Home > Training

Speedwork 101: running fast is for everyone

Understand the basics of speedwork and get started today

Runner heading toward mountains:andrea-leopardi

Speedwork is one of those words runners toss about while meaning different things. It encompasses a variety of workouts and has a range of physiological and mental benefits, and there’s an entry point for every runner. Here’s what you need to know about speedwork, and why it should be a regular part of your running repertoire.

Whether you are training for a 5K or a marathon (or even an ultra), speedwork should be a component of your weekly mileage. The benefits of speedwork are well-researched and multifaceted.

Photo: Intagram/tracksmithrunning

What is speedwork?

Speed training (when done in interval sessions) involves running multiple bouts of certain distances at high intensities with recovery in between. Intervals (or repeats) can range from 15 seconds to 20 minutes (or even longer), depending on what distance you’re training for. Tempo runs, fartlek workouts and accelerations can all serve as different forms of speedwork.

While the majority of your running should be easy, at least one workout a week should include something more challenging. Legendary coach and author Jack Daniels writes in Daniels’ Running Formula that it’s always important to know the purpose or intention of each workout. Regardless of what it’s called, if the purpose is to improve speed, you’re doing speedwork.

The overload principle

The overload principle is the idea that regular exposure to a specific exercise will enhance certain physiological functions, and in doing so, elicit a training response: your fitness improves. If you run at faster speeds, even for very brief periods, your body will learn and adapt, and you will become stronger and faster. This is the basis of speedwork or any training effect you may be working toward while you run.

What happens during speedwork

During speed sessions, our body is forced to recruit more muscle fibres to provide aerobic energy. The result–running economy, or how efficiently your body is able to use oxygen at a certain pace, improves.

Your body will also increase the production of myoglobin during fast workouts. Myoglobin helps transport oxygen to the muscles and then to the mitochondria. With increased myoglobin, the higher demand for oxygen is met. Speed training can also improve your anaerobic threshold: the highest exercise intensity that you can sustain for a prolonged period without lactate substantially building up in your blood.

During speed sessions, glycogen is providing upwards of 90 per cent of your energy. When you begin doing speedwork, you’ll burn through that glycogen quickly, but over time your muscles will adapt and store more glycogen for future workouts.

Mentally, speedwork teaches your brain to handle more pressure (easy runs should be low-pressure days) and harder work. As you challenge yourself in workouts, you’ll be better prepared to handle the effort on race day.

Get started today

If you’re thinking about adding some faster running into your program and you’re not sure where to start, simply pick one day per week and do four to eight short, 15-20 second repetitions, either on a flat road or a moderate hill. Better yet, alternate each week between hills and flat ground to give your body an extra challenge. Allow for 40-45 seconds of recovery between harder efforts for recovery, and enjoy the feeling of pushing your body a little harder.

Check out the latest buyer's guide:

Top 10 shoes our testers are loving in June

We tested tons of great shoes this year, but only the very best make the list