Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Need For Speed

I wrote this some time last year explaining to someone why I thought speed work was good for ultrarunners. This week I had the discussion again with another friend who didn't think there was any point to do speed work when her training was geared toward a mountain 100 miler. I believe speed work is good for all runners who want to improve their running, regardless of the race distance. That's why you'll find me on the South Salem High School track every Monday morning at 5am. (No, you don't have to start your week with speed work; that's just how we roll in Salem!)


The necessity of speed work is debated amongst ultra runners. The two general sides are: Yes, speed work makes you fast and fit so you should do it vs. You can get fit running in the mountains and you don’t ever have to run fast in an ultra, so don’t bother.

Geof Roes and Anton K. are good examples of successful runners who don’t do speed work. But they run in the mountains…A LOT! A lot more than most people can handle physically. Plus, who has time for 3-5 hours of running nearly every day?? 

Gary Gellin, winner of Way Too Cool, calls himself a low mileage guy and also stated he does not do speed work. Instead, he got faster just by doing 2-3 hour runs every other day. But it took him several years of consistent running to get to the high level he is at now. So, yeah, you can get in great shape without speed work… if you have a lot of time and a lot of patience.

According to a 2011 study from the American College of Sports Medicine, just 2 weeks of high-intensity intervals improves your aerobic capacity as much as 6 to 8 weeks of endurance training. High intensity training is the most efficient way to improve VO2 max. A person’s VO2 max is tightly correlated with performance in endurance events. Certainly speed work is not the only way to improve VO2 max. But for people with a real life outside of running (or for people who just don’t want to spend that much time running every day), speed work is a valuable tool to improve fitness.

For ultra-runners the purpose of the speed work is not so much to train your legs to move fast, but to train your cardiovascular system to handle high physical stress and high metabolic demands. But besides improving fitness, speed work has other benefits:

- Improved range of motion. Ultra-runners usually develop a very efficient little stride. Unfortunately, this involves limited range of motion. Speed work forces you to open up your stride, lift your knees a little bit higher, pump your arms a little bit more, and stretch out those hamstrings. This is good for range of motion and improved mobility.

- Better leg turnover: No, most people won’t be hitting anything near their top speed in an ultra, but most ultras have at least some part where good leg turnover is an asset, particularly flat roads and smooth down hills. Better turnover in non-technical areas will lead to better finish times.

- Mental boost: When you watch your interval times fall, it is good feedback that your fitness is improving. Also, it is good knowledge for an ultra that you can recover after feeling totally spent. In interval workouts, you run hard, but then after just a few minutes, you are recovered enough to do it all again. The same principle applies to ultras – you can run up a hill, feel totally exhausted but then recover on the downhills, so you can do it all again on the next hill.

Speed work is a valuable tool for increasing cardiovascular fitness and V02 max, particularly for time crunched runners who don’t have all day to dedicate to training.

6 comments:

SteveQ said...

The ACSM study used people who weren't already in good cardiovascular shape; I doubt it has any meaning for serious athletes.

josh z. said...

i like to think of the speed workouts as cross-training days in a way. it's entirely different than the usual "trotting" that comprises much of the rest of the week's workouts. i can feel it strenghtening/stretching other important leg muscles and i've experienced less injury since starting them. thanks for the interesting writing.

Trisha said...

Thanks for this timely post. I'm looking at ways to improve my speed. Could you describer your favorite high intensity workout?
- Trish

-OOJoe said...

Great post, Pam!

I'm a HUGE believer in speed; the fact that this is even debated, given the wealth of data to support it, is almost silly. But I think that, in the next 5 years in this sport, folks will figure out that speed is requisite, not only for top-end performance, but longevity and sustainability.

I've been reading some "historical" accounts of the top ultra guys from 30 years ago - Jim King, Jim Howard of WS; Bruce Fordyce of Comrades (who's a WS entrant for '13). They all did significant amounts of speed work as a foundation of their training. Only after that did they go specific to the demands of their race.

To paraphrase Bruce, "I knew that if I could run 3:00 kilometers in a workout, I could run 3:30 kilometers at the end of a race".

Pam said...

Steve- I agree that in comparing two super fit groups it probably wouldn't make a difference, but most of us are not at our peak fitness (or at least not for extended time) and so there is room for improvement. I am sure the differences would not be as great, but there may still be some advantage. To me, even if that means I only have to run 50 minutes with intervals to get the same benefit as an hour of plain running, I'll take it. I know I can feel pretty spent after just an hour on the track, but need 2-4 hours of a long road run to feel that way.

Trisha- thanks for the idea for another post. Check back soon!

Gary Gellin said...

Pam - Thanks for your astute and accurate observations. Here's another way to look at this. I race ~1x per month for ~5 hrs and my monthly training volume is about 50 hours. That's 10% of my running done at FULL GAS and perhaps 1% of my "training" done at that intensity. Would I (rhetorical question) be better off replacing one of my every-other-day longish runs in the hills with a flat speed session once a week? My feeling is that the added benefits would be a lot more subtle than the dramatic benefits of keeping weight down and getting lots of sleep and recovery. - Gary (OOJ's "silly" friend)