[SPEEDWORK DEFINED: For
this article, speedwork refers to reps performed
at your VO2 max pace (pace for an 8- to 10-minute
race) or faster. A typical speed workout in this
range would be 6 × 800m repeats at VO2 max
pace with a 400m recovery jog between.]
He got fried. He knew better, but like many athletes
who are running fast, he lost the forest for the
Jordan Horn was coming off his best track season
to date. The previous spring, he had lowered his
5K from 14:01 to 13:31—the result of a couple
of years of smart, consistent training. His next
goal was to break 4 minutes in the mile.
I was his coach. We adjusted our normal training
periodization and included more speed and sprint
workouts in the winter to get ready for indoor track,
where the best mile races are run. And it worked.
He ran 3:58 for the mile. Mission accomplished.
Here's where things went wrong. Instead of taking
a break after indoors, we tried to take this speed
training and extend it to the spring track season
right around the corner. Bad idea.
“It was frustrating. I just came off a big
PR and great training but felt ‘off,’”
Horn says. “Gradually, racing and training
got worse and worse.”
Horn's is not an uncommon scenario. Athletes do
some speedwork, improve, then think, “If speedwork
makes me fast, then I should do more speedwork.”
But they soon find that they are actually getting
slower. To avoid falling into the same trap, here
are my speedwork golden rules:
1-Don't Sabotage Your Base
Arthur Lydiard learned this more than 50 years
ago. Too much speedwork in your base phase will
interrupt your fitness development. Olympic bronze
medalist Lorraine Moller, whose training was Lydiard-based,
says that in the era of New Zealand track domination,
“Going to the track to do speedwork during
the base phase was considered the height of folly
and something only the ignorant would do.”
Endurance training (all training at an easy effort,
below your lactate threshold) causes two important
adaptations within the muscle cells. First, you
grow more and larger mitochondria, often called
the “powerhouses” of your cells because
they provide essential energy for distance running.
This increase allows you to run faster and is a
primary reason why new runners find their pace gets
quicker over the first two to six months of training.
This aerobic (with oxygen) energy system has no
detrimental side effects, so it's highly desirable
to develop more mitochondria.
Within the mitochondria are key enzymes that help
liberate energy from our fuel stores. Endurance
training produces more of these aerobic enzymes,
the second key adaptation that occurs during base
or conditioning training.
In preaching against speedwork during endurance
training, Lydiard was fond of saying, “Don't
pull down the pH in your base phase.” Peter
Snell, exercise physiologist and Lydiard's most
famous runner, explains that the enzymes within
the mitochondria operate at an optimal acidity (or
pH) level. High-intensity exercise, however, causes
significant and repeated high levels of lactic acid
(and thus decreased pH) in the muscle cell. Given
too much intensity, the environment within the cell
becomes overly acidic and the enzymes can become
damaged. Snell says that the increased acidity is
also harmful to the membranes of the mitochondria,
and it takes additional recovery time to allow the
membranes to heal.
Given this damaging effect, large and frequent
increases in lactic acid during a period when you're
building your aerobic energy system (mitochondria
and aerobic enzymes) are a big no-no. The purpose
of the conditioning phase is to facilitate the increases
in mitochondria and their enzymes, not impair them.
2-Remember: A Little Speed Goes a Long
Speedwork makes you faster—for a while. It's
like a shot of espresso: You get an instant boost.
Drink another and you fly higher. But eventually
you crash hard.
Athletes who do too much speedwork for too long
soon find, like Horn, that their racing and workout
performances start to decline. Hans Selye, a groundbreaking
scientist in the mid 21st-century, was one of the
first to discover this, calling it the “exhaustion
state.” Selye found that when the body is
continually challenged in the same way, over and
over again, it soon becomes exhausted, unable to
perform at normal levels. This can happen with volume
(increasing weekly mileage too quickly), but it's
easier to fall into and much more common with intensity.
The mitochondria and enzymes become compromised,
making it more challenging to hit your paces, even
on easy runs. In response, athletes often then begin
to train harder, only to see the condition worsen.
Cortisol (the stress hormone) levels increase, which
is quickly followed by a decrease in mood and loss
of motivation. Not good.
