From the Forum - Running Speed Work

author : econway
comments : 0

With my first triathlon scheduled for March, when should I start to worry/concentrate on getting faster? And how do I get faster?

"I just began training for triathlon two months ago. I'm an experienced cyclist, and my swimming is fine, but I've never been a runner. I've really accomplished a lot (if you figure I started from zero) in that I can now run 5K without walking, consistently. However, my pace is about 10:20 per mile on an outdoor course. I'm 41 years old, female. Looking at the splits from a local triathlon, that pace is not very good even for women my age, who average about 8:30 per mile.

My question is this: with my first triathlon scheduled for March, when should I start to worry/concentrate on getting faster? And how do I get faster?" - kpar

By Eric Conway

This is likely the most common question in the forum and I always feel compelled to answer.

First of all, congratulate yourself for converting to becoming a runner. Keep it up, the benefits are immense.

Now, about your comparison to local triathlete splits. I don't know how you determined your own pace, but remember the averages around 8:30 min/mile were during a race for which many of those women had trained for months, peaked in training, then tapered for the race. Some of these women may have been runners for some time, possibly for years. If you just went outside and ran a 5K on local roads, with only two months of running under your belt and NOT in a race situation, of course you will be slower than those times. This is the proverbial comparing apples to oranges and it can lead to erroneous (and potentially harmful) conclusions.

Let's be realistic here. You are 41 (though this is NOT a limiting factor!), new to running, and have only been training for a total of two months. You should consider a 10 minute/mile pace as a very good pace and feel proud that you are there so soon. I bet there are a number of people training in the same age group who would love a 10:20 pace. But, alas, we all want to improve (otherwise why would we care?! ) so make sure you do it smartly. Nothing can cut short your 'career' as a runner as a running injury.

For now, let's forget the idea of 'speed work' and/or sprint workouts. Until you are an experienced and strong runner, speed work will not provide you any realistic benefit and will very likely cause serious injury. One of my favorite triathlon authors states that there should be NO speed work in your training until you have run consistently for a minimum of 1 year (and up to 3 years for older and/or heavier athletes). Rushing your body into speedwork is irresponsible and generally a bad idea. Also, most beginning runners have enough areas to improve that a speed increase comes naturally as you become a regular runner.

Your first order of business is to improve your aerobic endurance with respect to running. You will accomplish this through a training schedule that includes regular running several times per week, with gradually increasing distances each week. The key workout for you each week should be a gradually longer run, with distances that exceed your expected race distance. Run these workouts at an aerobic heart rate, at a 'conversational' effort. Don't overdo it, most people will tell you to never increase your weekly mileage by more than 10% of the previous week's mileage. Every few weeks back off and give your body time to recover.

A second focus for you is to build strength in your legs and core that will help you become a better runner. This website has new articles and guides for strength training, as do others (Runners World, Hal Hidgon come to mind right away). This doesn't necessarily mean hard core weight training, but instead doing exercises that strengthen the leg muscles in order to allow them to provide better support, strength, and quickness when running. And while your at it, don't ignore flexibility, stretch often.

The above two strategies (aerobic endurance and strength training) will provide you a natural increase in speed that very well could get you down into that 8:30 min/mile pace. They will also allow you to become a better runner without subjecting your body to the punishment and damage that can come with speed work.

Now, as you continue running you start to incorporate a few common running strategies to get you stronger and faster.

One of these is comically named Fartlek running, which just means that you insert random short 'fast runs' into your slower runs. For example, during a regular four mile run, you might occasionally run hard to the next landmark (e.g. telephone pole, corner, mailbox....). These speed-up times aren't an all-out sprint, but a significant increase in pace that might last less than a minute. This helps build strength and trains your body to go faster even when you're tired - a very useful skill in racing.

Another is to select one of your shorter weekly runs to focus on 'tempo' - or pacing. During these runs you set a goal pace to hold (be realistic here - take 20-30 sec off your regular pace) in order to train your body to run at a faster pace. Many people break their weekly runs into categories; speed (short distance, high effort), tempo (middle distance, steady state effort), and LSD - (long slow distance). You might begin to structure your training around this concept, but again, be cautious with any sprinting or hard speed work for a while.

As for your March race - a good training program will have you focusing on building base endurance between now and the race. As the race gets closer you will move into a build training period, during which you focus more on race specific skills and simulations (brick workouts, etc). This is when you will really start seeing the gains you have made in speed and endurance from your base period. Finally you should taper for a week or two before the race. If you stick with such a plan through the winter, I think you will be surprised at how fast your running split is in your next race.

Good luck, hope I didn't bore you to death.


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date: December 12, 2004


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