What exactly is “speed work”?

In reference to a comment in a previous blog I had this inquiry. “In your blog you said mile to 5k pace isn’t speed work. It’s not? So only faster than mile is true speed work? What is the difference in benefits between speedwork and slow speedwork?”

Let’s start with this. Speed work is certainly relative to your race distance. It will feel like speed work for a marathoner to do 5K paced workouts (or 10k pace or HM paced). It will feel like speed work for a 10k specialist to run at mile pace. It will feel like speed work for a miler to do 400 meter paced workouts. So, in one view all of this is “speed” work because it is faster than your normal race pace. And it is certainly on a continuum. If you ran faster than your marathon pace (7:45/mile) by dropping it to 7:30 per mile; would you consider that speed work? Probably not. And yet at some point we start to call it “speed” work.

The predominance of research shows that anything from 5k-just over 10k race paces are ideal for “quality” workouts. Yet, in the strictest of views; “speed” work would be those workouts designed at developing your basic speed. That is different than just your “race pace” (unless you are a sprinter of course).

So, we need to differentiate between a quality workout and a true speed workout. Plyometrics, foot drills, ladder drills contribute to speed. All out and near-all out repeats or short time trials develop your speed. And there is a direct correlation between your top end speed and your race times at all distances through ultra-marathons. The faster your top end speed the faster all your times are likely to be.

[Before the naysayers pop up, yes there will always be some exceptions. But the preponderance of evidence for most of the people most of the time is that if their basic speed is developed ALL their race times at ALL distances are improved. And in fact this is a far better predictor than VO2max for instance.]

This is also where coaches who don’t keep up with current research go awry. They in fact call all those paces “speed work” and therefore these are “bad” for a runner in any time other than in season and in fact should wait until late season. A runner will not peak or be run into the ground by having yearlong varying doses of QUALITY running. In fact that is how they launch themselves into bigger and better things that next season.

So, you can see that though the marathoners and half-marathoners out there do their “speed work” every Thursday night at the track; in one way they are correct and yet they are wrong at the same time. They are doing quality workouts. They aren’t really doing speed work in a technical sense.

Back to speed training. In developing true speed (which the vast majority of age group distance runners do not do at any time in their training) you must run fast. Very fast. Also you need to include: form drills, full range of motion drills, dynamic stretching, ladder drills and foot contact time drills, hops and plyometrics of many sorts, uphill bounding, and even overspeed drills. All of these contribute to your power as a runner. This power is strength developed in running specific ways. (Contrast that with strength which is the ability to move some large weight for instance; perform 10,000 sit ups or bench press 50×100 pounds). Power – the ability to propel your body forward rapidly is the key to increased speed. And the age-old training adage has never been truer: you get fast by running fast.

There it is. Quality and speed are the same and yet they aren’t! Aren’t you glad I cleared that up?


About Dean Hebert

I’m a mental game coach, author and speaker. I work with individual athletes, parents, coaches, and teams on sports performance enhancement. Beyond my academic post-graduate work in sports psychology - the psychology behind athlete performance – I am a certified Mental Games Coaching Professional (MGCP) and certified hypnotherapist. I’ve authored several books and hundreds of articles. “Coach, I didn’t run because…” (2008) is a seriously light-hearted look at making excuses not to workout and how to overcome them. “Focus for Fitness” (2009) and “Screw the Goals Give me the Donut” (2010) are two of my eBooks on mental game approaches for the everyday athlete. I wrote these because I believe that everyone can benefit from the powerful mental techniques that the world’s best athletes use. I have been cited in Runners World, Best Health magazine (CN), SWEAT Magazine, and the Washington Examiner amongst many other publications. I have been a featured mental games coach in Runner’s World and for the internationally acclaimed trail running resource - trailrunningclub.com. I also regularly appear on sports and fitness talk shows such as LTKFitness, Runnersroundtable and for more than three years I have co-hosted a weekly video series with Coach Joe English for Running-Advice.com. I specialize in mental toughness training. My clients include tennis, synchronized swimming, golf, race-kart, soccer, motocross, volleyball, MMA, cycling (road, off-road, time-trialist), running, duathlon and triathlon, basketball, football and baseball athletes. I have coached world-class athletes and athletes internationally. I have a passion for working with youth athletes and helping them apply mental game skills and techniques to all areas of life. Most importantly, my aim is to have people enjoy sports and life to their fullest through peak performances.
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One Response to What exactly is “speed work”?

  1. Geoffrey says:

    Nice post, coach. Thanks!

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