Speedwork produces great results: It increases
VO2 max, changes fast-twitch muscle fibers to perform
more effectively, and improves lactic acid tolerance
and running economy. And it does these things quickly:
You can get the bulk of these improvements in just
four to six workouts. After that, it's a matter
of diminishing returns and risk versus reward. Your
ideal is to do only as much speedwork as you need
to achieve your desired benefits, and no more, to
avoid any risk of overtraining.
This is the fate of many high school runners who
do a lot of speed early, race fast in the middle
of the season, but fail to perform by the championship
Coach Bill Aris, whose Fayetteville-Manlius women's
team has won seven national cross country titles,
says, “It's best to focus first on developing
a deep well of aerobic reserve. Then, later in the
season, build upon this with strength and speed
running, which are integrated as your championship
Each runner will, of course, respond differently
to different amounts of speed training, but it's
always better to err on the side of caution. Typically,
athletes who spend time building their endurance
base (See No. 1 left) need less speedwork to be
race-ready. Their improved aerobic ability allows
them to perform better-quality speed training when
the time comes. They get more bang for their buck.
Also, endurance-oriented runners will find that
they perform better off of fewer speed workouts,
whereas runners blessed with more basic speed capabilities
may be able to get away with a few more speed sessions.
Sixty to 70 percent of your training cycle should
be focused on building your endurance, stamina,
running form and injury resistance. Only the last
30 to 40 percent of your training cycle should include
significant amounts of speedwork as your peak race
nears. You can fit the necessary four to six speed
workouts into the last four to eight weeks to see
significant improvement in your speed fitness.
3-Build Speed By Working Around
Thankfully, there are other ways to get fast without
having to overdo speed training. Tom Osler, a top
runner from the first running boom who authored
the seminal The Conditioning of Distance Runners
in 1967, suggests that runners continue their basic
training (endurance and stamina) until their race
performances plateau. Then, and only then, should
they begin speed training, or “sharpening”
as he called it. New runners (and many experienced
runners) are often surprised to hear that one can
race fast off of just endurance or base training.
Says Aris of his consistently good high school teams,
“Our real quality work doesn't begin until
the season is well underway.” Osler was definitely
Stamina training”workouts designed to increase
the pace at your lactate threshold”can result
in faster racing and be performed more frequently
than speed training without as much risk of overtraining.
The classic stamina workout is the 30- to 40-minute
tempo run, a medium-hard effort at your 1-hour race
pace. Or it can be broken into repeat segments,
such as 3–4 × 1 mile tempo intervals,
or what coach and author Jack Daniels calls “cruise
intervals.” Another option for stamina training
is to run slightly slower (approximately marathon
pace), yet longer, steady state or rhythm runs.
Or you can do progression runs that work from an
easy pace to tempo pace. You can safely do a stamina
workout once every week or two for six to 10 weeks
and see continued improvements in race performance.
To make sure you aren't turning a stamina run into
a speed run, use the talk test. As long as you can
talk in complete sentences, you are good. If you're
breathing so hard you can string together only one
or two words at a time between pants, you've crossed
into the speed zone. While you may get faster initially,
you are eroding your aerobic base and starting the
time clock toward peaking too soon.
On the other end of the speed scale, neuromuscular
or leg-speed training offers runners the chance
to run very fast year-round with little to no buildup
of lactic acid. These workouts—strides, sprints
and short hills—last only 10–20 seconds
at near top speed with long (1- to 2-minute) recovery
jogs or rest between. (Note that even 200m repeats
are too long and count as anaerobic, lactic-building
speedwork.) Doing 10–20 repeats once or twice
per week year-round can develop and maintain speed
with little risk of overtraining. Leg speed workouts
aren't “heavy breathing” workouts. If
you can't quickly regain your breath after each
repeat and start each sprint breathing normally,
you are building up too much lactic acid and need
to shorten the repeat length or increase the recovery
To avoid the acidic buildup that disrupts your
aerobic development and leads to burnout:
Delay frequent (1-2 times per week) speed training
until 4-8 weeks before your peak race. Limit any
speed workouts during base to once every 3-6 weeks.
Keep all of your training during the first 60 to
70 percent of the season either slower than lactate
threshold or short enough to avoid breathing hard.
Do only 4-6 workouts that contain repeats between
30 seconds and 6 minutes at VO2 max pace or faster
during the final few weeks of training.
Be careful, as your fitness improves, to control
your effort and paces in the last few workouts before
your peak race so you don't “leave the race