It’s no secret that if you want to race faster you need to do speed work. But if your track work tops out at 5k race pace, you’re selling yourself short. Because there is speed work and then there is SPEED work.
“There is a vast difference between what pro runners mean by speed work and what recreational runners mean by speed work,” says Christo Landry, a six-time US Road Champion at distances ranging from 10k to the half marathon. When pro runners talk about speed work they are talking about working at near maximal effort.
It’s a staple of pro runners’ routines because that kind of max effort work trains your body and your muscles in ways that you miss with other types of running (including tempo runs and VO2 max repeats). “Training at maximal effort is the only way to recruit all of your muscle fibers,” says Chris Lundstrom, the head coach of Team USA Minnesota. “Train all your muscle fibers, and you can use them all. Neglect some of them, and they will atrophy.”
And although it may seem that this type of training is only for those who want to run shorter races, Lundstrom says it’s important for all distance runners—whether you’re running the 800m or the marathon—to be able to activate all of their muscle fibers.
Upgrading Hardware and Software
In addition to training the entirety of the muscle, there is also the benefit of making you more relaxed and efficient at slower paces, says Noah Droddy, who has finished top-10 in both the US 10 Mile and US Half Marathon Championships. “I think any time you can feel smooth and efficient at a max pace, that will translate down the ladder to your slower race pace,” Droddy says. “If I feel strong in a full sprint, hopefully five minute pace will feel that much better during my marathon.”
Dr. AJ Gregg, the official strength and conditioning coach of Northern Arizona Elite says that improved efficiency comes as a result of increasing the neural connections between your brain and your muscles. Think of it as upgrading your software to make better use of the improved hardware (improved neural connections to control stronger muscle fibers).
Katie Mackey of the Brooks Beasts Track Club agrees that “Sprint work helps my overall movement quality and economy.” Because of that, she believes that the time spent working on max effort training is as important if not more than her aerobic workouts.
This type of max effort training doesn’t have to mean just sprinting (although sprinting, particularly up a steep hill, is an excellent max-effort exercise). It can also take the form of plyometrics or dynamic strength training in addition to fast-paced running. Below are some examples of different ways elite runners and coaches incorporate max effort work into their training.
NOTE: However you choose to incorporate max effort training, Gregg says it is important to start small and progress slowly. Also, the rest period between each effort will need to be much longer than what you may be used to as a distance runner, so don’t try to rush through these exercises.
Landry says that a great way to begin with max effort training is with post-run strides. These can be introduced early in the training cycle to help improve efficiency and as a precursor to harder track sessions. “If you always run the same speed, your body doesn’t know how to run faster and that speed becomes difficult,” he says.
Landry recommends four to six strides of 150 meters (or 20–25 seconds) twice a week. He likes to do these after an easy run the day before a harder workout. “It’s something that’s going to give your legs pop and make you feel good for the speed workout the next day,” he says.
During each stride you should be running fast, but it should be kept casual. “Alot of people take their strides too seriously and they will sprint all-out, as fast as they can,” Landry says. Instead, focus on good, relaxed form. Practicing good form in your strides allows you to carry that form over to your workouts and races.
Jess Tonn, a seven-time All-American at Stanford, agrees that strides are a good starting point for max effort training. She says incorporating post-run strides has helped her improve her form, finishing speed, and overall fitness. She finds them so useful, in fact, she has built up to doing six to 10 of them nearly every day, often logging more than 50 post-run strides over the course of a training week.
In addition to her stride routine, Tonn likes to incorporate a number of different max effort exercises as part of a High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) class twice a week. She says the dynamic nature of the exercises gets her outside of her comfort zone as a distance runner and helps to make her a better athlete.
One of her favorite max-effort exercises from these sessions is squat jumps. It works running-specific muscles but makes them work at an intensity that activates different muscle fibers than most running does.
Tonn likes the fact that squat jumps don’t require any equipment which makes them easy to do anywhere and also makes it a good beginning plyometric exercise.
Tonn says it’s important to focus on good form while doing the squat and explosiveness while jumping out of it. In order to keep good form, Tonn recommends starting with three sets of 15 seconds of jumps with full rest. This can be done one to two times a week and the time can be increased by five to 10 seconds per week.
Lundstrom also likes to use plyometrics as part of the max effort training for his runners. Lundstrom says it’s important to not do these at the end of a harder workout to make sure that your muscles are fresh enough they can produce the effort needed to see results.
If you’re new to plyometric work, Lundstrom recommends bounding as a good starting point. “Bounding is basically an exaggerated running stride, where you aim for maximal height and distance with each step,” he says.
You can begin with three repetitions of about 30 meters (make sure it doesn’t take more than 10 or 15 seconds to complete) with a long rest between each. In order to be able to able to produce maximal force, take three minutes between each rep to fully recover. “Good form is hugely important when doing these neuromuscular-focused activities,” Lundsrom says. “And execution of perfect form requires that the athlete be fresh.”
Pete Magill author of SpeedRunner, says of bounding, “If you could only do one drill, this would be it!” Magill points out that research shows bounding is the only exercise that stimulates the same muscle activation sequence as sprinting, mimicking sprinting’s short contact time, large generation of horizontal force and high-power output. To execute a proper bound:
- Drive forward off the ball of one foot, completely extending your push-off leg as you leap forward and up (like Superman taking flight). Hold the position, keeping your front knee raised high for a moment of hang time.
- Land on your opposite foot, absorb the impact force, and then quickly spring into another bound. Switch your landing foot with each bound (i.e., this isn’t skipping).
When you reach a point where the bounding is no longer challenging, Lundstrom recommends doing the exercise on a hill where the incline increases the difficulty and required effort.