Should Distance Runners Sprint?

Most runners have one big general goal: to race faster. So why do so few distance runners do speed workouts?

You might be familiar with classic workouts that many runners use in their training such as tempo runs, track intervals, hill workouts, progression runs, marathon-specific long runs. But you might be surprised to hear that none of these workouts are technically speed workouts.

Yes, they’re much faster than your easy pace and do improve your ability to race faster. However, they’re not actually “speed work.” True speed development is relatively foreign to distance runners because they are sprinter workouts, designed to improve maximal velocity, acceleration, or speed-endurance.

Let’s make sure we understand what these terms mean—so we know how to use them to make you into a faster runner.

Maximal velocity is your maximum speed. It’s how fast you can run if you try to sprint at 100 percent effort and reach your “top-end” speed.

It’s helpful to know that even Usain Bolt, the fastest sprinter of all time, can only maintain maximal velocity for about 30 to 50 meters

Acceleration is how quickly you can go from a position of rest to maximal velocity. Essentially, it’s about the rate of increasing speed and it’s also a good measure of how much power you can generate.

Speed-endurance is how long you can maintain your maximal velocity. Since most of us can only maintain our maximal velocity for about 5 to 7 seconds, even big improvements on this aspect of speed won’t translate to significant performance improvements for distance runners.

For the most part, these three elements of speed aren’t the “big wins” that runners should focus on. After all, you never approach your maximal velocity or try to accelerate as fast as possible in any race from the mile on up.

Still, a small dose of speed development work in your training can pay large dividends.

Should Distance Runners Focus on Speed Development?

There are three main reasons why runners should incorporate speed development in their training.

First, it improves top-end speed. You’ll be able to sprint faster, thus increasing the range of speed that you’re capable of achieving.

This helps slower paces feel a lot easier. And if you compete in middle distance events like the 800m, mile, or 3,000m then you’ll experience tangible performance improvement.

Second, sprinting forces your legs to recruit more muscle fibers to increase its power production. By having a larger pool of fibers available, you’ll be able to sprint more effectively at the end of a race.

Finally, those speed development workouts will improve your running economy—or, rather, your efficiency. All those extra muscle fibers are now available when you’re tired, running uphill, or finishing a long run. Essentially, you have a larger pool of muscle to draw from when you’re fatigued or trying to run hard at the end of a race.

Sprinting also reinforces proper running form, further enhancing your running economy. After all, it’s much more difficult to run with sloppy form when you’re at maximal velocity.

How to Add Speed Work To Your Training

Speed development work is very challenging—not because there’s a lot of volume at fast paces or the rest is short, but because it stresses the central nervous system.

These sessions are neuromuscular, challenging the communication pathways between the brain and muscles. They require a long recovery interval and a low volume of total work. While a speed development workout may not look like a “hard workout” it will most certainly leave you quite sore after your first session.

Since they’re so difficult, it’s best to run these workouts when you’re fresh at the beginning of a workout.

After a series of dynamic warm-up exercises, some easy running, and strides, you can add several short repetitions before the main part of your workout.

Here are a few examples, with each one getting progressively more difficult:

  • 4 x 8sec hill sprints, 60-90sec walk recovery
  • 4 x 20m, 90sec – 2min walk recovery
  • 6 x 25m, 2min – 2:30 walk recovery
  • 6 x 30m, 2min – 2:30 walk recovery

The two most important things to remember about speed development for distance runners is that a small amount is all that’s necessary and you need to run as fast as possible. There’s no need to run a high number of repetitions at maximum speed.

In fact, doing so only predisposes you to a higher risk of injury. When in doubt, run fewer repetitions with longer recoveries. Play it safe!

Doing one of these workouts per week is all that’s needed to gain the power, efficiency, and speed benefits. They’re not a focus, but rather a supplemental training tool that’s available to work on an oft-neglected area of fitness for distance runners.

After 4 to 6 weeks of consistent sprint work, done in a gradual and safe way, runners are going to start feeling faster and more powerful than before.

Soon, those benefits will transfer to the longer distances and you’ll have a shiny new personal best to show for all your hard work!

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