Most running workouts aren’t flashy or glamorous. Oftentimes, the most effective workout looks deceptively simple or boring on paper. Surges are this type of running workout: not flashy, but certainly effective. This simple workout improves leg speed and running economy, making any runner a faster, more efficient athlete.
Surges benefit all runners, from those preparing for the mile to even ultras. For competitive age-groupers, surges prepare you to pass others during the final miles of a race. For beginners or those returning from injury, they serve as an introduction to speedwork.
What are Surges?
A surge is a burst of faster running thrown into the middle or end of a run. Surges should not be all-out sprints, but rather controlled pick-ups to a noticeably faster effort. If you are gasping for air, you are running too hard – you should be able to easily resume your normal effort. During the surge, you should focus on good form: quickening your turnover, swinging your arms faster, and maintaining a tall and relaxed posture.
In a sense, surges are similar to strides, both in terms of purpose and incorporation in a training plan. Strides are shorter (~20 seconds), faster (near mile effort), and done after a run with complete rest in between. Surges are slightly longer (~30 seconds), slightly more controlled (~3K-5K effort), and are done during a run with easy effort running as recovery. You typically do more repetitions in a surges workout than strides.
Why Do Surges?
Surges improve running economy and leg speed. In simple terms, they train your legs to move faster more efficiently. Surges are a neuromuscular workout. While not aerobically taxing, they improve the coordination between the nervous system and the muscles in your legs. In turn, this neuromuscular fitness improves your ability to move your legs fast, even when tired.
Surges are an ideal workout for a base building phase. Since the overall volume of fast running is low, surges do not place significant stress on the body. Recovery is quick and the injury risk is low. Even the small dose of speed from surges provides a neuromuscular stimulus so that you will be able to transition easily back into hard interval workouts once training resumes. Most of all, surges add fun variety to the monotony of a mileage-focused phase of training.
Marathoners and half marathoners will benefit from the focus on leg speed. Many long distance runners will lament the loss of speed while they build endurance. VO2max intervals are not always appropriate depending on the stage of marathon training and the recovery profile of the runner. However, you can do surges even in the peak weeks of training to maintain leg speed. (Here’s how to include speed training in your marathon or half marathon prep.)
If performed properly, this workout will not require a long recovery. Surges can serve as a mini workout, allowing you to add some variety and extra stimulus without pushing too hard in training. For example, a marathon plan might include one tempo run and one long run with marathon pace in one week. A traditional interval workout would be too stressful for some runners, while surges can provide enough stimulus without compromising your recovery or other workouts.
How to Do Surges
You can do surges on roads, track, or trails, on flat terrain or hilly terrain. You should not be worried about hitting an exact pace; most GPS watches will lag for such a short duration. The terrain can match the specific demands of your race or simply be the route you enjoy most. This workout is meant to be fun – there’s a certain joy to short bursts of running fast – so don’t overthink it too much.
For the most basic type of surge, keep the duration around 30 seconds in length. This is long enough to stress your neuromuscular system without accumulating lactate and its fatigue-inducing metabolites. You can scale the recovery based on your fitness level and point in training. Typically, a recovery jog of 1-minute is enough to allow your legs to recover. Beginners, those coming off of injury, or those recovering from a race can lengthen the recovery up to 90 seconds. You do not want to shorten the recovery interval too much, as you want your muscles to recover before the next interval.
Lower mileage runners can do 8-10 surges; higher mileage runners can begin at 10 surges and progress up to 15-16. As with any run, incorporate a warm-up and cooldown jog of at least one mile each. You can incorporate surges into a run of any length.
Sample Surges Workout:
20 minute warm-up
12 x 30 second surge, 60 seconds easy
20 minute cool down
Surges can be done once per week at any phase of training. Since they are still a workout, sandwich them between easy days, cross-training days, or rest days.
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Do you incorporate surges in your running?