Speed Training for Long Distance Runners

Speed Training for Long Distance Runners

Many long-distance runners want to improve their finish times, especially if they have completed more than one marathon or half marathon. While factors such as weekly mileage and nutrition play a significant role, there’s one aspect of improving as a runner that many long-distance runners neglect – speed training.

Elite runners certainly aren’t neglecting their speed training. Molly Huddle’s incredible finishing kick on the track contributed to her American record in the half marathon and Shelby Houlihan cites her background in the 800m as a reason for her current dominance in the 5K.

For runners from the 5K to the marathon – primarily aerobic road races – speed training improves running economy, develops higher power output, and increases your ability to produce a finishing kick. Speed training for long distance runners can help you avoid the training plateau that can occur with too many consecutive seasons of marathon training. Essentially, speed training can make you a faster long-distance runner.

Let’s look at how long-distance runners can incorporate speed training into their training – whether it’s on a macro level (devoting a season to shorter distances) or micro level (sneaking speedwork into your training). Chances are, you’ll find that speed training won’t just make you faster – it may also add a new element of fun to your training.

Remember that speed training for distance runners is only one factor in the equation of improving as a runner. You want to improve overall as an athlete – which means the aerobic training (weekly mileage), speed training, strength training, and race-specific training all figure into the equation. You will not improve as much if you overemphasize one aspect of training over another.

Speed Training for Long Distance Runners

Speed Training for Long Distance Runners

Find the Type of Speedwork that Works for You

Traditionally, runners associate speedwork with the track. The track provides an ideal place for speedwork – the distances are measured every 100m, you can run as far as you want without pausing for traffic lights or dodging vehicles, and the terrain is flat no matter where you live. However, the track isn’t always the most convenient or accessible, nor does it always help you prepare for running fast on the roads.

Speedwork does not need to be done on a track. Find a paved loop around a park and run intervals around it. Run timed fartleks (such as one of these workouts) along your favorite route. If you live in a hilly area, run hill repeats. Whether it’s on the track, roads, or trails, find the type of speedwork you most enjoy. Even the most endurance-loving marathoners have some sort of faster running they enjoy.

Why does enjoyment matter so much? Enjoyment begets discipline and consistency – it’s a lot easier to do a workout that you enjoy than one that is either inconvenient or that you dislike. In turn, consistency is the secret to improvement in running. If you really enjoy running ½ mile to mile repeats around your favorite park, those done consistently will be far more effective than trying to force yourself to run 200m-400m repeats on the track.

Train for a Shorter Race

The most effective way to add in speed training for distance runners is to devote a training cycle – or even an entire year – to a shorter distance. Signing up for a 5K or 10K incentives you to complete speedwork on a deadline. It’s easy to forgo speedwork without a race on the calendar, but knowing that your time will be recorded on a particular date provides the motivation to run those interval workouts now.

When training for a 5K or 10K, you aren’t going to neglect your weekly mileage or your long run – these distances are still predominantly aerobic. The basic structure of training will remain similar to that of marathon or half marathon training: mostly easy runs, a long run, and one to two hard workouts per week. The only significant differences will be the duration of your long run – perhaps 10-15 miles instead of 20 – and the format of your hard workouts.

If you are only running easy to moderate effort mileage as part of your marathon or half marathon training, 5K and 10K training allow you to introduce speedwork with less risk of injury, as you will lower your mileage slightly (often by shortening your long run) to balance out the shift in training focus.

Curious about how to shift your training to the 5K or 10K? Check out this post for 5K training for long distance runners and this post on 10K training for long distance runners.

Work on Speed Early in the Season

If you aren’t ready to devote an entire training season to a short distance race, you can still incorporate speed training into your marathon or half marathon training.

The closer you are to your race, the more specific your workouts should be to your racing goal. That said, the flip side of this applies as well: the further out you are from your race, the more you should work on your broad range of fitness and areas of weakness. While you will opt for marathon specific workouts closer to your goal race, in the earlier weeks of training, throw in some short fartlek intervals or track workouts to boost your speed before the mileage piles up. You will likely find that an early speed segment in your training will help you run faster in your race specific workouts – and earn a shiny new PR on race day.  

Sneak in Speed Training

Between a tempo run and a race-specific long run, you may not have the time or energy for a third hard workout of gut-busting intervals. With a creative approach to training, you can sneak in bursts of short 

A sample of sneaking in speed training is a combo workout, a hybrid of two types of runs – such as tempo and intervals. A tempo/interval combo run is notably a staple in the training plans of the North Arizona Elite group, which has been recently dominantly long distance running from the 10K (Stephanie Bruce) to the marathon (Kellyn Taylor). If it works for elites, you know it has to work for injecting some speed into your training. Try this tempo and interval combo workout

Strides – short accelerations to almost mile pace – can serve as speed training during the peak weeks of marathon training and as an introduction to speedwork for long distance runners. You can complete strides after an easy run or insert them as surges into a run.

Strength Train for Speed

If you are serious about developing speed, reach for a barbell or kettlebell. Lifting weights can develop speed by improving your power output, especially if you structure your strength training for power and strength, not endurance. This post delves more into strength training for speed and performance.

In addition to weight lifting, incorporate plyometrics into your routine. Several studies, including this 2014 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, found that plyometric training improves speed for long distance runners. These could include drills such as bounding and single leg hops or exercises such as box jumps.

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Does speed training for distance runners work? I certainly believe so – I have seen it work for my athletes and I reaped the benefits in my own training. A couple specific training cycles devoted to 5K and 10K training helped me take my half marathon time down from 1:38 to 1:34 this past year alone. In the case of my athletes, speed training has result in marathon PRs and half marathon PRs – as well as an appreciation for running fast.

Linking up with Coaches’ Corner and Wild Workout Wednesday

Have you ever focused on shorter distance in training?
Do you prefer training for speed or endurance?

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7 Responses

  1. Great points! In our running world, it seems a lot of people gloss over the shorter distances as if they are a cake-walk. Yes it’s a shorter distance but you still have to do a lot of work to get your paces down. I go back and forth between liking speed over endurance. Right now I’ve stopped all speed because it wrecks havoc on my calves which leads to a whole slew of other problems.

  2. During training I prefer speed workouts to long runs, but at the same time I can’t say whether I actually prefer the shorter races – they hurt!

  3. I love threshold workouts… Put me on a loop where I can run uninterrupted and I can click off my effort without even batting an eye. I rarely do workouts on the track, because as you said, most races are on the roads.
    Great post, thanks for sharing!

  4. Strength training definitely helps speed, I agree. I started adding strength moves into my weekly routine (after an injury due to weak hips) and have noticed a significant improvement in my pace too. It’s like a win win! I wrote about my favorite body weight strength moves (especially convenient if I’m traveling) but I also like your post about strength training that suggests using heavier things (like kettlebells) too: http://howtorunguide.com/strength-training-runners/

  5. I do like to switch it up so training for endurance but then also throwing in some faster, shorter training intervalls appeals to me. I need to get better at cross training though.

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