Speed Workout Basics for Beginners

A perennial question among beginning runners – and even among more experienced runners – is, “How do I get faster?” Although many factors contribute to how fast an individual is capable of running, one of the most basic ways for beginning runners to “get faster” is to add speed work to their weekly training regimen.  Below, I’ll review three common types of speed workouts and how they can benefit beginner runners who have not yet started integrating speed work into their training.

Please note: Speed workouts put an additional strain on your joints and muscles that may cause injury, particularly if you have never done speed work before. Runner’s World suggests adding speed work after you have built up to a long run of five to six miles. Always “listen” to your body and cut back on, or stop, running if you experience any pain.

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Three Common Speed Workouts 

Fartlek

Yes, it’s a really weird word that you’ve probably never heard before, because who really wants to say “Fartlek” out loud? 😉

“Fartlek” is a Swedish word that loosely translates to “speed play,” which is a great way to think about this workout because it can actually be a lot of fun and is relatively unstructured. During a fartlek workout, you’ll vary your speed during a regular run, alternating between faster “speed” intervals and slower “recovery” intervals.  One of the benefits of fartlek that I believe makes it a great introduction to speed work is that you don’t necessarily need to focus on pace or time to do it – you get to decide when you want to run fast, for how long, and when you want to slow down again. You also get to decide how fast you’ll run during the speed intervals, but it’s important to note that you SHOULD NOT be sprinting or running an “all out” effort during these bursts. Instead, your speed intervals should range from an effort that is slightly harder than an easy run to an effort that has you breathing heavily but still able to recover afterwards with a slow jog. In addition to varying the amount of time you run fast during your fartlek workout, you can also vary the intensity of the bursts, making this a truly customizable workout that can be different every time you do it.

You can incorporate fartlek once a week into any of your weekly easy runs for a quick way to add speed work to your regimen.

Sample Fartlek Workout: Run for 30 minutes. For the first 10 minutes, run at an easy, comfortable pace. For the next 10 minutes, integrate fartlek by running faster for short bursts, then recovering with a slow, easy running pace until your breathing has returned to what is normal for you on an easy run.  Try keeping your speed bursts between thirty seconds to three minutes long. If you don’t want to time them, you can choose a length of road or trail to run for your speed interval, or a landmark to run to, and then recover. Run the last 10 minutes at an easy pace.

Tempo Runs

Knowing the definition of “tempo” – the “rate or speed of motion or activity” – should give you some idea of what a tempo run is all about. Essentially, you’ll run at a heightened “tempo” for a set period of time or number of miles. The strength of the tempo run as a speed workout is that, when done consistently, it gets your body (and your mind) used to running at a harder, faster pace for longer periods.  To determine how fast you should be running your tempo run, you can take the pace from a recent 5K race and add 30-40 seconds per mile, or add 10-20 seconds per mile to a recent 10K race.  If you haven’t recently run a 5K or 10K – or prefer to use how you feel rather than a specific time to determine the intensity of a run – you should complete your tempo run hard enough that you are breathing heavily, could talk if you needed to, but don’t really want to.  Again, this is NOT an all out sprint, but a tempo run typically involves sustaining a faster pace or intensity for a longer period of time than during a fartlek workout.

Sample Tempo Run Workouts:

If a 5K is your goal race: Run four miles. Run the first mile at an easy, comfortable pace (you should be able to talk with ease). Run the next two miles at tempo, using the information above to determine how fast tempo should be. Run the final mile at an easy, comfortable pace.

If a 10K is your goal race: Run seven miles. Run the first two miles at an easy, comfortable pace (you should be able to talk with ease at this pace). Run the next three miles at tempo, using the information above to determine how fast tempo should be for you. Run the last two miles at an easy, comfortable pace.

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Track Workouts

Likely the most traditional of speed workouts, and often what runners immediately think of when they hear “speed work,” track workouts involve running at a high intensity for a certain distance around a track, followed by walking or jogging easily for another set distance to recover, and repeating this a given number of times.  This repetitive pattern is why you might hear some runners refer to track workouts as “repeats”.

A standard track loop is 400 meters (m), and repeats are often done in 400m increments (400, 800, etc.), although this varies depending on the runner and their workout preferences.  Because the distance you’re running at a hard intensity/fast pace during track repeats is generally short compared to fartlek or tempo runs, you’ll run your repeats a bit faster – at or around 5K race pace, or hard enough that you can barely talk while running, is a good starting point.  This should still be less than an all out sprint, however.

You can usually find a track on which to do these workouts at a nearby high school or community college. Don’t be intimidated by the track or any runners you see there! Tracks aren’t only meant for the fastest runners – they’re meant to help all runners get faster 🙂  If you can’t find a track near your house, you can measure out your repeat distance on a stretch of flat road or trail, and use that instead.

Sample Track Workouts:

Straights and Curves: This is a great introduction to track work for those who have never run on a track before. Warm up by jogging easily around the track one time.  Then, run the straight parts of the track at 5K pace (or at an intensity that makes it difficult to talk), and walk or jog easily on the curves. Do this for 3 loops. Recover with an easy jog or walk one time around the track. Build up to 5 loops of straights and curves as you feel you can handle adding more to your workout.

4 x 400m Repeats: Begin with a warm up by jogging easily four times around the track (1 mile). At the end of each of the last two loops, gently accelerate along the final 100m of the loop to get your body used to running a bit faster. Begin repeats. Run 400m (once around the track) at 5K pace (or at an intensity that makes it difficult to talk). Recover by jogging or walking 400m. Repeat this three more times, for a total of 4 repeats. Cool down by walking around the track one time after your final 400m recovery.

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Source: Runner’s World Complete Book of Women’s Running (2007), by Dagny Scott Barrios.

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