A few years ago I got to visit the town of Iten on the edge of the Rift Valley in Kenya. One day while at the local dirt track, kids from the nearby school spilled down the hill, raced each other around the oval and played across the infield. Rarely have I seen such joy in motion. There was no pressure, no stress, no agony—just the need for speed.
You don’t have to go to Kenya to witness the fun of going fast. Visit any playground and you’ll see young children sprinting here and there with joy. Watch a youth soccer game and enjoy the smiles and laughter that accompanies flying around the field. Stay for the kid’s event at a local road race and witness the excitement and pleasure of moving fast and pushing oneself.
In contrast, adult runners too often associate speed only with pain, discipline and grit. While there is a place for these in the process of becoming our best selves, going fast doesn’t have to be dreaded. In fact, it can be one of the best parts of running.
Here are three strategies to regain the fun of fast.
1) Focus on Flying
The first element of speed that many of us ignore is getting in touch with our bodies’ ability to fly. Kids and elites are different. Canadian Olympic steeplechaser Graeme Fell once told me that he hits his top speed at least once every day. It doesn’t matter what your top speed is—tapping it feels awesome and builds neuromuscular pathways that make it easier every time you do it.
Several times a week, sometime after you’ve warmed up in a run, throw in some strides: simply pick up the pace until you’re flying as fast as you can without stressing, then back off and jog until you feel ready to do it again. Enjoy the power of your hips driving your legs backward, the quick, light, dancing footfalls, and the wind in your face as you lift off. Only do as many as feel fun—this isn’t about gritting it out but moving smoothly, quickly and relaxed. If you really want to make them fun, find a patch of soft grass, shed your shoes and fly bare.
2) Build Playfully
Add more speed only as you gain the strength and neuromuscular capacity. Even runners who build their mileage gradually often jump straight into speed workouts, forcing themselves through a set number of repeats and trying to hit arbitrary splits. No wonder speed feels like work and they end up injured.
Instead, start by doing more strides some days. One day when it feels right, keep going fast for a city block or a couple of telephone poles. Add more bursts and longer repeats as you find you want to go longer, that you’re itching to take your strength and speed out for a spin.
On a day when you’re feeling fresh, speed up just a little and let the wheels roll for one, two or three miles, enjoying how long you can surf on that threshold where you need to focus but you’re not accumulating fatigue rapidly. Another day push up all the hills on a rolling route. With a group, take turns creating mid-run races of different distances: “To the stop sign!” “To the boathouse!” “To 5th Street!”
In short, make speed natural and playful. This is Fartlek (Swedish “Speed Play”), and some of the best in the world use it as their primary speed work. Joan Benoit Samuelson, Olympic gold medalist still running strong at 60, says she’s never had very structured training. “I always went by the seat of my pants,” she told me. For speed work these days, she says, “I try to do pickups and sometimes race cars.” Olympian Colleen DeReuck says, “A lot of my sessions, I like to do fartlek, so I can just go by feel.”
Let your body tell you when it is ready for more speed and distance. Go ahead and stretch the pace and the distance, don’t be afraid to get uncomfortable—but a confident uncomfortable, bringing developed skill to meet a challenging task. Always feel, “This is hard, but, yeah, I’ve got it.”
Lifetime competitor Kelly Kruell, who has run a 1:24 half marathon as a master and won her age group at the 2016 USATF Cross Country Championships, says, about giving up track workouts for pickups on the roads or grass, “You’re running hard just for the sake of running hard—because it is fun.”
3) Put Down the Watch
Nothing kills the joy of speed more than when we change our focus from movement and effort to trying to hit times. Giving up the watch lets us have speed without hurry, it removes the pressure and stress, even when we’re running a set workout over known distances.
De Reuck says, “I find a lot of pressure, if you’re going to do track work, and you’re doing half mile repeats and you’ve got get them on the time. And that’s too much extra pressure.”
How will you know you’re running fast enough if you give up the watch? Trust the effort. How your body handles the speed is what determines the workout quality in the end, not whether you hit your goal splits. Research has shown that you run more economically if you’re relaxed, so you’ll likely get in a faster workout when you’re not stressing the splits. Plus, if you’re having fun, you’ll do workouts more often, not just when you buckle yourself down to a training program.
When you do look at your watch, treat the numbers as information—that’s what a 3:30 800m feels like today—and affirmation—that’s five seconds per lap faster than I ran with the same effort two weeks ago. Remember that, except for a few final workouts before a race when you’re honing pace, most workouts are not tests of your speed but training tools to improve your body’s systems. Constantly judging your potential by trying to hit goal splits is often counterproductive and beats you up physically and mentally.
Some runners are adept at correlating workout times with their current fitness. They love running timed and planned workouts, the constant feedback of the track and watch producing flow as they click off one interval after another. If, however, speed work is something you dread, if you find yourself consistently struggling and failing, too beat up to keep up your training program, or avoiding speed altogether out of fear—don’t despair. Fast can, and should, be fun.