As we slog through the heat and humidity of long summer days coming onto the scene a little late, most runners I know have already begun, in earnest, the process of preparing for their fall marathons. Whether they’re newbie long distance runners training to cross the finish line for the first time or well established road junkie veterans who need more than a few seconds to recount the number of finisher’s medals they’ve worn, collectively they’ve all asked me the same question, “What’s the secret to running well in a marathon?” Although there are a myriad of answers to the question, they are all variations on a common theme, speedwork. In this series of posts on speed training, I hope to provide some practical tips to help runners of all levels train better, run faster and finish stronger in their fall marathons.
Part I – For The Beginners: Introducing Speedwork
For the beginner and first time marathon runners among us, let me start by welcoming you to our sport! Congrats. You’ve already taken the first steps to a fun, exciting, fulfilling, healthy and inspiring road adventure that will change your life and that you’ll remember for as long as you live. Now take a deep breath, a really really deep breath and relax. Believe it or not, that is your first (and probably the most important) lesson. Do not be intimidated by the distance. Although 26.2 miles seems like a really really far way to run right now, it is possible and even probable that you will get there if you focus on the three pillars of marathon training: practice, patience, persistence. Many others have gone before you and have finished. You will too!
Now on to the topic at hand.
Throughout my short career advising and coaching first-time marathoners, I’ve always been amazed by how many beginning long-distance runners fail to understand the importance of speed training to marathon success. Maybe it’s a conditioned response to seeing more trained athletes whizzing by them the first time they are out on the road for a few miles. Maybe it’s an excuse to be modest even when there’s no reason to be. Whatever the cause, there’s always a tremendous amount of resistance and angst whenever the subject of speedwork is discussed with a newer runner. There’s a general perception that just because you think you’re slow (even if the term is relative and there’s every evidence to point to the contrary), you’re automatically exempt from speedwork. Speedwork is uncomfortable…it hurts…and should be reserved for the speedy people. I am clumsy, slow and have no aspirations of being fast. So what’s in it for me? They would argue universally. Leave me alone to waddle and plod along the road at whatever pace feels comfortable to me. I’m just looking to cross the finish line in one piece, not race against Usain Bolt!
My response to these speedwork skeptics is almost as universal: You are totally missing the point! Speedwork is much less about running fast as it is about running well. Just as you didn’t start training for a marathon because you thought you were going to take first place, we don’t do speedwork because we’re looking to chase down Ryan Hall! Yes, a consequence of doing speedwork consistently is a better race time, but that is not really the true goal. The main objective of speed training is to encourage and teach the body to run more efficiently. This happens both on a mechanical as well as at a physiologic level. Mechanically, by encouraging your body to run faster, you automatically force the body to “work out the kinks” and adapt a better running posture. With practice, you will adapt a more efficient and smoother form while eliminating the inefficient herky jerky movements of arms and legs. Similarly, on a physiologic level, by forcing the bones, muscles, ligaments, and tendons to collectively operate a bit faster and a bit harder, you create a performance demand and a natural stress on the cardiorespiratory and musculoskeletal system that prompts a physiologic response. Through tissue breakdown and recovery, with practice, the body adapts and becomes better and better at meeting the body’s metabolic requirements. As a result, less oxygen and fuel is consumed and you will naturally become a more efficient and, by consequence, a faster runner.
So, as you can see, speedwork is for everybody looking to become better runners, fast or slow. Since most people start and continue running to better themselves, incorporating faster workouts for the purpose of becoming better runners is just an extension on the same theme of self-improvement.
Now that I’ve convinced you (hopefully) that speedwork leads to more efficient running which leads to marathon success, how should you incorporate some speed into your training if you’ve never done them before? Should you bust out one mile repeats on the track like there’s no tomorrow? Should you run each run as fast and as hard as you can? No, not if you want to make the starting line of your race! Speedwork, like all aspects of running, requires persistence and training. Start by throwing in faster 30 secs-1 min stretches (called fartleks) in the middle of your regular runs once to twice a week. Work up to a faster quarter mile, a half mile, and then to a mile in the middle of your general maintenance run. In the beginning, don’t worry about the exact pace, but concentrate on your breathing and your form during the fartleks. You should feel slightly out of breath but not so much that you are sucking air and dry heaving. Always warmup and cooldown with some slower miles at the start and end of each fartlek segment.
If you incorporate this simple speed workout into your training, you will notice a significant difference in your speed and efficiency in your target marathon. Who knows, you might even surprise yourself with a better race time than you anticipated. Then you can look back and snicker at how you aren’t as slow as you once thought you were and convince others that a little speedwork can really go a long way!
Happy Running and Training!