You must practice running faster if you want to run faster at any given distance. You can run longer for increased endurance or lift weights for added strength, and you should do these things. But if you want to run faster, you must practice having your legs run faster. Speed workouts are the solution.
Most runners think of track workouts when it comes to speed sessions. However, track sessions are not always the best place to start adding speed safely into your training early in a training cycle or if you are new to speed workouts. Through many marathons and middle-distance training cycles, I’ve worked with a world-class coach (reach out if you want his contact information). His approach to speed is to safely build to traditional track sessions.
First, my coach starts me with strides and hill workouts before heading to the track. Strides are 10 to 15-second efforts where you progressively build speed while lengthening the “stride” of your run. Strides teach your body the biomechanics of running faster. Start by adding 5 to 10 strides one day a week after an easy run.
Next are hill workouts. Hills workouts are speed sessions in disguise. Hills teach your body correct running form while elevating your heart rate and taxing your legs as in a track session but without the stressful impact of high-speed running. It’s virtually impossible to run up a hill with bad form — you have to lean forward with high knees, drive off the ground, and pump your arms. If you replicate this hill form while running on flat terrain, you are in for significant gains in speed and efficiency. Start with 10 x 100m hills at mile effort and progress towards 16 x 300m hills at 5K effort. Effort is critical. You will not be able to sustain your 5K pace up a hill. But you can sustain a 5K effort. Jog easy down the hill. Running downhill will pound your quads, strengthening them, but the added impact can lead to injury if you do not jog down easily.
Finally, you are ready for the track. There is no shortage of track sessions you can incorporate depending on your race distance and goal. Intervals of 200m, 400, and 800m are simple and effective and will form the backbone of most running plans.
Speed sessions will get you in shape quickly, which makes it tempting to add multiple speed sessions per week. Do so at the risk of injury! Speed sessions are pounding efforts on your legs, ankles, and feet, elevating the risk of injury. If you want two speed sessions weekly, add a hill workout instead. You will benefit from speed (form, effort, strength) with less impact.
Hills pay the bills. You will thank me in your next race when that unexpected incline appears around the corner.