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Take a Cue from Field Sports: Train for Speed

Speed-work spokesman Pete Magill explains why sprints, strength, and agility are just as crucial in distance running as they are in field sports.

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In sports, the difference between a star and an also-ran is tenths of a second. Athletes who are faster, stronger, and quicker dominate. Athletes who lack these characteristics languish. This is true no matter the sport. In football, 40-yard-dash times can determine who gets playing time and who rides the bench. In soccer, the ability to execute a change-of-direction dribble can make the difference between a shot on goal or the defender clearing the ball. In basketball, there is no fast break on a team with slow feet. In tennis (which averages 3 to 5 changes of direction for 8 to 12 yards of movement per point), a sluggish first step can lead to a win—for your opponent. And in track & field, athletes who can generate the most horizontal and vertical force go home with the medals. In sport after sport, it’s the speed, strength, and agility you produce with your legs that determines what you can accomplish on the field, court, or track.

There’s an old-school saying in track & field: “God makes sprinters, coaches make milers.” This outdated belief stems from the erroneous assumption that you’re stuck with the speed that God, evolution, and your parents gave you. Maybe you can build a bigger heart and better endurance to become a miler, but improve your speed? No way! Except that modern sprint coaches figured out a way, and in 2016, a total of 23 runners recorded 53 performances at 100 meters that were faster than Carl Lewis (Sports Illustrated’s Olympian of the Century) ran for his 100-meter gold medal at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

The Only Way to Improve Your Speed

Speed is the act of accelerating quickly to top-end velocity and then maintaining it. Simple, right? Just like crawling, walking, and running, right? Sorry, wrong. Because unlike other forms of bipedal human locomotion, you can’t master speed through trial and error. You won’t get there by toddling along and avoiding falls. You can only achieve speed with specialized training that targets every aspect of human locomotion: your nervous system, your muscles, your connective tissue (e.g., tendons), your energy systems, and the gait they produce.

If all there was to running fast was natural ability honed by friendly competition on schoolyard fields, athletes like Usain Bolt, world record-holder and three-time Olympic champion at 100 and 200 meters, wouldn’t have trained 21 hours per week in the gym and on the track. Jerry Rice, the NFL’s all-time greatest receiver, with 17 receiving touchdowns and 1,549 career catches, wouldn’t have spent his off-seasons on The Hill in Redwoods City, California’s Edgewood Park, mixing long runs and hill sprints to create speed and speed endurance. And Lionel Messi, one of the greatest footballers of all time, with five Ballon d’Or awards and three European Golden Shoes, wouldn’t rely upon workouts jam-packed with jump squats, plyometrics, short sprints, and other exercises to build acceleration, top-end speed, and multi-directional agility.

With a commitment to proper training, your speed can be improved, too. “[Your ability to run fast] is influenced by a multitude of factors,” write Aditi Majumdar and Robert Robergs, the latter one of the world’s leading exercise scientists, in a 2011 article on speed, “including starting strategy, stride length, stride frequency, physiological demands, biomechanics, neural influences, muscle composition, [and] anthropometrics.” That’s a lot of factors, but the more we can legitimately identify, the more opportunity there is to improve those factors through training.

Separate the Elements of Speed and Run Training

In my decades of coaching, writing about running, and competing in races from 400 meters to the half-marathon, I’ve noticed one universal characteristic of distance runners: We can turn any workout—I mean any workout—into a distance run. Tell distance runners to do hill sprints, and we’ll jog 400 yards between reps. Ask us to train in the weight room, and we’ll tag 5 miles on afterward. And that’s a problem. Because turning those workouts into distance runs negates most of their value, and because speedwork and resistance training are essential for running your best.

Exercise scientist Tim Noakes, MD, in his Lore of Running (considered the bible of distance running research), notes that “the ability to produce force rapidly when the foot is on the ground, thereby maintaining a short ground contact time, is a factor predicting 5 km running time,” and that “explosive-type strength training may improve running performance as a result of neuromuscular adaptations.” He later concludes that “the fastest athletes in endurance events of 5 km or longer tend also to be faster over the short distances from 100 m to 1500 m.” A 2016 meta-analysis looked at studies involving high-level middle- and long-distance runners whose training included lower-body resistance exercises, plyometrics, and short sprints. The study’s authors concluded that this high-intensity training “showed a large, beneficial effect.” They recommended a “strength training program including low to high intensity resistance exercises and plyometric exercises performed 2 to 3 times per week.”

I’ve personally used resistance training, plyometrics, hills, drills, and sprints since I began competing as a masters distance runner in 2002. In the interim, I’ve set American 5K age group records for men’s 45–49 (14:34), 50–54 (15:02), plus 55–59 (15:42), as well as accumulating age-group records at other distances and six USA masters XC overall individual titles.

Bottom line: If you’re a distance runner who isn’t training strength and speed, you’re getting beaten by a distance runner who is.


Adapted from SpeedRunner: 4 Weeks to Your Fastest Leg Speed in Any Sport by Pete Magill, with permission of VeloPress.