Speed Work on the Track, Why and When Should You Do This

To be the best Triathlete you can be, you need to swim with the faster swimmers, bike with the faster cyclists, and run with the faster runners.

As Maverick and Goose proclaimed in Top Gun, “I feel the need, the need for speed!”, we triathletes might similarly proclaim I have the desire for speed. So how exactly does a triathlete go about fulfilling this need? We could just go buy a fast car, or in my case, a fast motorcycle, but aside from the visceral thrill of that it’s not going to improve our 5k/10k run time in a triathlon. No, we have to dig a little deeper, push ourselves a little harder, and get focused in our training.  This brings me to the topic of doing speed work on the track.iStock_000004728909Medium-629x421

Speed work, and specifically for this discussion, running, can have many definitions, but they all have the common threads that:

  • the intervals run are short
  • the pace is fast, faster than 5k pace
  • the recovery period between intervals is long

The goal is to develop your aerobic threshold or VO2 max capability, to allow you to run faster for short periods of time, say up to five minutes. You might say all my race runs are longer than five minutes, and I would have to agree. But that doesn’t mean this kind of training isn’t for you, as by adding speed work to your training plan you will be developing not only your speed but also your efficiency, and in return likely raising your Anaerobic Threshold (AT or Lactate Threshold) Heart Rate, the only thing we can do, as raising your maximum heart rate is impossible, being genetically fixed.

So for example, if your AT HR goes from 160 to 165 during your training, then two things are going to happen:

  1. When running at the same HR as before (160), you will be able to run at a faster pace
  2. When running at the same pace as before, you will have a lower HR

Both of those are good things and the reason we should all incorporate speed work into our training plans.

Late addition: On my Saturday morning ride today I was out with two outstanding triathlete runners, discussing this very issue and the upcoming track workouts for our local club. They agree with what I was trying to say in this post, but also added another important benefit that running hard on the track offers, mental toughness. Making it through the last 1200-1600m of a tough set sets you up on race day, when at some point you feel like you just can’t hold on and then you remember back to that tough set the Coach gave out and how you finished strong and you dig just a little deeper to hold your pace and not give in; mental toughness.

But now after telling you what some of the possible benefits are, I have to throw out one qualifier, you should only be doing speed work, true speed work (and not just some longer intervals or Fartlek’s), after you have established your running base. Which now begs the question, what defines an adequate running base?

Obviously for each of us this can and will mean something different, so let’s start with:

  • Your ability to run at least twice a week, 5-6 miles each time (4-5 miles for older athletes, post 50), comfortably without feeling sore and tired for the next two days
  • Your ability to increase the pace of these runs so that you feel like you’re actually running hard for short periods of time, and that you recover from these short efforts when they’re followed by several minutes of easy running
  • Your ability to run on something other than flat ground, to vary the intensity of the workout, to further test and stress your base aerobic capability and your strength

How long will it take each of us to achieve these goals is based on all the usual factors in life, but mostly by our consistency and focus on just getting out there and running. There is truly no replacement for just getting out and doing the hard work; there are no shortcuts to getting faster. For most athletes with some kind of fitness base, within 1-2 months (and again, your mileage may vary!), you should be feeling a change in your physiology to support an increase in tempo, and then at that point you can consider adding some faster and/or longer runs or some short and fast intervals.

And again, these are blanket statements to give you an idea of what I consider the basic minimums, as only you can assess your current fitness base. I prefer less experienced athletes and those returning from injuries, especially those that are a “running” injury, to err on the side of caution and spend more time developing a base. Experienced athletes and those that are currently swimming and biking more may be able to move forward faster.

One thing I really want to add is that if you start doing speed work before your body is really ready for it, having adapted to the stress and strain of the gradual increase in workload and intensity, you can very easily get injured. Injuries from doing too much track work too soon are one of the most common reason athletes develop running injuries, many of which when ignored by continuing said workouts, the athlete trying to train around them. In turn many people have sworn off running on the track, swearing it is the track’s fault for them becoming injured, while the reality was that more than likely it was their impatience in trying to add too much speed too soon, or by not dealing with the pain they were feeling from the workouts sooner.

If you’re still having doubts, then talk to more experienced runners and ask their opinions, which of course will vary across the board, so if you have access to a Coach and you can sit down with them and talk about where you are in your training, what your goals are with regard to your running, and any injuries or limiters you might have in your training, they will be able to help. Triathlon Coaches are there to help and support you to become the best triathlete you can be, looking at the big picture, they are truly the best source of information; pure runners may have a different view, not understanding fully how your swimming and biking play into the big picture.

The best case is that a Coach prescribes a short series of workouts that once completed would allow them to say you can begin doing some speed work on the track, but at a limited volume and effort level to start. The worst case, at least in your mind, might be that they tell you you’re not quite ready and that you need to continue on the course of building the longer and easier runs, with some intervals or pick-ups, to develop more strength and a better base to build on.

Realize that as triathletes, every time we step out the door to go for a run we should have a focus for each of those runs and a target HR Zone, like:

  • Short and easy efforts as a recovery run from the previous day’s harder workout, HR Zone 1/2
  • A longer but still easy effort, a Long Steady Distance (LSD) run, HR Zone 2/3
  • A medium distance effort with some 3-5 minute intervals at a slightly higher pace, with recovery periods to follow, HR Zone 4
  • Speed work, short and hard intervals on track or off, starting in HR Zone 4, finishing in HR Zone 5

Your development as a runner should be training for endurance first, power/strength second, and speed last. You have to first be able to cover the distance required for the kind of races you enter, LSD runs. You then have to train to deal with changes in terrain to build strength, long intervals and strength training. And then, once you’ve developed enough distance and strength to cover the race distance, you focus in on the speed, the final piece of the puzzle.

Speed is the last thing we add to our training plans, and it is the first thing to leave when we stop doing it in our training. Some athletes, many longer distance triathletes, never do any speed work, focusing more on distance and long and longer intervals, partly due to the lack of time in the training plan, but also realizing that speed work can also cause a lot of pain and/or inflammation that may inhibit their long distance training on subsequent days, so they trade that last bit of speed for endurance.

So after all that, now you have to decide where you are in your training, what your goals are for the upcoming months before your next “A” race, and what your focus should really be. That might just be continuing to build on your base until you (or your Coach), feel you’re ready for the next step, or that you’re now ready to come to a track workout and while starting out slow to develop the necessary speed, learning to feel and understand how your body feels moving at this increased pace, so that you too can feel the need for speed. Maverick and Goose would be proud!

2 thoughts on “Speed Work on the Track, Why and When Should You Do This

    • Gail, do you remember way back when running the SBAA track workouts with Jim Triplet at SBCC? We thought we were pretty fast, no? I’ll be coaching the SBTC Tuesday night run workouts, mostly at San Marcos HS this year, and I plan on bringing back the same kind of speed work and intensity that we had back then, while trying to teach this new group of triathletes/runners what its like to run hard and fast.

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