Speed Training

by Chris Cooper

The aim of this page is to provide an introduction to speed training – the different types of speed training you may choose to undertake, what these sessions involve and working out what might be right for you


What is speed training?

Speed training involves working at a variety of paces faster than your regular, comfortable (easy) running pace and is designed to encourage adaptations that will help improve your fitness and racing performance. Many people think of speed training as taking place only on a track (like our Tuesday night track sessions) but it may also be done on roads, off road and using hills.

Paces used in speed work vary widely depending on the type of adaptation you are looking to achieve, as do the lengths of the ‘bouts’ run at speed within a training session.

The key variables in speed training are distance, quantity (of bouts or reps), intensity and recovery.


Why speed training?

If you have been running regularly (2 – 3 times per week) for a while so that you feel comfortable with running training, and you would like to improve your performance in races, speed training will be beneficial for you. It should not be seen as a substitute for (or short cut from) your other regular paced training sessions, but as an addition to your training that will help to improve your fitness.

To improve your performance in all endurance races (5k upwards) you need both mileage and speed – neither will work well in isolation. As a general rule, it is better to hold off speed training until you have reached a regular mileage base of at least 15 – 20 miles per week.

As running at speed is more intense than running at your normal, regular training pace it is more taxing on the body and care should be taken, especially if you are injured or have a history of injuries.

However, if you haven’t used speed training before, you shouldn’t be intimidated by it, as providing you are sensible, it really is the key to helping you run faster. If you only train at ‘slow’ paces, you are only training yourself to run ‘slow’ more easily and for longer. To get faster, you need to train at speed, especially if:

  • You find it difficult to hold a fast pace during a race, but afterwards you feel you could have run further at the same pace
  • You struggle to be able to generate power during a race – especially on uphill sections
  • You are unable to run faster than your regular, steady training pace during a race – even from the start


What do I need to consider before trying speed training?

Before undertaking speed training, you need to think about your training and racing goals so that you can define the most appropriate type of speed training for you – especially in terms of pace and length of the bouts you will be running at speed. The optimum speed work for a 5k/10k runner will be quite different from what a marathon runner should be doing.

You also need to consider your current fitness and how experienced you are as a runner. The more you have of both, the more speed work your body is likely to be able to safely tolerate. This is also important if you have been injured and unable to run for a while.

When undertaking any speed training, you need to make sure that you warm up thoroughly first so your muscles are ready to undertake the work. If you start running at speed from ‘cold’ there is a good chance you will hurt or injure yourself – so don’t be tempted to miss your warm up. Also, it is really important to cool down at the end of the session to steadily bring your heart rate down towards its normal level. Following this, make sure you take time to stretch to gain maximum benefits from your efforts and help aid your recovery.

Finally, while speed training make sure you listen to your body. It you get any sharp pain or muscle tightness, it is best to stop, cool down and stretch. Speed training should and will ‘hurt’ but only due to exertion – your body should not be in pain.


What are the different types of speed training?

There are four main types of speed training that you may wish to incorporate into your training. These are intervals, tempo runs, hill repeats and fartlek.

Interval: running at race pace or faster for segments that are much shorter than your race distance, with recovery breaks (intervals) in between to minimise stress on the body.

Interval training is at the centre of most competitive training programmes, and history has shown it is the best way of improving racing performance.

Most people undertake interval training at the track, but it may also be done on marked sections of roads or paths or even on a treadmill.

Sessions are comprised of reps which in distance can be anything from 200m up to 1,600m (and beyond for half marathon or marathon runners). Reps may also be measured in time rather than distance.

Paces will vary, with faster paces used for short rep sessions (200m or 400m reps) and slower paces for longer reps. Sessions may comprise a number of reps of the same or different distance, mostly at the same but sometimes at different paces.

Within Manchester Frontrunners’ Tuesday night track sessions, we train at three main paces: R (or ‘rep’ pace), I (or ‘interval’ pace) and T (or ‘threshold’ pace).

