Are You Running Your Speedwork too Fast?

Are You Running Your Speedwork too Fast?

A common fallacy in running is that more is always better. Runners tend to think that more miles are better. However, too much mileage can lead to injury. Runners also perceive faster splits in speedwork as automatically better. However, running speedwork too fast does not make you a faster runner. Running too fast on your quality sessions can lead to injury, stagnation, and mental burn-out.

The effort of running workouts too fast is all too common. Who doesn’t want to look speedy on Strava? It’s tempting to push hard on workouts as validation of fitness. However, the purpose of speedwork is not to prove fitness, it is to build fitness. Building fitness occurs through deliberately dosed durations at a particular intensity. Workouts elicit cellular level changes to how your body produces energy and handles the mechanical load of running. However, when you run them too fast too often, you may find that you feel flat on race day due to under-recovery – rather than feeling fitter.

Why Faster is Not Better in Your Speedwork Workouts

Workouts are not time trials. Yes, it can be a huge confidence boost to see a fast split on the track or in a tempo run. There is an appropriate place in training for workouts that challenge you and push you far outside of your comfort zone in terms of pace. However, in the majority of your training, faster is not always better.

Workouts should be purposeful. You want to train in deliberate zones and finish with some reserve. Sure, you could run your mile repeats at 3K pace, but that misses the point when they are a cruise interval workout meant to be run at 10K pace. 

Running faster than you should will not make you faster. If anything, it may actually slow you down over time. Workouts are meant to target specific energy pathways. For example, if you go too fast in a tempo run, you use more anaerobic metabolism and produce more lactate. This misses the goal of improving your body’s ability to shuttle lactate and clear its accompanying fatigue-causing metabolites. 

Deliberate, purposeful efforts lead to adaptation. Constant all-out efforts lead to stagnation because you are unable to recover. Worse recovery means both less adaptation (you aren’t going to get as faster) and an increased risk of injury. The higher biomechical loading of running too fast for too long further elevates injury risk.  I would argue that it also contributes to burnout in athletes. 

Most workouts should feel smooth and controlled, even if they are challenging. Think of quality sessions as gentle prods, not big pushes. Races and time trials are big pushes. Workouts are stepping stones building up to those. 

How do you know if you are running your quality workouts too fast?

You Struggle to Finish Workouts

Unless a workout is poorly programmed or a deliberate supercompensation workout, you should be able to finish with something left in the tank. If you struggle consistently, your workouts are either too difficult for your fitness level or you are pacing them too fast for their purpose.

Yes, you will likely have a bad workout now and then. You may even quit a run on occasion. However, if you find threshold runs feel as hard as races or barely finish a set of intervals, you are probably running your speedwork too fast.

The good news? This common pacing error is easy to correct with some deliberate strategies for pacing your speedwork. One simple trick? Frame it as if you are going to run more intervals than you actually are. For example, if your workout is 5 x 3 minutes hard, pace yourself as if you were going to run 6 x 3 minutes hard.

Your Races/Time Trials are Consistently Slower than Your Workouts Indicate

Yes, weather, fueling, and mindset can tank an occasional race. However, if you experience months or years of sub-par racing, you may want to reassess how you approach your workouts. 

If you frequently run your workouts too fast, you leave your race in your training. Almost everyone knows that runner who always crush it in their workouts, with astounding paces. Yet when race day arrives, they falter, crash, and burn, with a race that doesn’t “show their fitness”. Sure, everyone has off days; but not at every single race.

Race performances and recent runs, not by an arbitrary goal, dictate training paces. You have to earn your training paces. You can run faster in training when your races or time trials indicate you are ready. 

Speedwork Consistently Injuries You

A small percentage of runners cannot handle fast running. However, in a majority of cases, if you get injured from hard runs, you are most likely pushing your body inappropriately hard. 

Running too fast can cause injury for a couple of reasons. First, chronic muscle damage leads to injury, not improvement. If you treat a tempo run like a time trial and then continue normal training, you may not recover fully from that effort. Continue this pattern for weeks and your body will start to break down. 

