It’s rather interesting what runners say from time to time. One of my favorites s when a marathoner dismisses high quality training over doing more and more miles. “I don’t need speed work. I need to get more miles under my belt.”
Two and three years ago respectively I was approached by two different marathoners to get them over the hump and make a break though on their running. Specifically they wanted to break three hours. They had been plateaued in the 3:00-3:10 range for several years. I introduced them to how to break through by integrating much higher quality training than they currently did. Both dismissed this concept and clearly stated they needed more miles, more long runs and maybe some trails cross-training. Neither engaged me for coaching after our discussions.
Though on the surface the statements about marathoners not needing speed seem logical it loses credibility upon scientific scrutiny. So, let’s put the pieces together.
First, if you cannot run very far then of course you need to improve your ENDURANCE. That is the specific ability to run far. Someone who can run 50 miles has greater ENDURANCE than someone who can only run 20 or 10 or 5 or 1 mile. More miles improves endurance. (i.e. more long runs and total training miles) This also means, if you can finish a marathon but want to finish it faster, it is NOT an endurance issue. (OK, at least minimally so because it could be that you fade horribly in the latter miles.)
Second, if you cannot run a certain pace you lack SPEED (running related power). Someone who runs a 12 second 100m has more speed than someone who runs it in 15 seconds. Someone who can run a six minute mile has more relative speed than someone who can only manage eight minute miles. Faster than race pace and power drills and workouts develop speed. (i.e. speed work, intervals, plyometrics, etc.) If you can attain a specific speed but cannot maintain it – it is NOT a speed issue.
Third, if you cannot maintain a specific SPEED over a specific DISTANCE then you lack STAMINA. This is the ability to maintain speed over distance. Every running event requires stamina. If you can maintain running speed of 15 miles per hour (about a 60 second 400) for 600 meters but you want to maintain it for a full 800 (because this is your event) you currently lack stamina. If you want to maintain six minute miles for a marathon and can only do this for 10 miles you lack stamina. More race pace specific training improves stamina. (i.e. more goal pace runs)
And finally let’s introduce another scientific aspect. Your running speed at any distance is a percentage of your top end speed. In other words, your 5k race pace is a certain percentage of your top speed; your marathon race pace is a percentage of your top speed (albeit smaller percentage than your 5k pace). It also has been shown that if a distance runner improves his top end speed, while maintaining race-specific training, that as the top end speed gets faster all other race paces are dragged along with it. Think about it. For illustration only: If my 5k pace is 90% of my top speed and that top speed is 15 miles per hour; I could maintain 13.5 miles per hour for a 5k. If you improve your top speed to 16 miles per hour then your 5k race pace is dragged along with it to 14.4 miles per hour.
And a final point to make is that doing high quality workouts have been shown to greatly enhance all levels of running (novice to experienced and slowest to fastest) and for all distances including ultra-marathoning.
Fast forward to this past Fall/Winter. Those two marathoners ran sub-3 hour marathons. They couldn’t put their finger on how they made this break through at first. They each said things like: “I worked harder” “I stayed injury free” and then the kicker… both almost dismissively and as an afterthought stated, “I did speed work which I never did before.”
The whole point is this. To improve your racing times you must do speed work of various types and quantities in order to get there. Quality running is a year round development issue. It is not an afterthought or something to add in at the end of some training program. And as a bonus it yields FAR less injuries than just adding miles. Omit quality running and you may indeed have great endurance but you will short-change yourself in breaking through plateaus and exploring your fullest capabilities.