Speed Work

This week I finished my final round of interval training for the marathon. My speed work was really simple this training cycle and built up each week over 9 weeks. Initially I thought it would be kind of monotonous doing something similar every week and just adding on more intervals each week. My coach chose what he felt worked best for building speed for the marathon and in the end I think his plan made sense. It was also interesting to see the gains from the first week to the final week. Because of its simplicity, I haven’t written much about my speed work this cycle since there hasn’t been much to say. I thought I’d take some time to write about speed work in general and how I approach my speed work.

I am not a hater of speed work. I played mid-field defense in high school lacrosse so I spent the majority of the game sprinting up and down the field either guarding an opposing offensive player or bringing the ball upfield. I took sprints seriously in practice and quickly realized the improvement in my speed when I actually took the time to run hard during sprints instead of try to pace myself and complain about doing sprints (hey high school athletes, we’ve all been there).

Junior year high school lacrosse!
Junior year high school lacrosse!

I know there are a lot of people that hate speed work. It hurts and that’s not fun. I am pretty good at convincing myself I can hang on for just a little bit more when it comes to intervals and I think this goes back to my lacrosse days – I couldn’t just drop an offender because I was tired or my legs hurt, I had to stay with her until she passed the ball. I don’t hit the track for speed work since I run in the morning and instead find a fairly flat, not busy neighborhood street. I think mentally this helps me since I’m not running circles.

There are three key things I focus on when doing speed work. First, hitting my paces. This not only means hitting the pace I should be hitting, but not over-running my interval pace or GMP and taking it too fast. This can be hard in shorter intervals like 400s when there’s no time to adjust, but for something longer like a 800 or a mile repeat there is plenty of time to adjust speed. Luckily in marathon training I haven’t had to do any short intervals, but I found a challenge during marathon training actually can be not taking speed work too fast. My marathon paced runs are of course slower than my half marathon pace so it’s easy to start to slip into a faster pace. I also have to remind myself that intervals are not an all-out sprint and should be run controlled. It’s easy to slip into a faster pace, but it’s not actually beneficial. I’ve found this especially true when doing GMP runs. I always keep in mind that I can of course run faster than my GMP, but the objective of those runs are to get used to the feel of GMP and not a too-fast pace. Running GMP runs too fast can result in over-pacing on race day and that can be disastrous.

The second thing I focus on is recovery. In general I either rest for one minute or I walk my recovery. For this training cycle my coach had directed me to do walking recoveries. The point of recovery is just that – recovery! It can be tempting to do an easy jog between intervals especially to make the workout go by faster, but ultimately what I focus on is bringing my heart rate back down to zone 1. I quickly learned that my heart rate did not drop much if I continued to jog, but it does fall back to zone 1 very quickly if I walk or rest completely. This gives me the full benefits of my speed work.

My heart rate during interval training
My heart rate during interval training

Finally, I focus on staying relaxed and in control. I do a brain-check of my form and posture and make sure I am engaging my core. This helps me stay present during speed work.

It was interesting to see how my body reacted over the course of 9 weeks of interval training. My heart rate began to recover quicker making my cool down run a little faster and the intervals started to feel easier. On my last set of intervals this week I actually had a few that were too fast. I corrected it on the following interval, but it was interesting to see how the perceived effort had changed as I became more fit throughout training.

I’m curious to know other’s relationship with speed work. Do you love it it or hate it? What works for you? What doesn’t? What things do you do to get yourself through the tough workouts?

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7 thoughts on “Speed Work

  1. I’ve always liked speed work. I think. The structure of it makes the workout go by a lot faster. Mentally it’s nice to shake things up and get through 8 intervals instead of getting through 8 miles.

    We differ on recovery. I always jog recoveries especially for longer intervals. It helps me flush out the legs and is more akin to the race experience where I’ll have to keep moving through fatigue. The key is to make sure your slow recovery jog is actually SLOW. Most people blow through them and that’s probably why they struggle in the intervals.

    Speed work, like anything else, just takes practice. As the weeks went on, it got easier to pace the intervals and I began to negative split the workouts instead of positive splitting, even with more intervals. I see so many people get discouraged when their first speed session is messy and I’m like, well duh! It’s your first one! It takes time and practice to get good at things and workouts are no exception

    1. I agree that speed work often goes by faster than just running miles. Even when I have multiple repeats that seem daunting suddenly they’re just ticking off the list. I agree that if you’re going to jog through recovery it has to actually be slow! My biggest thing is getting my heart rate down so it’s not in zone 4 or 5 the whole time (because it won’t be on race day anyway) and totally bonk me out. I think as long as a runner has some strategies to approaching speed work that it doesn’t have to be torture. It’s obviously very helpful for developing fitness and it’s such a great way to gauge how fitness has improved throughout the cycle. Like you said, as the weeks get on the intervals feel easier and to me that is the biggest indicator of improvement. It’s pretty instantly gratifying which is nice 🙂

  2. I want to say I don’t like speed work, but I usually end up doing really well with them. I’m done with faster-paced, shorter intervals for this training too. I was a little sad to see them end because I was just becoming confident with them. I tend to get scared about running at 5K pace, but I did so well in those workouts that it makes me want to do more. Now I’m doing slower paces but much longer intervals, and that of course has its own challenges! But I do like the feeling of completing the workout. There’s something very satisfying than just running the same amount of miles at a steady pace. Oh, and I jog my recoveries BUT I go so slowly that I might as well be walking!

  3. I have a weird love-hate relationship with speedwork. I really dread it, but then when I actually get the session over and done with I feel so satisfied! I started proper interval training this time around, but sadly couldn’t continue after the half marathon as I’d basically screwed up my calves and feet. I think next time I’ll incorporate serious interval training later on in the season so I peak at the right time.

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