How to Get Fast

The varieties of speedwork are endless. Which one to choose? Is there a single best form of speedwork for, say, the 5K, 10K, or the marathon?

Assuming we could identify the One Best Method, how can we adapt it for our own unique talents and fitness level?

In an earlier article, Speed Thrills, I looked at research that showed short, all-out intervals improved VO2Max spectacularly.

Here’s a recap: Prof. Izumi Tabata, PhD, of the National Institute of Health and Nutrition in Tokyo had Japanese men’s national team speed skaters perform eight all-out 20-second intervals with only a 10-second pause, five days a week for six weeks. At the end of the study, the skaters’ VO2Max had improved by an average of 14%.

Needless to say, the “Tabata intervals” aren’t easy! Dr. Tabata observed, “This protocol [was] invented to stress the cardiovascular systems of top Japanese [speed] skaters who got medals in the Olympic games. Therefore, the protocol is very tough. The subjects lay down on the floor after the training.”

Some respected writers, such as Phil Maffetone, coach of seven-time Hawaiian Ironman winner Mark Allen, have suggested that the type of speedwork doesn’t really matter, since all kinds of speedwork accomplish essentially the same result. But research indicates this is wrong — studies have shown that the type of speedwork makes a big difference.

Intervals or Tempo Runs: Which Is Better?

In Running Research News, Owen Anderson, PhD described a study conducted by Peter Snell, a three-time Olympic gold medalist who’s now a sports physiologist at the University of Texas:

In Peter’s research, one group of runners carried out tempo runs twice a week (the rest of their running was moderate-paced effort). These tempo workouts involved running for 29 minutes at a running speed which roughly corresponded with lactate-threshold velocity — the pace above which blood-lactate levels begin to increase dramatically. The average intensity during these sessions was about 70 to 80 percent of maximal aerobic capacity (VO2max).

Runners in a second group carried out no tempo running at all but instead conducted two interval sessions per week. During these interval workouts, the runners cavorted through 200-meter intervals in 33 to 38 seconds and performed 400-meter intervals in 75 to 80 seconds, completing a total of about three miles of interval running per workout. Exercise intensity during this interval running averaged 90 to 100 percent of VO2max.

After 10 weeks, the runners from both groups ran 800-meter and 10-K races. In these competitions, the interval-trained runners fared far better than the tempo-tutored harriers. For example, the interval-based runners improved 800-meter time by an average of 11.2 seconds and bettered previous 10-K times by 2.1 minutes.

Meanwhile, the tempo-training devotees shaved just 6.6 seconds from their 800-meter times and upgraded 10-K running by only 1.1 minute, roughly half the improvement achieved by the interval-trained competitors. VO2max soared by 12 percent for the interval runners but nudged upward by only 4 percent for the tempo-trained runners.

These results were observed even though the tempo-trained individuals engaged in a far-greater amount of quality work over the 10-week period. Specifically, the tempo runners completed 58 minutes per week of tempo training, while the interval individuals spent just 31 minutes per week conducting fast interval effort. This led to a 270-minute edge in quality training for the tempo group over the 10-week period. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, Vol. 21 (2), #448, 1989)

The results are clear: intervals are better — and a varied program of longer intervals is nearly as effective as the difficult 20-second Tabata protocol (12% versus 14% improvement in VO2Max, achieved with two days of speedwork per week, versus five).

The benefits of the intense Tabata-style intervals come with an obvious risk of injury — not to mention that they’re physically and mentally grueling, and that it takes doing them five days a week to accomplish marginally better results than with two days of 200- and 400-meter intervals. Is there an alternative? For distance runners, longer intervals would appear to be a better all-around solution, especially because they allow a runner to work not only on VO2Max but other important components of speed-endurance, such as running form. They also would stimulate muscle adaptations to running long distances at speed (contributing to the ability to run fast with relaxation). It’s also possible that they make metabolic contributions to the ability to run long distances at speed, beyond improving VO2Max.

What About Speed-Endurance?

What kind of training would prepare us to cruise with ease at the fastest possible pace for, say, 5K to 26.2? That’s another way of asking, what kind of training improves speed-endurance. Some studies indicate that short intervals improve endurance as well as speed. But can we get speed-endurance by doing intervals alone? As I noted in “Speed Thrills”, it’s been tried, and we know the results. During the 1950s and 1960s, the top runners’ training heavily emphasized intervals. But the interval-trained champions were soundly trounced when Arthur Lydiard’s runners came on the scene. Peter Snell, Ron Clarke, and Murray Halberg did just 6-8 weeks of speedwork, after laying in a 12-week base of pure aerobic endurance running. Runners who’ve done tremendous volumes of speedwork — like Emil Zatopek and Bill “Mad Dog” Scobey — couldn’t match the times of the endurance-trained Lydiard athletes.

What Kind of Endurance Running Contributes to Speed?

