Many runners want to run faster; it’s a natural desire and a clear indication of progress. In order to run faster, you have to train your body to adapt to the physiological demands of faster running. Typically, this involves speedwork. Yet speedwork increases the risk of injury – which will emphatically not make you faster. With the right approach, you can speedwork without getting injured – whether you are introducing speedwork for the first time, making your speedwork harder, or doing speedwork for the first time after injury or pregnancy.
Speedwork itself does not cause injury. Common training errors often associated with it – running too fast too often, too fast with poor biomechanics, or just downright too fast for your ability – can quickly lead to an injury. Speedwork will always be uncomfortably hard, but it doesn’t have to lead to injury if you do it right. These steps will help you add in speedwork without getting injured – so you can reap the rewards of getting faster.
Ease in with Hills and Fartleks
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 use hill repeats and fartlek workouts to add in speedwork without getting injured.
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 about these versatile workouts!). Both of these type of runs will introduce faster running into your training without the physical demand of hard speed workouts. 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 tempted to try to run at too fast of a pace for your current fitness.
How Fast Should You Run Speedwork?
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.
My preferred calculator is the Jack Daniels VDOT Calculator. You enter a recent race time and the calculator provides you with equivalent race times and training paces. Daniels’ calculator will provide you with paces for repetitions (very short intervals such as strides) and for VO2max intervals (lasting 3-5 minutes). The calculator also provides equivalent race times such as 5K and 10K paces for longer intervals such as mile repeats.
Along with knowing your paces, you should know how hard a workout should feel based on your body’s signals. With my own training and the athletes I coach, I rely on effort cues such as breathing patterns, the talk test, and the Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) scale in addition to pace. If you can’t hit your exact pace due to external factors, you can still run at the appropriate intensity.
Be sure to know also 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. Both workouts will help you run faster, but they should be used at different points in training and will be structured differently. The 10K pace repeats will have a higher number of repetitions with shorter recovery. The VO2max repeats will have fewer repetitions with an equal time recovery. If you try to run a cruise intervals workout as a VO2max workout, you will be running too much at too hard of a pace – a true recipe for injury.
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 and leading experts such as Matt Fitzgerald, the most important determinant for speed work is your overall weekly training volume (based on time, not mileage). 80% of your total training time should be spent at a low intensity and the other 20% at a hard intensity. (The 20% of hard running includes running at threshold pace, so tempo runs must be accounted into the equation as well.)
Adding in too much speedwork (more than 20% of your training) will decrease your rate of improvement and increase your risk of injury. When in doubt, undertraining is always better than overtraining.
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. As you add in high intensity running, you want to maintain your mileage or slightly decrease it. (If you do increase it, do so gradual and take frequent cutback weeks.) Once you’ve done a few weeks of 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 – and this happens to every runner. A majority of the time, you can power through a tough workout. However, there are some runs where it’s better to quit than to push your mind and body past their limits.
If you aren’t quite hitting your paces, focus on maintaining the right perceived effort. Fatigued legs, headwinds, the first hot and humid day of spring – all of these things can affect your pace. If your pace is off by a few seconds per mile, focus on maintaining the appropriate effort level.
However, if you feel overly fatigued and you can’t get anywhere near your goal pace, call it quits on the workout. You won’t be training in the right zones and you will miss the purpose and benefits of the workout. Essentially, you’ll be junking out your miles and only digging yourself deeper into the possible overtraining hole. Do an easy run or simply call it a day instead.
Any increase in training load – intensity, volume, 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, foam rolling, rest days, and easy runs. Always allow at least one day of rest or easy running after a speedwork.
What’s your favorite speed workout?
How do you avoid getting injured when starting up training?