There is a lot to learn before you try and put together your own track interval session, so the easiest way to get started is to come along to our sessions on Tuesday nights.

Tempo runs: usually run on roads or paths, tempo running works to improve the threshold at which your lactic acid builds up in the muscles – hence why it is also known as ‘lactate turnpoint’ training. With tempo training, you run close to this threshold without actually exceeding it.

In terms of pace, for more novice or intermediate runners this is 15-30 seconds per mile slower than 10k race pace; for more highly trained or advanced runners it is 10-20 seconds slower than 10k race pace.

For any endurance runner, tempo running will improve racing performance, especially when training for half-marathons or marathons, for which long tempo runs should form a key part of any good training programme.

Tempo running is quite easy to incorporate into your regular training runs, and may form sections of a long, easy paced training run. For example, within a 45 minute run, you may run at an easy pace for the first 10 minutes; followed 3 x 10 minutes of tempo running with 1 minute rest in between; and then the last 10 minutes or so at easy pace. This type of tempo running is known as ‘cruise intervals’.

The overall benefit of tempo running simulating something close to running at race conditions, but without exposure to the full physical stress involved, so you will recover enough for your next training session.

Hill repeats: as running fast in longer distance races is based on a combination of endurance and speed, hill running is a great way to improve your performance. As well as working on both of these factors, hill reps also help you to improve muscular strength and power, and this type of running is effectively resistance training – as you might do at the gym.

In particular, as your body works to overcome the incline, hill running strengthens your hamstrings, calves, quads and glutes, as well as the upper body as your arms pump to help you get up the hills. This exaggeration of running technique also helps you to improve your regular running form – making it a really effective form of training.

Hill repeats have many similarities to intervals run on the track, as they involve reps of running up a certain hill followed by recovery in between.

A good introduction to hill training is short hill repeats, which are especially useful for sharpening your speed for 5k or 10k races. Pick a hill of a challenging gradient, but one that you can still run up in a fast pace – usually one that may take 30-60 seconds to reach the top at this pace. Run hard up the hill and then walk or jog back to the bottom before resting for a minute and repeating. Start with 5 or 6 ‘reps’ and then look to increase this as your fitness improves. This is something you may choose to tack on to the end of a regular paced training run – followed by some cool down running afterwards.

Hill training may be tough but it is possibly the easiest form of speed running to incorporate into your training, and you will feel the benefits of it really quickly!

Fartlek: this strangely named (it’s Swedish for ‘speed play’) training is also an easy type of speed training to incorporate into your running. It involves a number of bursts of speed incorporated within a regular training run.

Fartlek is often not considered an exact science in terms of distance you are running or the pace you run at. In that sense it is possibly the simplest starting point for speed training.

A good place to do fartlek training is in a park. After a good warm up, run at a steady pace until you reach a chosen landmark, and then run at speed until you reach another landmark – lamp posts are an obvious thing to use. Once you have reached the second landmark, ease off the pace and run at a steady pace for a similar amount of time before you reach the next landmark and set off again at speed. This may be repeated several times within a training session, and the amount of time you are running at speed each time should vary according to your fitness. It’s best to run the course you are training on in advance and choosing the landmarks you will use before embarking on this type of training.

The beauty of fartlek training is that you can very easily tailor sessions according to your own fitness and you can use your regular running route – therefore it can be done very informally. The key is being disciplined and pre-planning your landmarks and the amount of bouts of speed you will run – that way you won’t ease off and finish the session early when you start to feel fatigued.

I hope this is a helpful introduction to speed training that will encourage you to give it a go as you really will very soon feel the benefits to your training in your overall fitness and racing performance.

One final note is to plan your speed work carefully. This type of training is hard work so make sure you schedule it to allow for enough recover before your next running training session. Also, don’t do it too close to an important race as you will want to feel fresh for race day.

If you would like any further advice or support, please feel free to email  training@manchesterfrontrunners.org and when you feel you are ready come along to one of our Tuesday night track sessions.