Speed is key to running — and not just when it comes to your morning jog or sprinting for the bus when you’re late for work.
“It doesn’t matter whether you want to be a great runner or just include running as part of your fitness,” says coach Pete Magill, author of SpeedRunner. “Speed is at the crux of every distance, whether you’re training for a 5K or a marathon.”
That’s because legs that move swiftly and efficiently are legs that have endured speed training. Sprinting has been shown to build muscle, improve ankle strength, and boost bone density. It balances blood-sugar and hormone profiles, burns fat, and increases aerobic capacity for long, slow efforts of endurance sports.
Moreover, running faster can help you avoid injury because you are moving more efficiently, says Magill. It can also help you set a new personal record, which isn’t a fitness requirement but can motivate many runners.
The idea of speed workouts often intimidates those who worry about injuries or prefer to remain in their running comfort zone. But Magill argues that we ought to rethink our attitude about speed.
“The word ‘speed’ scares people,” Magill says. “But what we’re really talking about is just varied-pace work.” He asserts that it’s beneficial for all runners to train at a variety of speeds regardless of their goals or expertise.
“For beginners, the first goal should be just to complete the distance,” explains Rebekah Mayer, Life Time Run national program manager. “But even from the beginning, interval training can be very helpful.”
Magill and Mayer share their advice for building speed safely and efficiently.
Running Technique Tips
Build a Strong Foundation
To get speedy, you first need a strong, stable base. Magill recommends that runners with no speed background follow a resistance-training program once or twice a week for three weeks before attempting challenging running work-outs, such as hill repeats and sprints.
“If you can strengthen your muscles and connective tissue before you put them to work, you’re way ahead of the game,” he says.
For resistance training, focus on lower-body and core exercises, such as squats, step-ups, single-leg deadlifts, Nordic hamstring curls, eccentric heel drops, and plank variations. (See Resistance-Training Exercises below for step-by-step instructions for these exercises.)
Improve Your Stride
Half of the power from every stride comes from elastic energy, stored in connective tissue when you land and released when your foot leaves the ground, Magill explains. So, it’s important not only to strengthen muscles through traditional resistance training, but also to train your connective tissue — including tendons, ligaments, and fascia — and nervous system.
Exercises and drills that involve a plyometric component, such as bounding, jumping, and skipping (see drill 2 below), help your muscles and nervous system optimize this elastic recoil when you run.
Once you incorporate speed training into your routine, it’s doubly important to prioritize recovery. Mayer recommends alternating between all-out interval sessions and long, slow efforts — with high-intensity work making up about 20 percent of your training and low-intensity runs composing the remaining 80 percent.
This approach is called “polarized training” and will not only help you make improvements but also give your muscles and nervous system time to recover.
She recommends two sessions a week dedicated to varied-pace or speed training, with at least 48 hours of recovery between workouts.
Recovery is a two-phase process, adds Magill. “First, you’re rebuilding and restoring tissue that was damaged. Then comes supercompensation, a phase in which you’re not just back to baseline, but at a level above where you were before the initial workout.”
Drill 1: Straights and Curves
Run this drill on an outdoor, quarter-mile track. Beginners can start with two to four laps; more advanced runners can work their way up to two miles (eight laps).
- Warm up with a mile of easy running.
- Then, starting at one corner of the track, sprint the length of the first straight or long part of the track.
- When you come to the first curve, jog or walk if necessary. Continue alternating between running the straights and walking the curves.
Drill 2: Skipping and Strides
Do this drill in an open space where you can run in a straight line for at least 20 yards. More advanced runners can work up to 50 to 70 yards.
- Skip to your endpoint.
- Jog back to the starting point.
- Run with varied strides to the endpoint: Take off with a short, quick stride and gradually lengthen your stride to increase your speed until you’re running at a controlled fast pace. Gradually slow down as you reach your endpoint.
- Walk slowly to return to the starting point.
- Repeat this drill with high skipping (aiming to get higher off the ground with each skip) and then with long skipping (aiming to cover as much distance as possible with each skip).
- Stand with feet about hip width apart and planted firmly on the ground, hands in front of you or on your hips.
- Brace your core and, with control, bend your knees and hips to squat down until your thighs are about parallel to the ground.
- Press through your feet to stand up. Squeeze your glutes at the top to achieve a full lockout.
- Repeat for 10 to 12 reps. Add weight to make the movement more challenging.
- Facing a box or step that’s 6 to 15 inches high, lift your left foot off the ground and step on the box.
- Exhale and engage your core. Then drive through your left heel to stand up on the box, drawing your right knee up to hip height. Inhale.
- Exhale as you slowly reverse the movement, returning your right foot to the floor on a count of two.
- Repeat 12 times on the left, then switch sides.
- Holding a dumbbell in your left hand, lift your left foot to stand on your right leg. Keep your right knee slightly bent and your weight in the midfoot.
- Push your right hip backward as you extend your left leg directly behind you. Maintain a straight line from your shoulder to your left foot. Lower the dumbbell toward the ground.
- Drive your weight through your right midfoot and slowly bring your left leg forward to return to an upright stance.
- Tip: If you find it difficult to balance, try this exercise without the dumbbell. To get the benefits of contralateral loading (adding resistance to the arm opposite the working leg), extend your left arm out to the side (without holding a weight) while standing on your right foot.
- Kneel on an exercise mat and have a training partner hold your heels firmly.
- Keep your body as straight as possible from knees to head. Slowly shift your weight forward, resisting gravity with your hamstrings and glutes.
- Lower yourself as slowly as possible, catching yourself as you get close to the floor (your finishing position will resemble the bottom of an on-the-knees pushup).
- Push off the floor just enough to get your body moving back toward vertical. Simultaneously pull with your hamstrings and squeeze with your glutes until you return to the starting position.
- Keep your reps low at first — about five per set. Repeat for three to five sets.
- On a low step or curb, stand on the ball of your right foot so the arch and heel are hanging off the edge.
- Relax your calf and let your heel drop toward the ground. Hold for 10 seconds.
- Resist by using your calf muscles to raise your body 1 to 2 inches. Hold for six seconds.
- Relax for five seconds.
- Drop your heel down again until you feel a deeper stretch. Hold for 15 to 30 seconds. Switch sides.
- Lying face-down, lift yourself up on your toes and either your hands or elbows, with a flat lower back, engaged core, and shoulders away from the ears.
- Your body should form a straight line from head to heels, with shoulders and hips square to the floor, no matter which of the following variations you choose.
- Hold for up to 30 seconds, as long as you can maintain perfect form. (For more variations, visit “Pump Up Your Plank“.)
This originally appeared as “No Speed Limit” in the March 2019 print issue of Experience Life.