After the long and steady runs of marathon training and the tempo workouts of half marathon training, 10K training is bringing a new set of challenges for me: high intensity speedwork. The workouts certainly aren’t easy or comfortable by any stretch of the imagination, as my lungs burn and that metallic taste of hard effort rises up in the mouth. Yet there’s something thrilling about seeing those fast paces on my watch after a hard interval workout.
Many runners associate speedwork with injury, and rightly so – running too fast too often, too fast with poor biomechanics, or just downright too fast for your ability can quickly lead to an injury. Speedwork will always be uncomfortably hard, but it doesn’t have to lead to injury if you do it right. These steps will help you add in speedwork without getting injured – so you can reap the rewards of getting faster.
How to Add Speedwork Without Getting Injured
Ease in with Fartleks
A quick transition from the easy miles of base building to 12 x 400 meters on the track has too high of a risk of injury for most runners. Instead of jumping straight into hard speed workouts, use hill repeats and fartlek workouts to add in speedwork without getting injured.
Hill repeats are repetitions of running hard up a hill with an easy jog back down the hill in between. Fartlek workouts focus on effort and time rather than distance and pace. Both of these type of runs will introduce faster running into your training without the physical demand of hard speed workouts. Begin with hard efforts lasting 30-60 seconds in duration and progress from there. Since these runs focus both on effort rather than pace, you won’t be tempted to try to run at too fast of a pace for your current fitness.
Try these early season speed workouts to add some faster running into your training.
How Fast Should You Run Speedwork?
Repeat after me: there is no benefit in running faster than you should for any given workout. Even if you can gut-bust out 6 x 800m in 3:00 minutes flat, doesn’t mean you should. Running faster than you need to do in order to obtain the physiological benefits of the workouts will actually work against you – you will accumulate undesired training fatigue, increase your risk of injury, and eventually leave your race in your training.
My preferred calculator is the Jack Daniels VDOT Calculator. You enter a recent race time and the calculator provides you with equivalent race times and training paces. Daniels’ calculator will provide you with paces for repetitions (very short intervals such as strides) and for VO2max intervals (lasting 3-5 minutes). The calculator also provides equivalent race times such as 5K and 10K paces for longer intervals such as mile repeats.
Along with knowing your paces, you should know how hard a workout should feel based on your body’s signals. With my own training and the athletes I coach, I rely on effort cues such as breathing patterns, the talk test, and the Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) scale in addition to pace. This way, if you can’t hit your exact pace due to weather conditions, you can still run at the appropriate intensity.
Be sure to know also the intended pace and purpose of the workout – there’s a significant difference between doing 1K repeats at 10K pace to practice running at goal race pace versus 1K repeats at your VO2max pace. Both workouts will help you run faster, but they should be used at different points in training and will be run differently. The 10K pace repeats will have a higher number of repetitions with shorter recovery, while VO2max repeats will have fewer repetitions with an equal time recovery. If you try to run a cruise intervals workout as a VO2max workout, you will be running too much at too hard of a pace – a true recipe for injury.
How Much Speedwork Should You Do?
A variety of factors influence how much speedwork you should do, including your schedule, goals, and injury risk. However, according to recent research and leading experts such as Matt Fitzgerald, the most important determinant for speed work is your overall weekly training volume (based on time, not mileage). 80% of your total training time should be spent at a low intensity and the other 20% at a hard intensity.
The 20% of hard running includes running at threshold pace, so tempo runs must be accounted into the equation as well. How much time you spend in tempo runs versus high intensity speed work depends on your race goals – longer distances like the marathon and half marathon require more moderately hard running and higher mileage over speed workouts at 5K pace or faster.
Adding in too much speedwork (more than 20% of your training) will decrease your rate of improvement and increase your risk of injury. When in doubt, undertraining is always better than overtraining.
Avoid the Trap of Too Much, Too Soon
Just because higher mileage means you can do more speed work does not mean you should simultaneously increase your mileage and add in speed training. That quite simply is a recipe for injury or overtraining. As you add in high intensity running, you want to maintain your mileage (or even slightly decrease it). Once you’ve done a few weeks of speedwork, then you can gradually increase your weekly running mileage.
Know When to Bail on a Workout
Some days, things just aren’t clicking in a speed workout – and this happens to every runner. Many times, you can power through a tough workout, but there are some runs where it’s better to quit than to push your mind and body past their limits.
If you aren’t quite hitting your paces, focus on maintaining the right perceived effort. Fatigued legs, headwinds, the first hot and humid day of spring – all of these things can affect your pace. If your pace is off by a few seconds per mile, focus on maintaining the appropriate effort level and give it your best for the conditions
However, if your legs feel completely dead, you are utterly exhausted, and you can’t get anywhere near your goal pace, call it quits on the workout. You won’t be training in the right zones and you will miss the purpose and benefits of the workout – essentially, you’ll be junking out your miles and only digging yourself deeper into the possible overtraining hole. Do an easy run or simply call it a day and try again a day or two later.
Hire a Knowledgeable Coach
A knowledgeable coach will know how to calculate the appropriate paces and design the best speed workouts for your fitness level and your goals. Ask a potential coach about their training philosophy and how they add in speed workout to find if their methods will be a good match for you. You can learn more about my coaching services here.
What’s your favorite speed workout?
How do you avoid getting injured when starting up training?