There are 2 ways to shine or find personal accomplishment in running races: You run longer distances, or you run faster times. The former is a one-time achievement, the latter a lifelong quest for continuous improvement. But how, after years of training, will you break yet another plateau in order to set a new PR or seasonal best? Improving maximal speed may be the answer.
“Speed is not a by-product of increased mileage.”
THE ANATOMY OF MAXIMAL SPEED
As a distance runner, you are probably obsessed with endurance, not maximal speed. But endurance is a very broad term. Every race you enter is actually a test of your ‘speed endurance’ – assuming you give your best on that day. And ‘speed endurance‘ – you’ve guessed it – requires speed + endurance. Endurance is a pre-condition to go the distance but speed is the icing on the cake for great race results.
The bad news first: your potential for maximal speed is largely genetic. The good news: you don’t need a world class sprint performance to make it in distance running. (And you wouldn’t want to, as a sprinters’ muscles have a poor capacity to utilize oxygen). But you do need a solid foundation of maximal speed if you want to get to another level as a runner from the 5K to the marathon.
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Case in point, after a long period of competing in 10K races with stellar performances I decided to take on the 400m sprint. So I cut my easy mileage in half and replaced my tempo and VO2max sessions with sprints (40m, 100m, 150m, 300m – all faster than 800m race pace). The surprising result after 12 weeks of training: My VO2max didn’t drop. Instead, it rose from 65l/kg/min to 67l/kg/min.
Now it’s unlikely that my maximum oxygen uptake increased. That’s physiologically not possible on a sprint training program. But stride rate and stride length went through the roof due to increased neuromuscular recruitment, not to mention the improvements in running economy. Unfortunately, most distance runners never run faster than tempo pace (HM – 15K pace) or long intervals (10K – 5K pace).
Run Faster Than You Thought Possible
at Your Favorite Running Distance
4 WAYS TO INCREASE MAXIMAL SPEED
Strength training pays big dividends to upgrade maximal running speed. But not just any strength training. Avoid machines that isolate movements and focus on compound exercises specific to running; e.g: weighted forward and backward lunges. The more the movements resemble the actual running motion, the better. Keep in mind that your core muscles, too, are highly engaged in running.
Plyometrics are the logical next step after a foundation of strength has been established. The rationale behind plyometrics is to train your body to apply force rapidly – as required in running. Your ground contact times will decrease, and therefore, stride rate will increase dramatically. Split jumps, box jumps, one legged vertical jumps etc. are all valid exercises. Twice a week 2 – 3 exercises will suffice.
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High-speed uphill and downhill running on slightly inclined surfaces is a very specific way to increase maximal speed. Keep repetitions short (10 – 15 seconds) with long rest periods in between to avoid the buildup of lactic acid, which could negatively affect subsequent training sessions. 5 – 10 repetitions are enough to ignite the stimulus required for the necessary adaptations to take place.
Track repetitions are the most specific type of training a distance runner can do to upgrade maximal running speed. However, keep in mind that fast sprints require a foundation strength and explosiveness. Aim for speeds faster than 800m race pace (e.g.: 100s, 150s, 300s) with a flying start to minimize the risk of injury. Don’t forget to warm up for at least 20min before you engage in this type of training.
Having said all that, you don’t have to turn into a sprinter to reap the benefits. A “more-is-better” mentality, so common with us distance runners, is the wrong approach. Some additions of the above-mentioned exercises to your regular routine will go a long way. Introduce new training modes slowly starting with strength training and then transition to more explosive types of exercises.
Sandro Sket, CSCS