transports oxygen to your muscles), your blood volume (meaning more oxygen can be carried to your muscles) and improve your muscles’ ability to absorb that oxygen in order to create energy. Speedwork can also improve your body’s ability to tolerate and process lactate.

Mechanical

If you run fast regularly, then you can improve your running economy across a range of speeds (you can do more work for the same amount of oxygen) as a result of improved running mechanics, ground contact times and tendon stiffness, among various other factors.

Neural

When conducted at a high enough intensity, speedwork can provide a positive stress for your nervous system, which, with adequate recovery, can make you more resilient to fatigue – especially when you’re running longer distances.

Psychological

Ultimately, to set a PB over a given distance, you have to run faster than you ever have before. It sounds obvious, of course, but in reality, even if we are fit enough to do the job, our minds can often get in the way. Speedwork gives you evidence of your readiness to compete and it can give you the physical and mental ‘callusing’ required to deliver on race day.

Speedwork principles

Before we get into the specifics, it’s good to outline a few principles that should underpin any programme of structured speedwork.

Get structured

Faster running can be included in your plan in a range of different ways, such as fartlek sessions, tempo runs and interval sessions. When we talk about speedwork, we generally mean running paces at, or faster than, your goal race pace. The most common way to do this is interval sessions. These involve a structured mix of fast efforts (or repetitions) with planned recovery ‘intervals’, which allow you to manage your training load and build up over time.

Find a balance

One of the myths about fast sessions is that they can replace the volume of training for the time-poor runner – the old quality over quantity saying. The key to getting faster is including the right balance of quality and quantity for your level of fitness, experience and the event you’re training for. Good volumes of easy and steady running shouldn’t be neglected.

General to specific preparation

Speedwork comes in many different shapes and sizes. It’s important that you train appropriately for the distance that you plan to race. A good general rule is to start with less race-specific general conditioning for your body, making your fast sessions more specific to the race you’re training for as you get. closer to the event by spending more time at your goal race pace.

Patience pays

All too often, we look for quick gains from our training. The example plan below will take between 18 and 24 weeks to go through the full process of building up to your best 5km. It’s time well spent, but it requires commitment and focus.

Control the variables

If you manipulate the effort at which you run your fast efforts (the intensity), the length and type of recovery between each effort (the interval), the number of efforts you complete and the conditions you face, then you can change the outcome and stimulus of the sessions. Be creative, but remember what you are trying to achieve.

Manage the dose

More speedwork doesn’t necessarily mean more gains. High-intensity training needs to be accompanied by recovery and easy days between hard sessions. Most runners can get the adaptations they need from one to two faster sessions each week.

Healthy start

Starting a programme of speedwork when carrying a niggle is a recipe for a full injury. Higher-intensity running will increase the load on joints, muscle fibres and tendons. If you have any doubts, get an MOT with a sports physiotherapist before starting.

Be session ready

To get the most out of your faster sessions, allow enough time for a good warm-up and cool-down. A structured warm-up focused on gradually raising your heart rate, mobilising and activating joints and muscles and readying your body for the intensity ahead will see you perform better in your sessions. It will also reduce the risk of injury.

Stay disciplined

Runners often approach speedwork with an ‘all or nothing’ mindset. Speedwork shouldn’t be about smashing yourself to pieces or looking to prove yourself; it should simply mean being consistent with hitting planned paces. Run these sessions with discipline and you will be more consistent. Plus, in the long run, you will gain more fitness.

Power up

Regular strength training can improve your ability to generate force and allow you to control any technique changes you wish to make, including being able to run with a longer stride to sustain a higher cadence when you’re tired. In particular, your tendons can provide a substantial amount of propulsion through elastic energy. You can improve the stretch-reflex function of your tendons through plyometric exercises, such as the pogo jump, hopping and bounding exercises completed one to two times a week.

How to run 5km faster - The faster 5km plan

Building speed can be seen as a process, developing fundamental basic speed through to race-specific speed that will help you set your next PB. To illustrate this in practice, I will talk you through a three-stage plan to a faster 5km. Similar principles can also be applied to other race distances, too.

