7 Speed Workouts You Need to Know

The Key to Becoming a Faster, Stronger and More Efficient Runner


When you first start running, simply getting into a routine of running several times per week may feel daunting. When someone mentions the word “workout,” you turn the other way. Understandable. It’s scary … at first. But it doesn’t have to be. In reality, while speed work is hard, it’s also fun. And, when combined with proper rest and recovery, it’s the very key to becoming a faster, stronger, more efficient runner. Plus, it adds diversity to your training to prevent any chance of early-onset boredom. Another speed perk: frequently alternating your running pace recruits different muscle fibers, which helps stave off injury.

When you’re first learning how to run fast, though (whether it’s the beginning of the season or during the later stages of recovery after a race), approach it slowly. This means keeping the workout stress relatively low with short bursts of fast speed (think short sprints) with full recovery until your body adjusts and you’re able to handle more (think tempos, fartleks [a.k.a speedplay] and more intervals at high intensity).

As your season progresses and your fitness improves, you’ll find yourself running longer and harder—and with much more ease. Here are seven speed workouts you need to know, from early season rust-busters to peak fitness confidence-boosters and everything in between.

A quick note about paces:

FAST: Hard to hold a conversation, but something you can sustain for more than a minute AND maintain proper form throughout.

MEDIUM: Faster than easy, but you could still complete a whole run at this pace if you had to, but you probably wouldn’t want to do much talking.

EASY: This is when you’re running and chatting, life feels effortless and everything is beautiful.

And, always remember that all workouts are infinitely modifiable. For example, if you’re new to running—and running itself is speed workout enough—replace the hard and easy running segments with running and walking.


Strides

Strides are short bursts of high-intensity running that train your mind and body to move faster with low stress. Somewhere in the middle or second half of a normal-length run (this varies from person to person; it could be three miles, or it could be eight), increase your pace to FAST. Run like this for 20 to 30 seconds before backing off to your regular running pace for one minute 40 seconds to one minute 30 seconds. Repeat this anywhere from six to 10 times. You should finish feeling springier than when you started.

One-Ones

This particular workout consists of a warm-up (five- to 20 minutes; this varies depending on your level of experience) followed by anywhere from 20 to 60 minutes of one minute at FAST pace (or slightly slower) followed by one minute of EASY (or slightly faster than easy) running.

For folks who struggle to get through a tempo run or are new to speed, the one-one workout packs a major punch before you even know what’s happening. It’s a sure-fire way to feel speedy in just a couple of weeks.

Eventually, you’ll find you can run more reps (the difference between an hour workout [30 reps] and a 20-minute workout [10 reps]) and that your easy minutes are gradually getting faster. It’s the ideal precursor to successful tempo running.

Gear Shifting Minutes

Like the One-Ones, this workout consists of single minute segments. But rather than switching between two paces, you switch between three: easy, medium and fast. It helps your body learn how to identify paces and move efficiently between them. It also keeps your mind engaged (again, so you don’t get bored).

Start with a five- to 20-minute warm-up (again, the time and distance varies depending on your experience), then run one minute FAST, one minute MEDIUM and one minute EASY. Rotate through this cycle anywhere from six to 10 times. Follow up with a five- to 20-minute cool down (replicate the time you took for your warm-up).

Hill Sprints

While they may not be as fast as sprints on the track or a flat path, they’re just as important … and running uphill means less impact on your joints. So, all in all, they’re a good way to build strength and cardiovascular endurance without all the pounding.

All you need are explosive hill sprints—think 8 to 12 seconds—followed by a slow downhill recovery jog (so full recovery). This quick workout isn’t designed to exhaust you, but rather, to give your speed and strength a boost. For that reason, it’s an excellent mid-week pick me up.

Try out a set of six to 10 short hill sprints on a hill with 8- to 12% grade in the middle of an EASY or MEDIUM-paced run. Run these sprints HARD.

Tempo

Ah, the tempo (or lactate threshold [LT] run). While some people claim this workout is “comfortably hard” others swear it’s impossible (for the latter group, start off with the one-ones). The key to this running staple is to increase metabolic fitness by teaching you to push your body’s threshold. What in the world does that mean? It means you’re training your body to get better at handling fatigue, so that you can run faster (and more efficiently) for longer.

The sweet spot for pace is somewhere in-between FAST and MEDIUM.

Also, your desired tempo length will vary depending on your goal race distance. But no matter what, if you’re new to tempos (or early in a season), start short. After a good warm-up (five to 20 minutes), consider doing a single 10-minute tempo or even a couple of sets of six to eight-minute tempos with a three-minute jogging rest between them.

A note: A 5K runner may work up to 20 to 25 minutes of tempo in one workout while a marathon runner may end up with more like 90 minutes.

The Fast Finish Long Run

While it may not feel quite like speed, it’s the mix of endurance and speed at the end—when you’re good and tired—that does the trick with this one. Fast finish long runs, like tempos, teach your body how to efficiently run when tired.

To run a proper fast-finish long run, complete most of your run at an EASY pace. Then, perform the last two to four miles at a MEDIUM or FAST pace (the latter being the hardest). For starters, just pick it up to MEDIUM. Once you feel like you’ve mastered that, try running the last mile a little harder (envision a kick at the end of your race).

Repeats on the Track

The track is flat, pre-measured (and therefore consistent), so it’s easy to run consistent distances without question. At some point during your season, it’s a good idea to incorporate regular track work for this reason.There are about a million and one track workouts from which to choose ... and which ones you end up doing really depends on the race you're preparing to run.

For reference, here's a 5K workout we love: 12 by 400 meters at slightly faster than your goal 5K pace; 200-meter jog recovery; two by 200 meters at mile race pace (or a couple of seconds faster per 200 than you ran your 400 splits) with a 200-meter jog recovery.