Speed Work for Beginners

By Jill Forsythe

speed work

The following question was posted by a fellow runner on a running forum and I thought it was a great topic to tackle in this issue.

“At the sake of sounding like a newbie, I wonder how others handle sprints. When the time is too tough to hold for the distance, do you slow down and finish? Or do you stop when needed (to catch your breath) so you can start again at the prescribed time? I’m running on the treadmill, so I have been doing the latter. What’s best?”

This is the time of year when runners are jumping back into their training in preparation for a goal spring race and many of those training plans include speed work. Without the guidance of a running coach or any formal training, a lot of runners often grapple with the ins and outs of speed work.

There are benefits of following a training plan but one of the pitfalls of blindly following a canned plan as a beginner is the fact that you have no past experience to guide you. Speed work can be one of the most intimidating aspects of training when you have no idea how to do it, or how to do it correctly. Runners can end up injured from speed work gone wrong, and sprints are one of the worst offenders.

I often caution new runners to progress slowly towards speed work. Start off with informal types of speed work such as fartleks. This type of workout is famous for its informal structure. You simply speed up and slow down for a prescribed block of time during your run. For instance, if you are headed out for a 45 minute run, use the first and last 15 minutes as your warm up and cool down. During the middle 15 minutes, run a five minute fartlek, five minutes easy, and a final five minute fartlek. Your fartlek can be anything you want it to be. You can alternate one minute hard and one minute easy, or you can alternate distances to run hard. You should be doing more hard running than easy running because the whole point behind it is unstructured speed work.

After tackling fartleks you can move on to tempo runs and intervals. You will find varying opinions about which one is easier or harder, or how to rank them. It’s individual, just as running is unique to each person.

A tempo run consists of a warm up and cool down with the middle miles (or length of time) run a bit harder, generally 10k to half marathon pace. If you are a beginner runner and have no idea what those paces should be, let’s just say you should run it a little harder than your easy runs so that your heart beat gets a little quicker but you should never be out of breath. If you start laboring with your breathing then you are running too hard.

This same principle holds true for your track workouts, or intervals. With intervals you are running shorter distances at a much quicker pace. One of the biggest mistakes people make are to run those at a full out sprint. Save that kind of sprinting for the final meters in a race. In an interval session you should never have to stop in the middle of an interval to catch your breath. That means you are running too fast. Slow down by a few seconds and see what happens. Use the prescribed pace on your training plan as a guide only and tweak it as needed. You are not a failure because you couldn’t keep up with your canned plan.

The main goal in speed work is to build your fast twitch muscles. If you are unable to hold your pace during your speed work and need to stop half-way through, you are defeating the whole purpose behind the workout. Use your training plan as a guide and make changes such as pace, distance, or time based on how you react to your training. Keep notes and look back at how your body adapts to the training stimuli. If you are still sore two days later from your most recent interval session, you need to make some changes. Your speed work should progress in a similar fashion as your mileage does over the course of your training cycle. Start slowly and work towards getting faster, just as you start with lower mileage and slowly build towards higher mileage. Trust me, you’ll get to where you want to be, everybody reacts to training differently.

Jill Jill ForsytheForsythe is a lifelong athlete having participated in both competitive and recreational sports. Health and fitness is a trait she has worked hard to instill in her children, as well as the community-at-large. She currently serves on the Board of Directors for a local non-profit, Lehigh Valley Road Runners, and has directed both trail and road races within the community. lvrr.org



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