If you’re a new runner looking toward an (eventual) longer-distance race, or simply want to bring down your personal best time, how to run faster might be a top question on your list. And if that’s the case, we have a term that can help you get there: speed work.
The concept of speed work is simple. It simply refers to spurts of faster running within your normal or easier pace. It’s intended to train your body and muscles to run harder for longer distances, such as a goal race.
Your overall aerobic fitness will improve in a big way when simply running easy miles, Elizabeth Corkum, a Road Runners Club of America (RRCA) Level 1 and 2 and USA Track and Field (USATF) Level 1 certified running coach in New York City, tells SELF. But when you add targeted speed work to the mix, that’s when your VO2 max (the max amount of oxygen your body can use during intense exercise), muscle fiber recruitment, form and efficiency, and lactic threshold (a marker of intensity) should all improve too, Corkum says.
Speed work might seem intimidating for people who run but don’t exactly consider themselves sprinters. Spoiler: You don’t have to be superfast to benefit from speedwork. And nope, speed work doesn’t necessarily mean all-out, breathless sprints, either.
If you’re wondering how to run faster, read on to learn how you can incorporate speed work into your running routine.
1. Establish an aerobic base first.
Speed work is not something you should jump right into if you just started to run. You should make sure you have a solid running base first.
“Intentional speed work shouldn’t be added until a runner has established a very strong aerobic base,” says Corkum. The time it takes to develop this base depends on each individual runner and their particular training goals.
A good rule of thumb, though, is to spend two-to-four months logging simply aerobic miles—easy runs where your body has sufficient oxygen and you can comfortably hold a conversation—before adding speed. During that time, you’d ideally be hitting three days a week of 30-minute runs at an easy pace.
2. Wait until your body can comfortably handle three miles.
While you want to build a strong aerobic base first, you also want to make sure your body isn’t feeling overly strained by the miles you’re already logging.
That’s why Rebekah Mayer, a USATF Level 2 coach and wellness advisor at E Squared Health in the Minneapolis area, recommends beginner runners be able to comfortably finish a 3-mile run (or a run-walk) without feeling overly sore or fatigued before considering adding speed work.
This helps make sure your body has adapted to the aerobic strain of running enough to be able to handle added speed, Corkum says.
3. Mentally ease yourself into speed.
Trying to go too fast too soon can burn you out from running, leaving you feeling so wiped that you can’t even think about doing anything else for days after a workout.
“This is what contributes to newer runners feeling mentally scarred and not like a ‘real runner,’” Corkum says. Give yourself time to enjoy your easy runs without stressing over your speed. Then when you’re ready to start, temper your expectations. Once you get started, your workouts aren’t (and shouldn’t) look like the interval-packed sessions your favorite pro runners post about on Instagram. Looking to those advanced workouts can overwhelm you before you even really begin.
4. Follow the 80-20 rule.
Even after you start adding speed, the majority of your runs should still be at an easy pace. Letting fast runs account for too much of your overall training volume can eventually catch up with you, leaving you feeling burned out and overtrained.
“Even the best athletes in the world do an 80/20 balance, with 80% easy aerobic and conversational runs as active recovery,” Corkum says. “Speed should only make up 20% of the overall mileage run within a week—nobody should be running hard for every run.”
So what does this mean, practically speaking? Let’s say you normally run 15–20 miles per week, or at least one to two runs that are least 60 minutes long, as part of your routine. If you’re regularly running this much per week, you’re ready for one 4- to 5-mile run per week to be speed-specific, Corkum says.
5. Schedule speed workouts wisely.
After your first few speed works, you should expect to feel some fatigue and soreness—that’s a result of the adaptation process as your body recovers—though it should go away within a few days. It should also become less noticeable as your body gets stronger and begins to anticipate hard efforts, says Corkum.
Allowing for ample recovery is one reason why it’s important to space out your speed work and not overdo it. That means definitely no back-to-back speed-based workouts (even if you run on consecutive days).
While you can schedule speed work weekly, some people may benefit more from doing one speed workout every 10 days versus every week if they find they’re not recovering well, Corkum says.
“We recover differently based on age, experience, current fitness, other life stresses (physical and emotional), and sleep, among other factors,” she says. “A training cycle doesn’t necessarily need to fit in a calendar week.”
6. Learn to stride, not sprint.
Rather than hitting the track and attempting to bang out 400-meter intervals or hard mile repeats out of the gate, it’s best to start out with shorter bursts you can do on a regular road run. That’s where the term “strides” comes in.
Strides or accelerations are a type of speed workout designed to improve the efficiency of running at faster speeds, Mayer explains. These are quick bursts of running—not all-out, max efforts: By the end of the acceleration, you should be running fast, but at a controlled effort, slightly slower than an all-out sprint.
