How to Do Speedwork Effectively

How to Do Speedwork Effectively

If you want to get faster, you will want to do speedwork. Speedwork is the deliberate practice of faster running at programmed intervals. In a well-structured running program, speedwork constitutes roughly one to two sessions per week (most of your runs are done at an easy effort because aerobic development is vital for speed). 

Whether you are a beginner or an experienced runner, learning how to do speedwork properly can help you gain the most from each session. From a proper warm-up to deliberate pacing to a cooldown, this post delves into how to do speedwork for any experience level of runner. 

Before You Start: Properly Warm Up

Never, ever begin a speed workout without a warm-up. Ever. 

A warm-up is vital to prepare the body for faster running. Before a speed workout, a combination of dynamic stretches and easy running ensures the muscles are receiving adequate amounts of oxygen-rich blood. Without proper blood flow, you have less oxygen – which means you will use anaerobic systems sooner and fatigue more quickly when running faster. 

Additionally, the risk of soft tissue strains is higher when the muscle temperature is cool. A warm-up raises the muscle temperature, thus decreasing the risk of injury during your speed workout. Warmer muscles also contract more effective, thus improving performance.

A warm-up does not have to be complicated. Perform your regular pre-run dynamic stretches. Run at a relaxed, easy effort for 1-3 miles (or 10-25 minutes). More experienced runners will also want to add two to four strides to prime the neuromuscular system for faster running. 

You can also take a moment to pause and center yourself between the warm-up and the intervals. You want your mind to feel calm, and your body relaxed. Do not wait more than five minutes, or you will begin to lose some of the desired effects of your warm-up. 

Pace Yourself Deliberately

Faster workouts are not better workouts. Why? Workouts are done at a deliberate intensity in order to work certain energy pathways and elicit specific adaptations. For example, a threshold run is designed to work right at the point your body can no longer effectively clear and recycle lactate. If you run those too fast, lactate accumulates too quickly for that desired purpose. 

For example, if you are running intervals at roughly 5K or slightly faster, the goal is to improve running economy, fast-twitch muscle recruitment, lactate clearance rate, aerobic power, and mental tolerance of physical discomfort. If you attack each rep at an all-out sprint, you will miss that purpose – and fade before you can complete the entire workout. 

It is completely acceptable and normal for your first repetition to be slower. When you start running fast, you activate more muscle fibers (first the fast-twitch oxidative-glycolytic ones, then the fast-twitch glycolytic fibers), which does not occur instantaneously. Additionally, you are shifting from strictly oxidative energy production to now including some glycolytic energy production. Approach that first interval with a sense of controlled speed; this will help you ease into the workout and prevent you from starting too fast. 

For most speed workouts, you should finish feeling like you could do another rep or two (at least physically). You only occasionally want to go entirely into the well. If you finish every rep with your hands on your knees, you are going too hard. (However, feel free to embrace this effective recovery pose after the last one!) If you could just keep cruising along for much longer, you need to push yourself a little bit more. 

Remember also: pacing a speedwork is a skill. If you miss the mark in one workout, learn from it and adjust in the next workout. With time, your ability to run at a hard but not all-out will improve and feel more intuitive.

Track or Road?

If you love the track and have access, go for it! The track is an excellent tool if you live in a hilly or highly-trafficked area. However, the track is not your only option. It is possible to run speedwork without a track! You can find a paved path, run along your usual route (if road interruptions are minimal), or find a loop in a nearby park. The only criteria are minimal interruptions and no steep gradients (unless doing hill work). 

For some runners, getting off the track provides them with more race-specific preparation. For example, if you are racing a hilly road 5K or 10K, you may benefit from taking your speedwork out onto the roads or a paved path. Doing so will teach you how to push your pace when dealing with undulating terrain. 

Stand or Jog the Recovery Intervals?

The answer depends on the desired adaptation and your muscle fiber distribution.

