A need for speed
Try these speed sessions, designed by elite athlete and coach Shaun Dixon, to improve your fitness and get you running faster.
There’s no point pretending that speed sessions are easy. They’re not. They’re tough and rather unpleasant, but the long-term benefits far outweigh the short-term effort.
All elite runners will work on increasing basic speed in their training. Why? Because this type of session will help you become a more efficient runner. It improves the neural pathways (how your brain communicates with your muscles), which allows your muscles to contract quicker and harder, which results in more power output per stride and greater running efficiency.
Just as significantly, it will also get you used to dealing with lactic acid, which causes that burning sensation in your muscles and, over time, your body will be able to better tolerate and buffer lactic acid build-up, which is a vital element in being able to run faster for longer and sustaining that personal best-setting pace. Here are some speed session ideas for you to try to improve your running pace and become a better, faster runner.
1. Train faster
‘To run faster in a race, you need to run faster in training,’ says Dixon. ‘Short, fast interval sessions are hard but will make a huge difference to your basic speed. Intervals should last no longer than 90 seconds, and 30 to 60 seconds is best so you can maintain an intensity of around 85% of your maximum effort throughout the drill.
‘Your rest between each interval should be three to four times the length of the drill. That might sound like a lot but the goal here is to maximise the quality of each repetition and for that to happen you need sufficient rest in between them.
‘Starting with 10 reps of around 40 seconds is a good place to start, gradually increasing the number of reps and duration over time. If you start to slow down significantly during a drill then end the session. We only want quality reps that improve speed from this session. You will experience a significant lactic acid build-up through these drills, which is ultimately the aim of the session. The better you are at tolerating lactic acid the quicker you'll run. Make sure you are thoroughly warmed up before doing this session and stay focused on quality reps.’
2. Run strides
‘Running “strides” are a staple of elite runners and they are really easy to integrate into your training. You only need to do them once a week or even once a fortnight. After a short easy-pace run, find a nice flat uninterrupted path or pavement between 80 and 100 metres in length. Run fast and smooth for the entire length. You don’t need to go “eyeballs out”; aim for between 85% and 90% of your maximum effort whilst staying as focused and relaxed as possible.
‘The training benefit we are looking to develop with this drill is neuromuscular, which will train your brain to fire your leg muscles quicker and harder. If you’re fatigued through all-out effort your muscles won’t be able to fire as quickly as we want. Aim to run six to eight “reps” with a slow jog or walk back to your starting position after each one.’
3. Work on technique
One of the benefits of running strides is that they give you the opportunity to practise good running technique,’ says Dixon. ‘Good technique is vitally important to improving speed at all distances and is something you can work on during other training sessions.
‘Your posture should be standing tall by holding your hips high, and lean forward slightly from your toes. You should be able to draw a straight line through your ears, shoulders, and hips. You want to minimise lateral movement at your shoulders and hips, and minimise torso movement by dropping your shoulders and driving your arms backwards from the shoulder joint.
‘You also want to keep a high turnover of steps. Your goal is to spend less time in contact with the ground and prevent over-striding, because long, loping and heavy strides are very inefficient, whereas shorter and faster strides, with only a brief contact with the ground, are far better.’
4. Run up hills
‘Running up - and down - hills are the simplest form of speedwork session,’ says Dixon. ‘They're easy to plan, you don’t have to over-think it when you’re doing them and, whilst they hurt like hell, at least they are over quickly!
‘Uphill sessions are now very popular and are a great workout for the glutes, get your heart-rate high, and they challenge your body’s ability to cope with and process lactic acid, which is a key factor in improving speed. Find a steep hill, run up it for 30 to 45 seconds fast, then walk back down and repeat for six to 10 reps.’
5. Run down hills
‘Downhill sessions are the hidden gem of speed sessions,’ says Dixon. ‘Kenyan runners often use downhill sessions to improve foot turnover, because you have to keep your feet moving fast to prevent the heavy jarring of your joints.
‘Find a hill with a slight incline. At the top stand tall and lean forward with the hill. Really focus on picking up your heels quickly and employing short fast steps, making contact with the ground soft, light and fast. Try six to 10 reps of 30 seconds going downhill, jogging back up to the top after each one.’