Because your central nervous system adapts quickly to dynamic movements, you should start to feel like you’re expending less energy hitting those strides—meaning your running efficiency is improving—within a few sessions. Strides are also a great start to speed work, since they make a solid introduction into longer segments of fast running.
7. Sprinkle in those strides.
Strides can be incorporated into the middle of a run or at the end of a run, when your muscles are moderately fatigued but not exhausted, says Mayer.
Here’s how to do it: Either during your easy-paced run, or at the end of it, complete six accelerations or strides of 20 seconds, or up to 100 meters (0.06 miles) if you’re wearing a GPS running watch (more on that below). Recover until you fully catch your breath before starting your next stride.
“When moving into the strides, the runner has to pick up the intensity and should be mindful of running with good form,” Mayer explains. By training this way when your muscles are somewhat fatigued from an aerobic run, it may improve your ability to hold good form when you’re tired on race day, she says. (Whether it’s virtual or whenever an in-person event may be.)
8. Try speed endurance runs.
You can train speed endurance, or the ability to hold higher speeds, through relatively short and fast intervals of 150–300 meters (0.09 to 0.18 miles), or between roughly 45 to 90 seconds in duration, Mayer says. With speed endurance, you should be running at a sustained, hard pace that’s faster than your 5K effort. For many runners, that would be close to the pace they could run for an all-out mile.
“You can think of it like breaking up a mile race into many short segments, each being fast but not all-out for that distance,” Mayer explains. “Near the end of each interval, a runner should be briefly in the pain cave, but then it’s over.”
One example of a speed endurance run is six or nine 300-meter intervals, broken into sets of three. For instance, you’d run three, 300-meter intervals with 60 seconds jogging recovery in between. Then you’d rest three minutes before doing it again once or twice more.
9. Take your speed endurance to the track.
If you have access to a track, speed endurance runs can be a great fit for it—you’ll have premarked distances available to you so you won’t have to keep checking your running watch during your efforts.
In this case, you can use 200-meter intervals (half the length of a track, which you’ll be able to easily tell by the markings) with that 60-second recovery, says Mayer. As an added bonus, you won’t have to worry about traffic or uneven paths, and can focus solely on your workout.
10. Try fartleks to make your workouts fun.
Don’t have access to a track, or don’t want to be tied to your watch? A fartlek is a good way to embrace some unstructured “speed play”—which is actually what the word translates to in Swedish—says Corkum.
With a fartlek, you’ll go between speed pushes and recovery for varying times or distances. Mayer and Corkum both suggest using landmarks or time to set endpoints (say, like a lamp post or tree) for each pickup, surging at a fast but controlled pace to each designated endpoint.
“There are no rules regarding how long the hard pushes/recoveries are, or the speeds—in fact, don’t look at your watch—and simply play with paces,” Corkum explains. “Pay attention to form, breathing, and make it a game with the next push.”
In between your pushes, alternate a recovery jog until you’re able to breathe comfortably, Mayer says.
11. Sandwich in your fartleks to beef up a workout.
Even though fartleks are more unstructured forms of speed work than other forms of intervals, you still don’t want to go into them cold. That’s why Corkum recommends warming up with a walk or light jog for 5 to 10 minutes, then alternating fartlek pushes and recoveries for 30 minutes, before cooling down with a walk or light jog for 5 to 10 minutes.
You can also structure your fartleks based on the total duration of your workout, says Mayer. Say you plan on running for 40 minutes. Your warmup and cooldown should take up half of that—so, 10 minutes for a warmup and 10 minutes for a cooldown. That leaves you with 20 minutes of fartleks sandwiched in between.
12. Try VO2 max intervals if you’re a more seasoned runner.
If you’re not exactly new to the speed work game, but have struggled to find the motivation to do hard workouts during the COVID-19 pandemic, you might be into VO2 max intervals. They can be a fun way for seasoned runners to work on their high-end aerobic capacity to stay race ready while not doing so many long, strenuous runs.
“By incorporating speed and other high-intensity training now, you can use the race-free block to increase your fitness level, so you’ll be PR ready when races return,” Mayer says. “It will also make it easier to jump back into a focused training block next year, as including speed work now will maintain your speed, power, and ability to train at higher intensities.”
First, find your VO2 max pace. According to Mayer, this is approximately the pace at which you could run for an all-out 10-minute effort. “It is slightly faster than 5K pace in highly trained runners, and closer to an all-out mile pace for newer runners.”
If you want to give it a shot, use your 5K or max mile pace to get started. Then run at that pace for three to five minutes, with two to three minutes of active recovery (walking or jogging) in between intervals. Complete five intervals, with a warmup and cooldown of 1–2 miles or 10–15 minutes each.