How many miles per week must we run to maximize our 5K, 10K, and marathon times? How important are long runs? The obvious answer is: “it depends”. There is no single “right” answer, because every runner’s body is unique. But in general terms, it’s well known that high mileage contributes to developing speed. (I discussed this in the “Speed Thrills” article.)

We still don’t know the best way to develop speed-endurance. As soon as the answer seems clear, some talented maverick comes along and achieves impressive results by training differently. Many athletes have risen to the top on periodized, Lydiard-style training. On the other hand, Steve Jones, winner of the New York Marathon, trained hard all the time. So did Joan Benoit Samuelson. (Jones famously said that a runner who wants to compete at the highest level must be prepared to go to bed tired and wake up tired every day for 10 years.) When he set himself a goal of breaking the American 100K record, Bernd Heinrich decided he would do all his runs at race pace (6:00 per mile). He succeeded.

The top coaches can’t even agree on such simple questions as the best pace for aerobic base-building runs, and long runs. Three famous coaches have offered three answers:

1. Arthur Lydiard – “medium” pace.

2. Phil Maffetone – approximately 70% of maximum heart rate.

3. John L. Parker, Jr. – 70% of MHR by the Karvonen formula (about 78-79% MHR).

It might seem that Lydiard’s “medium” pace roughly corresponds to John L. Parker, Jr.’s recommendation. But that probably isn’t true, since “medium pace” for a world-class distance runner represents a higher percentage of maximum heart rate than for an ordinary runner. (The ability of top runners to run aerobically at a very high percentage of their VO2Max was demonstrated in studies by Jack Daniels, PhD.)

Fitness Intuition is about learning to listen to your body. So — no surprise — I’ll suggest that you respect advice of successful coaches, but pay close attention to what your own body is trying to tell you. True training is individual.

How does that work? Let’s see if we can figure out the best training pace for our long runs, based on our individual talents.

I suspect there are just two heart-rate training “zones” you really need to be concerned about during long runs and easy runs. One pace is slow – it’s the speed at which you feel most comfortable during the warmup. For many runners, warmup pace corresponds to about 65-67% of maximum heart rate. If you don’t use a heart monitor, you can “feel” this pace quite accurately. To repeat, it’s simply the speed at which you’re completely comfortable while your body gets ready to run faster.

After warming up for a while, speed up tentatively. If you feel comfortable at the slightly higher pace, stay there; if not, back off. On your best days, it will feel as if you’re slipping effortlessly into a higher gear. On those days, you’ll find that you can run quite comfortably on the faster “plateau.” But there will always be a pace where going any faster feels emphatically “wrong.” Those feelings of “wrongness” are your body’s way of telling you what it can do on the day.

If you’re slightly overtrained, recovering from illness, haven’t had enough sleep, or you’ve been eating poorly, the feeling-based pacing scale will be adjusted downward. You won’t be able to comfortably run as fast as when you’re feeling your best. You’ll start to feel uncomfortable at a slower pace.

The heart’s feelings are the way the body talks to us. Several top runners and coaches have gone on the record as saying that “feeling-based training” works better than rigid rules and numbers. Arthur Lydiard, the famous coach from New Zealand, was one of them. Another is Bob Kennedy, the only American who’s run 5000 meters in under 13 minutes. Other believers are Frank Shorter and Peter Snell.

In my training, I’ve identified a second “harmony training” zone, at about 77-79% of maximum heart rate. After a long warmup, it’s the pace that seems to feel “just right” during my long runs (provided I’m healthy and rested). It seems to be the pace I can still maintain easily during my long runs, while making my body work hard enough to get fitter.

If I go even just a little bit faster, say 80%, the feeling changes. It feels different – very slightly stressful. Running at the higher pace, I’m aware that I could finish my long run, but it doesn’t feel as if I would receive the same benefits. At 77-79%, it feels as if I’m exactly poised, giving the body just enough work to develop endurance. At the faster pace, it feels as if I’m pushing too hard – I’m running a “slow race.” I’m tearing-down instead of building-up.

Please understand: I’m not saying that my way is right. I’m aware that many coaches suggest doing long runs at 65-70% of MHR, or 75%, tops. I choose to run faster simply because it feels right. I’m 65 years old, and I run just three days a week. Two of my runs are short and easy — typically, 30 minutes at 65-67% of MHR. I train this way so that I can run hard on the weekends. I do this because hard training, plus lots of recovery, makes me feel good. It keeps me psychologically engaged, and I believe it helps me improve.

If you’re younger and/or more talented, you may not need as much time off as I take. But I believe the basic principles are the same. My suggestion is that you do what feels right for you. Don’t let your mind override your body’s wisdom. If Arthur Lydiard or Bill Bowerman said it, listen respectfully to what they say, but know that if your heart doesn’t confirm it, it certainly isn’t right for you. I’m sure they would agree.