You’ve been running the same route at the same pace long enough. Here is everything you need to know about how to incorporate speed training into your workout.
For most people, distance running is a chore they perform begrudgingly—an activity that has earned a permanent spot in their fitness routine because they know it is really, really good for them, and not because it brings them any measurable amount of joy.
Reluctant runner, we hear you. And the way we see it, if you’re going to spend time pounding the pavement despite all this unpleasantness, you may as well be fast. Fast things are fun! Race cars. Diamond lanes. Relationships. (Sometimes.) Plus, speed means that your run will be over sooner. We sat down with a few experts to learn how to run faster, why speed training is a good thing for every running style, and how you can do it without ever having to touch a treadmill.
Why should I care about getting faster?
We all know that guy who runs effortlessly around the neighborhood for between 12 and 15 miles on a weekend, and who wraps with some sort of post-jaunt Instagram story about what podcast he listened to in the process. While there’s nothing wrong with being the long runs guy, all those same-distance, steady-speed long runs can get monotonous.
Speed workouts help, says Corinne Fitzgerald, a coach at New York City treadmill studio Mile High Run Club. “They keep things interesting. They’ll elevate your heart rate faster than a long run, allow you to burn a lot of calories in a short amount of time.” Integrating speed work can improve your performance in those longer runs, too, by boosting your oxygen consumption and recruiting fast-twitch muscle fibers to work alongside the slow-twitch fibers on which the body usually relies during endurance activities.
Even a few seconds’ difference can mean a lot. “Shaving any time off your run tells you that you’re getting better,” says Kevin St. Fort, a precision running coach and group fitness manager at Equinox. “For you to get faster, you’ve likely had to get stronger. You’ll have to breathe more efficiently. You’ll make improvements in so many areas that what is perceived as a marginal increase in time is, in reality, quite an overall improvement.”
How do I do it?
Mentally channeling Usain Bolt is fun, but it’s not going to magically make you an Olympic sprinter. Begin by slowly adding speed training to your routine so you don’t burn out. “It’s good to have one to three runs a week where you push,” suggests Matt Wilpers, a treadmill and cycling instructor at Peloton. “The rest should be a more comfortable—or what we like to refer to as ‘conversational’—pace, in order to give your body time to adapt.”
Be warned: The first few attempts will feel like a kick to the gut, because it is not a type of running to which you’re accustomed. But that won’t last forever. The longer you work on speed training, the faster you’ll become, and then you’ll be able to look back and laugh, because, Man, who was that slow guy sucking wind? You don’t even know him anymore.
Don’t I need a treadmill to ensure I’m running fast enough?
No! While treadmills are a great way to make sure you’re hitting certain targets, getting faster doesn’t require voluntarily imprisoning yourself in a room full of hamster wheels. Most smart watches provide accurate pace readings, and if even that feels overwhelming, try monitoring your workout’s rate of perceived exertion, or RPE. This is when you rank your effort based on how hard you think you’re working. For instance, if running a nine-minute mile feels reasonably difficult for you (say, a 6 out of 10), then your push pace may hover around a seven-minute mile (say, an 8 out of 10).
Here is what outdoor speed work might look like in practice: If you’re in a park, or even just running city blocks, vary your speeds in between each lamp post or intersection. Run hard for two lamp post lengths, then jog for two, and repeat that sequence eight times. (In the running community, intervals of short, fast runs and longer, slower runs are sometimes called fartleks, which are less fun to execute than they are to pronounce.) If you find that you’re gassed and need to walk instead of jog between sets, that’s okay! Everyone has a different sweet spot.
“Less-structured running can be fun and equally as impactful,” says Rich Velasquez, COO at Mile High Run Club. Velasquez shares another one of his go-to speed workouts, especially for those who run on a track: striders. Start with a mile jogging warm-up, and then, for 45 seconds, boost your RPE to an 8 or 9. Fall back to a recovery jog for 90 seconds after that. “Rule of thumb: speed is not an all-out sprint,” he says. If one or two sets is all you can manage, slow down.
Any other tips I should keep in mind?
Don’t expect to see immediate results. “It is important to be consistent in executing your routine week after week, as these changes take time and patience with your body,” says Wilpers. “One or two speed workouts are not going to do a whole lot for anyone. They must consistently applied over time, and balanced with adequate rest and recovery.”
In other words: Don’t quit the first time you feel like summoning an Uber and collapsing into the back seat. That just means that what you’re doing is working.