The need for speed

Trail Running editor and GB former middle-distance international Paul Larkins on why speed is so important in your training

Trail0243Bob Atkins.jpg

A s old school as Billy Whizz may be, you can’t argue with his philosophy: run fast. Maybe the popular Beano character was my inspiration given I read of his antics every week as a lad, I don’t know… I do know that since those days in the late 1970s, speedwork has played a central role in my training, be it for myself (now a mature 54) or for the assorted youngsters I coach.

Fortunately, because of the surfaces we prefer to tackle on a regular basis trail runners tend to lean towards this love of speed – even if we don’t realise it! Varying terrain – ascents and descents – along with constantly changing environments, continually work your muscle strength, aerobic capacity as well as other elements such as balance and mobility. So good news – we’re all actually a fair way along that ‘speed’ road without even thinking about it. But don’t rest on your laurels. Improving your running, be that going faster or further or just feeling better about it all, must involve testing yourself otherwise you’ll plateau or worse, go backwards. Think of training as breaking down muscle with a hard session, then resting and allowing it plenty of time to rebuild, but this time stronger.

Fear not, however, speed is not all about going to the track and running flat-out 100-metre sprints. All you need to do is ask what you want from a particular run. Clearly, the eight athletes lining up in the Olympic 100m final have different requirements from a workout than, say, ultra-trail supremo Sarah Rowell. We  trained together some years ago doing a fast-paced workout: she ran 40x200m, I ran five, but we both got exactly what we needed from the session. I was looking for a fast 800 metres, she had her eyes on the UK best for the marathon. The training certainly worked for her – in 1985 she broke the record, clocking 2:28:06. It shows you how you need to think if running more efficiently – and yes, faster – is on the agenda. Don’t just plod around at the same pace every run. Add a bit of spice, and run a little quicker. Your body will thank you for it.

It’s for that reason HIIT (high-intensity interval training) is making so many headlines recently. It’s good for you and doesn’t take much time. In fact trail running is even made for a HIIT session. Find a hill, run hard up it, ease off for 20sec, see a tree, sprint hard and so on. Not for nothing, trail runners are seen as trend-setters here in the running world! HIIT it’s hardly a new idea, though. Back in 1939 a German named Rudolf Harbig invented a similar technique and ran the world record for 800m as a result. 

Like anything that’s good for you, however, the real problem is actually implementing it. “I can understand why runners are reluctant to add specific workouts to their schedule,” says Pro Vice Chancellor and Professor of Applied Sport Science John Brewer, by his own admission a man who prefers heading out for a lazy long run to a short, hard session. “But even if it’s completing a slightly faster workout just once every 10 days or so, your body will perform so much better. Running the same pace every day results in a plateau and no one really wants that.” If nothing else, that lack of progress can damage your enthusiasm or even, dare we say it, lead to you missing the odd run here and there. “We’re not talking going to the track here. Instead use the landscape around you and mix and match,” he adds.

Two-time Leadville 100 winner Anton Krupicka agrees with that relaxed sentiment. “It’s just running. You know how to run. No, really, you do. Left, right.” He does, however, have some wise words for you guys thinking longer, which you can’t really disagree with given his incredible form. “Ultras are long. If you wanna speed up, there’s plenty of time for that later.” It’s really only the longer, more extreme events that require a separate skill set, both in terms of physical fitness and fortitude, he explains.

So yes, UTMBers running 200s or a few light 150m efforts after their half-hour run might not do too well, but for mere mortals, a touch of speed here and there won’t do you any harm when it comes to getting ready for just about anything on the race calendar here in Britain.

Speed running will also keep your running interesting. A quick Facebook survey confirmed it’s this variety that is exactly what you guys are doing. Speed for one, is very different to someone else’s view. Suzanne Stuart, a #Run1000Mile forum member perhaps best sums up the way to go about things if all of this is new to you. “I see two trees and run faster between them. How fast? No idea,” she says. Hardly scientific granted but it’s actually just the right approach. As Prof John Brewer is quick to point out, it’s that change of pace – getting out of the comfort zone for a short while – that is so important in everyday running. “Faster running requires more energy, which can be met either aerobically – where oxygen is used within the muscle to produce energy – or anaerobically, where energy is produced without oxygen being present. This, however, will result in rising levels of the fatigue-inducing substance, lactic acid,” he says. 

Speed training helps develop both of these systems, so that when faced with the need to run more quickly, the body has adapted either by improving its oxygen uptake and transport mechanisms, or by developing an improved tolerance for lactic acid. Speed training will contribute to improved performance in both of these adaptations, so it is vital that it is an integral part of your running programme. Put simply, you’ll become stronger and you’ll be able to utilise oxygen much more efficiently, which in turn will make longer, slower runs easier. 

Of course, such a major restructuring of your internal system means it will take a bit of time. Changes tend to take around six weeks, but only as a part of a well-thought-out programme. You can’t just bash out intense workout after intense workout – that will breakdown muscle and eventually wipe you out. Think of your week like this: roughly speaking, 80% of your time should involve easy running at whatever pace you feel comfortable with – chatting to mates, stopping to take in the magnificent views and so on. However, 20% needs to be focused efforts doing interval sessions.

Workouts like that may sound a bit daunting, but once again TR readers have plenty of options that work perfectly. “I enjoy mirror runs,” says reader Seth Kennard. “That’s five minutes warm up, then 30 minutes hard, eight out of 10 effort, then turn around and try to push on the return with a 95% effort to be back to start point within 25 minutes. Each week I attempt to move my turnaround point further out while still being back at start point within time limit.” That’s not sprinting, but it is most definitely speedwork in that it’s stressing the aerobic system for a short, intense period of time – perfect training for half-marathon distance races and beyond, and a session my group use regularly.

And best of all, speed training is fun! There really is nothing better than hitting the accelerator mid-run as and when you feel like it, wind in the hair, taking in the views at pace. Running, after all, is about feeling good and there is no better way than to feel like you’ve achieved. Plus, you
look good while you do it – impress yourself and innocent bystanders all in 10 easy seconds. You can't ask for more than that!