Part 1: Lay the foundation

Sessions, spread over 6 to 8 weeks:

  • SESSION 1: 4 sets of 8- to 10-sec hill sprints with 2-min rest

  • SESSION 2: 6 sets of 8- to 10-sec hill sprints with 2-min rest

  • SESSION 3: 8 sets of 8- to 10-sec hill sprints with 2-min rest

  • SESSION 4: 4 sets of 8- to 10-sec hill sprints with 2-min rest + 2 x 120m fast at 400m to 800m pace on the flat with 3-min rest

  • SESSION 5: 5 sets of 60m to 80m sprints on the flat with 2-min rest + 2 x 150m fast at 400m to 800m pace on the flat with 2-min rest

  • SESSION 6: 6 sets of 8- to 10-sec hill sprints with 2-min rest + 2 x 200m fast on the flat with 2- to 3-min rest.

  • SESSION 7: 2 x 60m, 2 x 100m, 150m, 200m fast, all with 3- to 4-min rest

  • SESSION 8: 5 x 150m fast at 800m pace with 3- to 4-min rest

What you need to know about Part 1:

Lay the foundations

In truth, most of the sessions we refer to as speedwork – such as mile efforts, fartlek sessions or even 400m repetitions – are actually more about endurance. The foundations of speed actually come from much shorter and faster efforts that require focused training. In stage one, you work on your neuro-muscular system, tendons and other connective tissues to develop reactive force and good running technique. This will provide the foundation on which to build more race-specific fast sessions down the line. The first six to eight weeks are focused on these fundamentals.

Sprint for success

The foundations of speed require running fast. When we sprint or run near our sprinting speed, we teach our body to recruit more fast-twitch muscle fibres, we stress our central nervous system and we learn to run with better mechanics.

Maximum quality, shortest time

Running at maximal speed or near maximal speed is heavily reliant on your fast ATP-CP energy system. This provides immediate energy through the breakdown of these stored high-energy phosphates for near or maximal intensity, short duration exercise before it fatigues. It will also take a significant amount of time to ‘recharge’. In practice, that means focusing on short efforts of eight to 10 seconds with a recovery of around two minutes. Start with a small number of efforts, perhaps four, running just a little off your maximum sprinting speed (around 95% or a 400m effort). Imagine making every stride the highest quality that you can achieve.

Hills to help

Many distance runners struggle to generate the speed required to get the benefit of these short, fast efforts. Consider starting on a hill with a moderate gradient (you still need to be able to run fast). We tend to run with better mechanical form on hills, so it’s a great way to build up speed and ensure that you are recruiting those fast-twitch muscle fibres. Progress these sessions to fast running on the flat when you feel conditioned.

Relaxed speed

Watch videos of Usain Bolt run – speed doesn’t come out of trying to force pace. Relaxed speed should be your aim. The goal isn’t to just produce fast running, it is to do it well.

Conditioning

Your strength training during this period should include key strength exercises, such as split squats, deadlifts, hip thrusts and lunges. Plyometrics and drills can also be included, but once again, the intensity should be moderate – learning the correct technique is key here.

The wider plan

During this foundation phase, your body needs time between these high-intensity efforts. Aim to include good volumes of easy running and try to peak your mileage towards the end of this six-to-eight-week block. Also, aim to gradually build a long run up to 75 to 90 minutes, and consider running on undulating and off-road routes.

Endurance balance

While the sessions above are focused on speed, it’s good to still do some endurance-focused sessions in this period. For the 5km, this might be a weekly run that progresses to marathon pace or a little faster for the final 10 to 20 minutes.

