April 2001

Non-Coach's Column! - from Paul Briscoe "Speedwork"

Over the past couple of newsletters, Iíve looked at some steps the average runner, without the time or energy of an elite athlete, can take to improve race performance. So far, Iíve considered weight and mileage. Now I want to take a closer look at speed work. It is well recognised that regular speed work improves race performance. When I started regular speed work in the late Ď80ís, my race performances improved beyond all recognition and I became a true competitor. The problem is that speed work is probably the hardest part of a runnerís training programme, both physically and psychologically, primarily because running fast is uncomfortable - sometimes painful. As a result, a lot of runners chicken out or donít push themselves as hard as they should. Therefore, they donít reach anything like their full potential.

In order to consider how to use speed work, first we need to identify the different aspects of running which together contribute to performance - what I shall call the "running triangle" - endurance, speed and strength.

The first part of the triangle is "endurance" (or stamina) - this is the ability to keep running over a long distance. Endurance is built up by a combination of regular training (miles in your legs!) and long runs, so steady running works more on your endurance than anything else. I made some recommendations regarding minimum mileage and long runs last time - this should give you a reasonable endurance base.

The second part of the triangle is speed - this is quite simply the ability to run fast. It can perhaps best be split into 2 parts: flat out sprinting speed (or what my old training manual called "power"), which is anaerobic - where your cardiovascular system cannot supply oxygen fast enough, resulting in a rapid build up of lactic acid in your muscles; secondly there is aerobic speed, which is the fastest pace you can hold for any distance without going into oxygen debt (your "aerobic threshold"). Sprinting speed is most likely to be important in shorter events but can still be useful at the end of longer races if you get caught up in a close finish. Aerobic speed is certainly more important to distance runners because you obviously cannot run far in oxygen debt. Having said that, Iím sure that aerobic and anaerobic speed are closely related, so working on one will doubtless benefit the other. If you run all of your miles at a steady pace, your body will not be conditioned to run faster when you race. However, by doing regular and specific speed work at close to your aerobic threshold, you can increase your "aerobic capacity" - speed work conditions your body to work more efficiently so that you can run faster for the same amount of effort. Also, your aerobic threshold can actually increase with regular speed work. The net result is that you develop the ability to run significantly faster without going into oxygen debt. Training intended to improve aerobic speed generally takes the form of intervals, ranging from say 1 minute up to 5 minutes of fast running close to your threshold, with partial recovery between each effort. Workouts to build anaerobic speed also tend to take the form of intervals, but run virtually flat out and with long recoveries.

The last part of the triangle is "speed endurance", or what I have always called "strength" - this is the ability to hold onto your aerobic speed over a long distance - this is especially important in longer events such as the marathon. The concept of speed endurance seems to be ignored in many magazine articles but it is a recognised physiological phenomenon - runners who do specific strength training build up the ability to run long distances at a pace far closer to their maximum aerobic effort. Strength also assists considerably when youíre trying to hold a strong pace up hills (as I have always found when preparing for the 3 Peaks). Just to illustrate the importance of strength in distance running, I can cite my own experience as an example. In the mid Ď90ís I used to train on the track at Becketts Park. Even when I was really flying, I only ran 68-70 secs for 400m efforts - far too slow for me to run with the "big boys" who ran 60-62 secs (i.e. almost Ĺ min/mile faster!). When I raced against these runners over the country, they were always far faster in the 2 mile relay events, but in the 6 - 7Ĺ mile championship races I beat most of them - frequently by minutes. The difference was that they tired considerably in longer races, whilst I ran almost as fast over 7Ĺ miles as I did over 2!! Longer interval sessions do contribute to strength, but specific strength training often takes the form of much longer sustained efforts of 20 minutes or more, or possibly even up to over 10 miles for longer events. The 20 minute effort might be at 10K pace whilst the 10 mile run might be at marathon pace. Such sustained 10-12 mile efforts are the mainstay of my 3 Peaks build up. Sustained efforts up long hills can also be used to build strength without the stress of running fast.

