True speed work—training your maximal velocity—belongs in every runner’s training program. (That includes you, marathoners.)
You have to go fast to get faster. That sounds like common sense, but runners still trap themselves into training with threshold runs and lots of mileage. Only the combination of both speed and pace work will guarantee your ability to change gear. As the 2004 Olympic Trials marathon winner Alan Culpepper told Runner’s World, he’s at his marathon-best when he’s in 5K and 10K shape.
And track work can do more than help you change pace: it frees you up to thrive over those final meters of any race. Most runners typically learn this the hard way. After “hitting the wall and running in slow motion on the homestretch” at the end of a race, Jeff Galloway, a member of the 1972 U.S. Olympic team, began to focus on the importance of pace work to boost neuromuscular fitness—something he’d eventually integrate into his coaching practice.
Tim Cary, training manager and coach for Fleet Feet Sports St. Louis, explains to his athletes that varying heart rates through different speeds during workouts is imperative for effective marathon pace work. “You have to hit the heart-rate zones that mimic the spikes you’ll reach during races,” he says. “At the height of Boston training, we do a 16-miler at one minute less than race pace, and then a 16-miler at race pace the following day,” Cary explains. “And we do one track workout a week that targets anywhere from a two-mile to a 10K pace.”
Galloway advocates gradually increasing speed through stride length, foot return, and foot pushing during runs. This allows feet and legs to adapt to the new forms of motion, letting you go from feeling like you’re running through gum to feeling downright bouncy.
Incorporating six to eight 50- to 80-meter “striders” after three workouts a week is a good starting point, says Cary. Striding, which is running at the maximum relaxed speed, is like pedaling a bike downhill: you’re flying without having to work at it. Fartleks are another old standby for speed play, but taking that to the track pretty much guarantees slowdowns and speedups. Jog the first 100 meters, stride the second 100, sprint the third 100, and walk the last 100. You’ll knock out four paces in one lap, while allowing your body to adapt between all of them.
During marathon season and beyond, it’s easy to get stuck in the pace rut. But your legs can do so much more than race pace, and working more pace variety into your workouts can lead to a faster, more reliable race pace than ever before. Now—go conquer Heartbreak Hill without a huff or a puff.