Part 2: Extend your speed

Sessions, spread over 6 to 8 weeks:

  • SESSION 1: 8 to 10 x 200m (or 40 secs) at 1500m to 3km pace with a 200m jog recovery

  • SESSION 2: 8 x 300m (or 75 to 90 secs) at 3km pace with 90- to 120-sec rest

  • SESSION 3: 6 x 8- to 10-sec hills + 2 x 200m fast on the flat with 2-min rest

  • SESSION 4: 1km, 800m, 600m, 400m with 5- to 6-min rest. Run the 1km and 800m at 3km pace and aim to get faster on the 600m and 400m efforts

  • SESSION 5: 8 x 400m (or 75 to 90secs) at 3km pace with 90- to 120-sec rest

  • SESSION 6: 4 x 2mins at 3km pace (3-min rest) + 5 x 8- to 10-sec hills (2-min rest)

  • SESSION 7: 2 x 600m, 400m, 300m, 200m, 100m with 3- to 4-min rest, starting at 5km pace and working down to 800m pace

  • SESSION 8: 5 x 2 mins with the first 2 at goal 5km pace and the next 3 at 3km pace with 2- to 3-min rest

What you need to know about Part 2:

You’re now better able to recruit fast-twitch muscle fibres and know the feeling of running fast. Stage two extends this speed to make it more specific to the race you’re training for.

Shift the dials

Your speed sessions now move primarily towards the flat. While still fast, the efforts drop in pace and increase in volume, with a shorter effort-to-recovery ratio. As we drop the recovery compared with the level of effort, we place an increasing focus on your aerobic and lactic energy systems, which help you to power endurance.

Support network

These speed sessions are designed to lead you into the 5K-pace sessions in stage three. These runs at between 1500m and 5km pace will help to make those bigger sessions feel more manageable.

The wider plan

Still include easy and steady running, but consider dropping the volume by 10 to 20% as the emphasis shifts to bigger sessions.

Find your threshold

Now we work at 10km- to half-marathon pace, in what are known as threshold runs. Sessions such as 4 x 6 minutes, 3 x 8 minutes, 5 x 5 minutes and 6 x 5 minutes run at a pace you could hold for an hour (or ‘comfortably hard’) with 60- to 90-second recoveries will build your endurance for the 5km.

Conditioning

With your movement patterns established, small increases in weights provide a good platform for stage three. Can’t get to the gym? A circuit with body-weight exercises also works.

Part 3: Get Race Ready

Sessions, spread over six to eight weeks:

  • SESSION 1: 5 mins at 1-hr race pace, plus 2 sets of 5 x 75 to 90 secs at 5km pace with 60-sec rest between efforts and 2-min rest between sets

  • SESSION 2: 8 x 2mins at 5km pace with 90-sec recovery

  • SESSION 3: 5 mins, 4 mins, 3 mins, 2 mins, 1 min with 90-sec rest. Start at 1-hr race pace and work down to 3km pace

  • SESSION 4: 3 sets of 5 x 75 to 90 secs at 5km pace with 30- to 45-sec rest between efforts and 2-min rest between sets

  • SESSION 5:-10 x 2mins at 5km pace with 75- to 90-sec recovery

  • SESSION 6: 5 sets of 4mins at 5km pace 60-sec rest, 75 secs at 3k pace with 2-min rest between sets

  • SESSION 7: 5 mins at threshold effort +5 to 6 x 1km at 5km goal pace with 90- to 120-sec rest

  • SESSION 8: 3 x 1km at 5km pace (90-sec rest) +4 x 500m at 3km pace (90-sec rest) + 1km time trial

What you need to know about Part 3:

In this stage, we spend more time working around your goal 5km race pace. In order to build endurance, we include longer efforts with shorter recovery. This puts a greater emphasis on stressing your aerobic system, which provides the vast majority of the energy required for the 5km race.

The wider plan

Keep your volume in check with a long run slightly reduced from stage one. Ensure that you are controlling the pace of your easy runs to guarantee that you are fresh for the bigger speed sessions in this stage.

Blend it in

Maintaining some of the endurance work from the previous stage is important, too. Sessions such as 5 x 5 minutes might start at one-hour race pace and work down to 10km pace by the end. You can also consider blending some longer endurance efforts before or after your key 5km-paced sessions.

Conditioning

In this final period of training, take care with the load of your strength sessions by perhaps reducing the number of reps in sets and ensuring you are not fatigued for your key run sessions.

Maintenance work

Consider adding a handful of strides or short hills (eg, 4 x 8 to 10 seconds) after one of your easy runs each week.

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