Second, many runners use poor form when they run at too high of an intensity for too long. If you are straining to maintain a pace and start overstriding, you are more likely to incur injury. Quality sessions should be done at an effort appropriate enough to maintain good form throughout the whole workout. If your form falls apart, you are going too fast.

(Still worried about injury? Here’s how to run speedwork without getting injured.)

You Do Not Recover During the Prescribed Recovery Interval 

Workouts are designed with intention – including the recovery interval. There is a rationale behind why some workouts include float recoveries (recoveries at easy to moderate efforts), others recovery jogs, and others standing rest. 

The intensity of the work intervals correlates to the intensity of the recovery interval. For example, 6 x 1 mile at marathon pace/1 mile at easy pace uses a float recovery, while 6 x 800m at 30-40 minute race pace will use a jog recovery. If you cannot maintain the intensity of the recovery interval for a majority of the workout, you are likely running too fast in your work intervals. 

If you have to pause your watch or add on more recovery time, you likely pushed too hard for the purpose of the workout. It is okay, however, to stand or walk during recovery intervals (unless specified as a float recovery). Slow-twitch dominant runners respond best to jogging recoveries. However, fast-twitch speed monsters often need standing or walking recoveries.

You Dread Quality Workouts

Workouts push you outside of your comfort zone, but they should not hurt. Yet if you are pushing yourself at a gut-busting effort every week, you will come to dread your workouts. Dreading speedwork is counter-productive to training. If you are not careful, this could lead to a serious case of mental burnout as well. 

If you already dread workouts, you can reset your mindset. Quality workouts can be an enjoyable part of your training. Spend a few weeks focused on easy runs to allow your body to recover, then introduce effort-based fartleks or hills. Learn to enjoy running fast without racing every interval. Once you feel more comfortable (maybe even excited) about speedwork, venture back into intervals and tempos.

The Solution for More Effective Speedwork

The solution if you are pacing your quality sessions too fast? Learn to gauge your effort appropriately. If you prefer to train by pace, run a time trial (here’s how) and plug your results into a pace calculator. Whenever you run a workout, aim to be able to finish feeling as if you could complete another rep or few more minutes of tempo running. (Still struggling? Try these tips from renowned coaches to assess appropriate intensity within each workout.) Give yourself time to master the skill; it will be a learning process, but the process will be worth it. 

Do you struggle with pacing on your hard workouts?

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13 Responses

  1. Great info! I am not usually one to go too hard on my shorter interval workouts. I usually start out on the slower end and get down to my goal pace after a few repeats. With longer workouts like tempo runs, there have been times when I ran too fast just because I was feeling good.

  2. It’s always interesting to read what other runners are doing–recently a fellow blogger was doing 5k time trials weekly, which I didn’t think was a thing! Don’t you build to a time trial? Isn’t it a benchmark tool?

  3. I’ve definitely gone too hard on my intervals and then “faded” as you say so that’s something I’ve been working and doing much better in. Thanks for this useful information.

  4. Excellent information Laura, thank you! I actually realized recently that I was running just a bit too hard in my runs week after week as seemingly all of a sudden I started having PF issues in my right foot and my hips felt off. I’ve since back way off my intensity and duration of runs and am feeling much better. Even after being a runner for 26 years I still fall victim to too much too fast every now and then and this article is great reminder to keep it in check!

  5. This is great info! I have made the mistake of thinking more is better or faster is better. It is not better for me. I’ve also gotten hurt from doing speed work in the past. We are all different and need to figure out what works for us. Thanks for linking up!

  6. I did struggle, but in a good way I think? Right now, I am relearning so much about running, form, consistency and endurance, and I’m interested to see what happens once I start trying to kick it up a notch or two.

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  8. Excellent points, Laura!
    I have downloaded one of the Garmin coach programs to my watch. I like that they give you a pace range to aim for in the speed workouts. That helps me to keep my pace at a sustainable level. And the speed sessions are a lot more enjoyable that way!

  9. Great article on pacing during speedwork! It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of trying to run faster, but your reminder to focus on proper form and pacing is a valuable one. Thanks for sharing your expertise – I’ll be sure to keep your tips in mind during my next speedwork session!

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