In preparing a training programme, the relative importance of endurance, speed and strength will depend on the event you are preparing for and, to some extent, on your own strengths and weaknesses. If, like me, you have a lot of natural endurance, you will need to concentrate on speed and strength. However, if you are naturally fast, you may need to do more mileage and strength work. For shorter events, the emphasis will be more on speed whilst for the marathon, endurance and strength will be at least as important.

So how much speed work should you do? There are no hard and fast rules, but most serious runners I know do some type of speed work at least twice per week. Runners who race regularly can get by on less than this - some fell runners regularly race every weekend (sometimes twice!) and get by without doing any speed work at all. The effects of speed work are cumulative and it may take several months of doing consistent speed work to gain maximum benefit. Also, if you lay off the speed for more than a couple of weeks, you can lose it very quickly - so the message is that you have to keep working at it for most of the year to race well.

What form should the speed work take? Whenever I have trained with experienced distance runners, speed sessions have always followed a similar format, generally laid down by an experienced coach: the sessions normally include between 15 and 20 minutes of efforts (say 12-16 x 400m or 6-8 x 800m or 4 x 1 mile) with a jogged recovery of about half the duration of the effort. Although the above sessions were designed to be done on the track, I have found timed interval sessions on the grass or road to be just as effective, e.g. running efforts of 12 x 75 seconds instead of 400metres and 4 x 5 minutes instead of mile reps. If you really want to run a measured distance, you can always mark out approximate distances on your local park or street. Another alternative is doing hill reps - repeated efforts of say 45 secs - 2 mins up a challenging hill with a jog back down for recovery (the hill should not be so steep that you only plod up it). The length of the intervals should vary from one session to the next, so that you do some long efforts and some short. Alternatively, to add variety, you can do a "pyramid" or a classic "fartlek" session where the length of the efforts is varied. The length of the recovery is important, since if you take too much rest between efforts it will take too long for your heart rate to get back up to its training range and some benefit will be lost - there is apparently quite reasonable evidence that a recovery period of about half the duration of the effort is about right, although I prefer to use rather less than this for long efforts.

The key to all of these sessions is proper pacing - you need to aim to run close to your aerobic threshold (which means that you shouldnít be able to talk comfortably!) at the fastest pace that you can reasonably hold for the entire set of efforts. If you get too tired to hold your pace in later efforts, then you are running too hard, but if you have something in reserve for the last one, youíve not run hard enough!! Unless you are experienced at speed work and can push yourself hard running alone, you are far better doing these sessions with other runners - not only does this give you a spur, but it also allows you to gauge your improvement over the weeks. So I strongly recommend that you start doing the reps on a Tuesday night with the Striders - that way you are assured of at least one decent session every week. Another option is to train with the aid of a heart rate monitor (HRM). With an HRM, once you have determined your heart rate at your aerobic threshold, you simply run at the pace which maintains your heart rate close to this threshold. BUT, beware - when you read the article I have written for the next newsletter you will see that assuming your threshold is at 85% of maximum heart rate is NOT reliable, so you may be better determining your threshold during a hard race on a flat course. You should also bear in mind that your threshold may change over time.

When it comes to strength training, that is something that youíll probably have to do on your own, running some of your normal training runs at a faster pace than usual. Choice of pace is difficult to start with but if you try to work towards say 10K pace for 15-20 minutes or marathon pace for 6-10 miles, your strength will certainly benefit. As your strength improves, you should find that you will be able to hold a better pace over all distances. I find that I also benefit from doing occasional time trials (say every 3 weeks) over a known course of maybe 6 miles, running at close to race pace. This is an excellent strength run and allows me to assess the progress of my training, which is very difficult in the imprecisely measured off-road races I normally do.

You should hopefully find that over a period of weeks, as your pace improves, you will cover more ground on each interval, or cover your measured distances more quickly, but the effort will feel the same. This is progress - you should find that your race results will improve as well! However, please donít assume (as some apparently do) that racing will feel any easier than before - the guy at the front may seem to be more relaxed, but heís hurting at least as much as you!!