Why Leg Speed Matters for Distance Runners

Leg Speed for Distance Runners

Do you lack a finishing kick in a race? Do your legs feel stuck in a marathon shuffle? If so, you may be lacking leg speed. Many long-distance runners trade leg speed for high mileage, but you can develop it while still logging high mileage. If anything, deliberately developing leg speed will improve your marathon and half marathon times. 

Leg speed does not just rely on your top-end speed. It develops from specific neuromuscular training. Short sprints recruit muscle fibers differently than slower runs. Your body learns how to coordinate these contractions in order to output more power and speed. Your body becomes more efficient at running fast and your stride is smoother at a fast pace – even when it’s slower than your top-end speed. 

How do you improve your leg speed, especially as a long-distance runner? The answer isn’t in sprint-heavy training every single week. Instead, deliberate yet small doses of strides, surges, and short intervals. 

Leg Speed for Distance Runners

Leg Speed Workouts

Strides are one of the most popular leg speed workouts – and for a good reason. Strides are a neuromuscular drill consisting of 100m or ~20-second accelerations with a focus on quick turnover and proper running form. These are not all-out sprints; if you are huffing and puffing, you are doing them wrong. Strides are done at mile race effort and include standing or walking rests to allow for full neuromuscular recovery between repetitions. Here’s how to properly do strides.

Surges are similar to strides, with a slight variation. Surges are 30-second accelerations completed within a run (rather than after), again with a focus on turnover and form. Between the surges, you recover with 60-90 seconds of easy running. 

Short intervals lasting approximately 30 seconds to 1-minute develop both leg speed and VO2max. These are not a sprint workout. Rather, they transfer the neuromuscular patterns from short bursts to slightly longer intervals. Unlike strides or surges, your breathing will become noticeably labored on short intervals (as they are long enough to recruit anaerobic energy systems), but you still need to focus on good form. 

Leg speed training does not have to be reserved for its own workout. If you only do one hard workout per week, you can get creative with your training. Try adding some 30-60 second repeats after a tempo run, making for one effective (and fun!) combo workout, especially for marathoners and half marathoners.

Your Form Matters

Leg speed workouts train the neuromuscular connections for how to run fast. Your muscles learn how to fire and you develop the appropriate movement patterns for quick turnover. However, if you consistently execute these workouts with sloppy form, you will only reinforce poor form. 

For quick turnover, you want to focus on taking frequent steps. Avoid overstriding and focus on landing your feet beneath you. While you do want to extend your stride behind you, most runners will benefit from the cue of taking shorter steps, since most will try to extend a stride by reaching their foot in front of their body. A strong arm swing extending back will encourage good hip extension and prevent overstriding as well. Lean slightly forward with tall posture and relaxed shoulders. 

If you are struggling with your form, begin with just two to three strides to refine your form first. Once your form improves, then you can increase the number of strides or graduate from strides to surges or short intervals. 

Periodizing Leg Speed Development

Since leg speed workouts are low-volume workouts, they can be incorporated into your training year-round. 

During a base-building phase, you can incorporate strides once or twice per week or surges once per week. Leg speed workouts will provide a foundation for more intense speed workouts, thus reducing injury-risk when training load increases. 

Marathoners and half-marathoners can incorporate leg speed training into their training through the peak weeks. Strides or surges can be incorporated into a normal easy run or medium-long run. For intermediate and advanced runners, short intervals every few weeks can maintain quick turnover and power during high-mileage training and train them to recruit fast-twitch muscles when fatigued. 

For 5K and 10K runners, leg speed workouts are a staple throughout the entire training cycle, from the start to even race week sharpening workouts.

The only time to skip theses workouts? During post-race recovery (especially after a marathon or half marathon), when you want to minimize both intensity and volume as much as possible.

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Do you include leg speed workouts in your training?

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4 Responses

  1. Great explanations on the differences! I have added 1/4-mile (approx.) surges to some of my shorter runs, and they’re fun! My biggest challenge is NOT over-striding. I’m tall (5’9) , and all of my height is in my legs….

  2. Good post, Laura. I stress the importance of year-round (minus right after a peak race) striders as a way to keep snappy and keeping my runner’s economy primed. I like how striders make an easy pace run feel easier, even if the pace isn’t any faster. Thanks for sharing!

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