Most long-distance runners are performing their speedwork at or around their VO2max. They typically do not do the very short, high-intensity sprints that short-distance and middle-distance runners complete. Speedwork for most long-distance runners is usually done around 3K-5K race pace, which still has a relatively high anaerobic contribution. That intensity, coupled with the fact that most long-distance runners are slow-twitch dominant in their muscle fiber typology, suggests that walking or jogging recovery intervals are ideal for most, rather than standing.

The key here is jogging – you do not want to run the recovery intervals any faster than you need to. “Float” intervals (done at an easy pace) are best reserved for marathon pace workouts, not speedwork. Now, if you prefer to walk for all or part of those recovery intervals, go for it. You will still get some blood flowing to clear away lactate. If you need a sip of water, grab it. 

Fast-twitch dominant runners will fare better if they stand between intervals, as their muscle fiber distribution fatigues more easily. However, unless your best distance is the mile or shorter, you likely are not fast-twitch dominant. 

Don’t Neglect the Cool Down

Once you have finished the last interval, it can be tempting to stop. After all, the hard work is done, right? However, even a five-minute cooldown is effective. A cooldown jog signals a transition from work to recovery, which begins a signaling cascade of hormonal responses to start muscular repair. A cooldown gradually lowers your heart rate, which can reduce dizziness, cramping, or nausea after a hard effort. 

How to Do Speedwork on the Treadmill

When the weather is inclement (including very cold or icy), the treadmill is the safer option for speedwork. You want to avoid slick surfaces that could compromise footing, very cold conditions that can cause bronchoconstriction, and very hot conditions that can increase the risk of heat illness. 

Most speed workouts can easily transition from outdoors to the treadmill. You will want to set the belt to a comfortable incline, likely 0% for most runners. (If you have Achilles or plantar fascia issues, you may want to set it slightly higher to reduce the strain.) For the recovery intervals, jog them 30-60 seconds (or more!) per mile slower than your usual easy pace. 

Most importantly, you will want to set the treadmill pace for the hard intervals based on effort. Many runners run slower on the treadmill than outdoors due to changes in form or perceived exertion. Instead of using pace, aim for a hard effort and adjust the belt as needed.

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10 Responses

  1. Great tips, Laura!
    Just yesterday I had the choice between a track and a gravel path for my progression run.
    I decided to do it on the gravel path: it’s more of a challenge and closer to real race conditions.
    For the fast intervals, I do prefer the track. I’m lucky to have one nearby.

  2. Great info! I almost always do my speedwork on the roads now because I don’t have a track. If I do a harder workout on the treadmill I adjust it and do more of a fartlek type workout based on effort. It’s so important to do speedwork at the prescribed paces and not faster, including taking the recovery intervals nice and easy!

  3. Interesting tip about setting the incline higher on the treadmill to avoid strain on your Achilles. I have not heard that one before — thank you, Laura!

    Tracks aren’t as available here as they used to be — but I’ve always enjoyed speed work on the mill or on the bike path. It’s so much easier nowadays with GPS watches!

  4. I live just a few blocks from our local college track, which I used for my 1-mile time trials last Spring. It’s not my gig (but that’s a good reason to use it…getting out of my comfort zone). There’s a 2-block span of sidewalk that I LOVE to use for speedwork. I do intervals back and forth (which somehow seem not as repetitive as the track, LOL).

  5. This is such great information! I know that when I do speedwork, that first interval is always the toughest because I’m trying not to overshoot it and run too fast. I have a track not too far from home that I’ve been thinking of visiting more often just to change things up!

  6. Thank you so much for this! Speedwork is one of the things that I find incredibly intimidating. Maybe it’s time to give it a solid go.

  7. Thanks for the advice. I always wondered about jogging or walking between intervals.

    I do not do them often but I do prefer to use a track (since I don’t have a treadmill).

    Except for ice/snow in the winter months, there are many in our area (colleges and high schools) that runner can use.

  8. Is it advisable to newbies to try to alternate her workout between endurance and speed work? I feel like I am lacking in speed department lol!

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