How to Run Faster Without Getting Injured

How to Add Speedwork without Getting Injured

Many runners want to run faster. Improving your speed is often viewed clear indication of progress. In order to run faster, you have to train your body to adapt to the physiological demands of faster running. These demands involve fast-twitch muscle fiber recruitment, increased cardiac output, and lactate shuttling. To elicit these adaptations, you typically want to include some speedwork, such as interval workouts or tempo runs. Yet speedwork increases the risk of injury – and a layoff from running not make you faster.

Fast running itself does not cause injury. Common training errors often associated with speedwork can quickly lead to an injury. Many runners introduce too high a volume of high-intensity running or run their speedwork too fast. With a prudent approach, you can speedwork without getting injured. These tips apply whether you are introducing speedwork for the first time, making your speedwork harder, or doing speedwork for the first time after injury or pregnancy.

Start With Strides

A quick transition from all easy pace miles to hard track workouts bears too high of a risk of injury for most runners. Instead of jumping straight into demanding interval workouts, you can reduce your injury risk by starting with strides.

As described in-depth in this article, strides are a type of speed training with minimal fatigue. Strides typically last 20 seconds and are done at about 1-mile race effort (95% max). Typically, you complete four to five strides when you are starting out. Due to the short duration and sub-maximal intensity, strides are low-risk – but high reward.

Strides provide a neuromuscular stimulus that prepares your body for faster running. You learn how to run fast with smooth, coordinated form. This is a valuable skill for speedwork, since poor form can increase injury risk.

If you are just starting out to speedwork or returning from a long hiatus, begin with four strides once or twice per week. You can do these strides on a flat surface; do not run strides downhill. If you live in a hilly area, you may choose to do uphill strides.

Introduce More Intensity with Hills and Fartleks

Hill repeats are repetitions of running hard up a hill with an easy jog back down the hill in between. Fartlek workouts focus on effort and time rather than distance and pace (read this guide to fartleks for more information). Both of these type of runs will introduce faster running into your training with lower injury risk. Many runners can achieve high power output on uphills but without the biomechanical stress of flat-ground fast running.

One important caveat: if you have a recent history of Achilles or hamstring injuries, fast hill repeats may not be recommended. These workouts place more stress on the posterior chain and could increase the risk of re-injury to those areas.

Begin with hard efforts lasting 30-60 seconds in duration and progress from there. Since these runs focus both on effort rather than pace, you won’t be as tempted to try to run at too fast for your current fitness.

Alternatively, short effort-based fartlek runs offer another safe option. Typically, effort-based fartleks will begin with small doses of time at intensity, such as 8-10 x 1 minute more effort. Depending on your experience level, you can manipulate the recovery intervals in between. For the sample workout, a low-volume runner doing speedwork for the first time could try 8 x 1 min faster/2 min jog. A more advanced runner returning from injury could do 10 x 1 min hard/1.5 min jog. Importantly, these aren’t VO2max workuots – you are picking up the pace, but not pushing super hard.

Try these early season speed workouts, hill workouts, or short interval fartlek runs to introduce faster running into your training. 

Intensity Control Matters

There is no benefit in running faster than you should for any given workout. Faster workouts are not better workouts! In fact, going too hard in your speed workouts can increase injury risk.

Just because you can gut-bust out 6 x 800m in 3:00 minutes flat, does not mean you should. Running faster than you need to do in order to obtain the physiological benefits of the workouts will actually work against you. Going too fast for your fitness increases the biomechanical and neuromuscular stress of a workout. Many runners experience deteriorating form from the fatigue also, which further increases injury risk.

You can use pace or rate of perceived exertion (RPE) to set intensity control on speedwork. Heart rate training typically does not work for interval runs, due to cardiac lag. When you run fast, it takes time for your heart rate to reach its peak. This lag makes heart rate unreliable for the start of any interval training.

You can set paces based on recent races. However, know that many calculators, such the Jack Daniels VDOT Calculator, may be too aggressive in the paces provided for newer runners. I prefer the Tinman Running Calculator. To be safe, choose “critical velocity” paces to ensure intensity control as you start speedwork.

Pace can have its drawbacks; many runners may push too hard to hit those paces. Another alternative to gauging intensity is RPE. Since RPE focuses on your perceived effort, you can adjust for any weather or terrain conditions. The drawback of RPE is that it does require calibration. Many runners do not intuitively know what an 8 out of 10 feels like. Although RPE may take trial and error, it is worth learning to judge a workout by effort.