13. Go by feel, not by pace.
One of the biggest reasons runners can come to dread speed workouts is because they become overly preoccupied with hitting certain paces and feel discouraged or inclined to scrap the workout altogether if they don’t hit a specific number right away.
“When adding speed to workouts, it is helpful to learn to recognize your effort levels internally and to play with different paces, but by going by feel rather than obsessing about the numbers of your watch,” Mayer says. “The workouts should be challenging but not totally exhausting.”
Similarly, focusing more on effort and feel than the numbers on your watch can make a workout feel less daunting when you’re dealt with less favorable conditions, like cold weather, wind, or freezing precipitation.
“It is always better to finish a workout healthy, even if it’s done at a slower pace than your goal,” Mayer says.
14. Tweak your watch display.
Along those lines, obsessing over your pace at any given interval can not only get you down if you’re struggling to hit it, but can also distract you from putting in your max work since you’ll be looking at your wrist every few seconds.
That’s where playing the preventive game can come in big. Before you go out for your run, tweak the settings on your watch display so pace is not shown. That way, says Corkum, you’ll have the data to analyze after the fact so you can gauge your progress, but you won’t have it to distract you during your actual workout. Plus, if you’re doing a speed workout that involves time, you’ll still be able to look at that to determine your run-recovery intervals.
15. Run hills to build speed.
Yes, hills will make sprints feel harder, but giving the incline some love during your training is important if you want to get faster come an eventual race day.
“Running short, fast hill repeats requires a dynamic stride, and can build more strength in your calves and glutes,” Mayer says. “Those muscles can help with powering through faster workouts or races.”
Hill sprints are obviously super important if you know a specific course you’ll be running is hilly, but it also has carryover for flatter courses too. So don’t forget to think about incline when you’re planning out your training.
16. Add explosive work to your training.
Ever wonder why you still feel like you struggle on small hills even if you run them fairly often? If you feel sluggish on uphills, you may benefit from adding some explosive exercises to your training, Mayer says. Incorporating plyometrics or explosive drills like bounding (an exaggeration of your stride that works on your push off) may help you add more power to your stride.
If you do incorporate plyometrics or other explosive moves in your training, just be sure to schedule them for the beginning of your workout, when you’re more likely to be fresh and thus less likely to get injured, ACE-certified personal trainer Sivan Fagan, owner of Strong With Sivan, told SELF previously. (Try this HIIT leg workout for some plyo motivation.)
17. Add in mobility work.
If you’ve had prior injuries (or even if you spend a lot of time sitting), you may feel like your muscles are always super tight, Mayer says. This can make your stride feel shorter and choppier.
If you notice your stride is holding you back even when you have the energy to go faster, you may benefit from more mobility work, Mayer says. Especially if you’ve dealt with injuries in the past, a pro can help you determine which kinds of mobility work are best for you—and how you should implement them.
“A physical therapist or personal trainer skilled in movement assessments may be just the key to get your stride back to an ideal length,” Mayer says. (If you haven’t dealt with injuries or those kinds of assessments otherwise don’t make sense for you, it’s still a good idea to work on mobility—check out these prehab moves to keep your muscles mobile.)
18. Acknowledge the life stress of 2020.
Training can be one of many stresses in life, among work, family, and the impact of the pandemic, Mayer says. If your training is starting to stress you out too much on top of that, a small break may be in order.
“If you’re feeling worn out or anxious, you may need to pull back on your volume or intensity,” she says. “If building speed is your goal, pulling back on your mileage temporarily may help to offset that stretch and keep you focused on your goal.”
19. Prioritize sleep.
Have you ever found that you can barely sleep the night before a big race, yet somehow the adrenaline that comes with the experience still carries you to a new PR? That’s pretty common for runners who race—myself included. But unfortunately, regular, solo runs usually don’t come with that same adrenaline.
That’s why one of the most basic lifestyle tips can often yield big performance results, Mayer says: sleep.
“If you’re not sleeping seven to nine hours a night, adding more sleep to your schedule may give you a performance boost,” she says. You can start small, by shifting your bedtime up a few minutes each day, or limiting your screen time before you turn off the lights. According to a 2019 review published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine, improving sleep quality and duration can boost sprint performance in athletes, as well as help them feel more alert and less fatigued. (Of course, getting good, solid sleep is easier said than done right now, as many of us are stressed with the happenings of 2020, but these sleeping tips can help, as can apps that promote better sleep.)
20. Enjoy your “easy” runs becoming…easier.
While you should notice your fast pushes becoming easier to hit the more speed work you do, you should also experience another benefit: Your easy runs should feel easier too.
“The beauty of all speed work is that your overall fitness will improve, and those aerobic runs will feel easier over time, and paces will naturally improve as the effort feels consistent,” Corkum says. Take that as proof your hard work is working—and just resist the urge to crank up the effort during your easy days so your body can recover.