All runners can benefit from speed training. It doesn’t matter if you are training for a 5K, a marathon, or a 100-mile ultra. The right type of speed training will help you move more efficiently so you can cover ground faster and conserve energy for when you really need it. Speed training also benefits recreational runners, back-of-the-pack runners, and runners who just want to stay fit and healthy. Speed training is essential for elite and age group competitors.
Why? Running is a skill. Moving quickly and efficiently while running requires attention to correct posture, good biomechanics, solid functional stability, and the ability to quickly load and unload forces through the springs otherwise known as your legs. Endurance running — running at relatively slow speeds over long distances — plays a huge role in improving your cardiovascular fitness and metabolic efficiency. But it does very little to improve running technique and mechanical efficiency. Running fast — at or near max speed, often referred to as sprinting — is the exact opposite. Sprinting is one of the best ways to improve technique and mechanical efficiency, especially when combined with drills, strength, and plyometric exercises.
Incorporating speed and sprints into a training program offers tremendous opportunities for runners, but it needs to be introduced safely, gradually, and judiciously. Running fast requires high amounts of force to be quickly transferred to the ground. If your body isn’t ready to handle those forces then you will get injured. But fear of injury should not scare you away. There are plenty of ways to incorporate speed into your training without risking injury.
Safely introducing speed training
Here are some ways to get started:
- Hill Sprints — Sprinting up a hill is safer than sprinting on a flat surface. Find a steep hill (ideally 20% grade or more) that is 40-60 meters long. Begin with a thorough warmup that includes dynamic stretching, at least 10-15 minutes of easy running, and some drills to stimulate the central nervous system. From a standing start at the bottom of the hill, accelerate up to top as quickly as possible. Walk back down and catch breath before the next sprint. Start with 4-6 repetitions—this will be more straining on the body than it feels. Progress to 10-12 repetitions, breaking into sets of 4-5 if needed. This workout can be done 1-2x per week, but it should be performed when legs are relatively fresh—not destroyed from a recent long run or other hard workouts.
- Strides — Strides are gentle accelerations to 1-mile race pace, or possibly 400m race pace if you are advanced. Take 30 meters to ease in, 40 meters to accelerate, and 30 meters to gradually relax and decelerate. These are not sprints. They should feel fast but comfortable. Take as much time as needed in between strides to fully recover. Strides are excellent exercises to loosen up before a hard workout or after a long run. Here’s a video on strides if you want to see them in action
Always do this speed training while properly warmed up. Stop if you feel any strains or pain. Pain is information and you need to use that information to make changes to your body so you can run pain-free.
One of your key focus area during all speed workouts should be your running form. Remember the acronym PAL — Posture, Arm Action, and Leg Action.
Your posture is most critical. You need to maintain an upright posture, with “high hips”, and a slight lean from the ankles (not waist). Get high and proud but don’t arch the back. It is harder than it sounds. You can practice posture with these exercises or this posture workout.
Your arms will work hard during speed workouts because they need to counter-balance your quickly moving legs. Keep elbows bent at 90 degrees and drive straight forward and back (not across your body). Shoulders should be rolled back and down, keeping the chest open for optimal breathing.
Leg action is also important. Sprinting requires you to get up on your toes and push off powerfully with hip extension. Feel your big toe stabilizing body as you push off. Your feet should land under body with the foot flexed (toe pointed up). Turnover should be quick, but the cadence is less important than powerfully pushing off and increasing stride length.
Slow-motion video or 3D gait analysis can be very helpful. Video yourself or work with a coach to make sure you are using your body correctly while running fast.
Next level speed training
If you are able to do hill sprints and strides consistently and without pain then you may be ready for the next level. Speed workouts are typically done on a track, but you can improvise with a smooth and forgiving surface like packed dirt, grass, or gravel. Sprinting on roads is possible but it makes it more likely you will hurt yourself.
- 60-meter flys — “Flys” means that you give yourself a running start. Accelerating quickly is essential for sprinters competing at very short distances but not necessary for most distance runners (and accelerating is where most injuries are sustained). So with a jogging start, you accelerate gently up to max speed (or very close to it). Hold for a few strides and then gradually decelerate while maintaining great form. You should only cover about 60 meters during the acceleration and max speed portion. After each repetition, you should walk or jog easy for 5-7 minutes. Yes, 5-7 minutes! This is a max speed workout and you need lots of time to recovery. Repeat 2-4 times on your first outing. You can gradually increase that up to 8, but there won’t be much benefit beyond that.
- 100-meter flys — This is the same as 60-meter flys but you hold the max speed portion longer, covering approximately 100 meters, before slowing down. This should be done after you’ve comfortably completed several workouts at the shorter distance. The goal is to increase the distance over which you can hold your max speed. It also presents a great opportunity to work on holding form.
- 150 meters and beyond — You can keep extending the duration of your speed workouts, but at some point it becomes less about max speed and more about holding a speed just shy of max. This is absolutely necessary for 400/800m runners but less important for distance runners. Most athletes will get optimal gains, with minimal risk injury, by sprinting 100m or less.
Speed + Strength/Power
Taking this to the next level requires coordinated strength and power workouts. More information and articles will be added here soon, so check back later or subscribe to The Run Express newsletter to stay informed.
Here is a great circuit workout you can follow to prepare body for the demands of strength training, plyometrics, and sprinting.
Speed + Drills
Here are some drills that work very well as a compliment to speed development. Try incorporating them into your warmup routine on the days you run fast.