Be sure to know the intended pace and purpose of the workout. There is a significant difference between doing 1K repeats at 10K pace and 1K repeats at your 3K-5K pace. If ever in doubt, veer on the side of caution. It’s better to run a bit too “slow” than run too fast when adding in speedwork.

How Much Speedwork Should You Do?

A variety of factors influence how much speedwork you should do, including your schedule, goals, and injury risk. However, according to recent research the most important determinant for speed work is your overall weekly training volume. No more than 20% of your overall training should be spent at a moderately hard to hard intensitya concept called 80/20 running.

Importantly, the 80/20 framework applies to peak training. If you are building into speedwork, you will start with less time at high intensity. You may only do 5-10% of your total running at fast paces initially.

Avoid the Trap of Too Much, Too Soon

The introduction or increase of speedwork places new stress on the body. While it can be tempting to ramp up your mileage along with intensity, it simply is not prudent. Increasing mileage and intensity too rapidly at the same time often results in injury or overtraining.

When you add in speedwork, you want to maintain your mileage or slightly decrease it. Allow yourself four or six weeks to adapt to the new stimulus before changing your volume. Once you are adapted to speedwork, then you can gradually increase your weekly running mileage

Know When to Bail on a Workout

Some days, things just aren’t clicking in a speed workout. This happens to every runner! Sometimes, if it’s just a bit of heavy legs, poor weather, or mental block, you can keep running throughout it. However, there are some runs where it’s better to quit than to push your mind and body past their limits. (Reference this article more on knowing when to quit a run.)

However, if you feel overly fatigued, uncoordinated, or overheated, call it quits on the workout. You never want to dig yourself into a hole of under-recovery or over-training. Even if you are following a well-programmed training plan, you may sometimes need more recovery than the plan accounts for. Do an easy run or simply call it a day instead.

Prioritize Recovery

Any increase in training load – intensity, volume, or frequency – requires an increase in recovery. When you add speedwork into your training, you need to add in more recovery. Recovery includes sleep, adequate nutrition and hydration, and rest days. Do not skimp on any of these when adding in more speedwork!

For more tips on how to run faster:

An Evidence-Based Approach for How to Run Faster

Your Guide to Interval Running Workouts

Sign Up for My Newsletter for More Running Tips

* indicates required

Share this post

8 Responses

  1. This is really great info! I am one of those people who does seem to get injured when I try to incorporate speed work. Hills I can do and we have a lot around here. When I try to add traditional speed work I tend to get injured. Thanks for joining the runners’ roundup today

  2. I keep thinking I need to add in speedwork, but I can’t help but wonder if the interval training I’m doing at CrossFit doesn’t count? It has certainly helped me push hard when I need to in a race! I only run 3 days per week, so I’d have to adjust what I’m currently doing if I wanted to add in speedwork.

    1. For some athletes, it does count! It is a high-intensity workout and you often get several of the same physiological benefits (especially if your CF box does sprints). At least in my coaching approach, I have some athletes who have CF or OTF as their “speedwork” days and then all their runs are easy runs or long runs. If it works for you, then it’s a good approach for you!

  3. This is great info! I am starting to add in harder speedwork right now and I know I need to do it carefully. I think that the fartlek and hill workouts I did over the past month have helped me prepare for harder workouts. It can be tough to do just enough to make improvements without doing too much and risking injury!

  4. I know many people who think they need to run intervals as fast as they can. Um, no. These days I gravitate toward tempo runs and hill repeats. I do miss a good track workout from time to time though! These are great tips.

  5. I’ll be slow to return to speedwork when I do get back to running, but this is all very good information. I always liked doing hill repeats and fartleks when I was healthy and had some extra time, but that’s some ways off now.

    Thanks for joining the Runners’ Roundup!

  6. “Repeat after me: there is no benefit in running faster than you should for any given workout. Just because you can gut-bust out 6 x 800m in 3:00 minutes flat, does not mean you should. Running faster than you need to do in order to obtain the physiological benefits of the workouts will actually work against you – you will accumulate undesired training fatigue, increase your risk of injury, and eventually leave your race in your training. ”

    THIS!!!!!! Can you say it louder for the people in the back??

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *