Speed Training 101: How to Improve Your Top End Running Speed

During college workouts when my existence shrank into a singularity of suffering and time stalled, I remember laughing at the sprinters. You call THAT a speed workout?!

Speed Training Sprint Development

But it was – and I didn’t know what I was talking about.

What I saw was a lot of walking. They’d sprint for a second or two… maybe 5 whole seconds… and then walk around for a few minutes.

Meanwhile, my teammates and I were suffering through fives miles worth of intervals at a cruel “best effort” pace! Our heart rate barely got under 140 before we took off on the next repetition.

But I just didn’t understand speed training (also known as speed development) because I wasn’t a sprinter.

After a fascinating conversation with Mike Young, I got turned on to these types of workouts.

They have the potential to give you a lot of benefits:

  • Improved running speed (your max, “top end” speed will be increased)
  • Higher running economy (you’ll be more efficient and use less energy at the same speeds)
  • Better neuromuscular coordination (the communication pathways between your brain and muscles)
  • Increased muscle strength

That last one is important: sprinting can help you get stronger if done appropriately.

Just like a squat makes you recruit a lot of muscle fibers in a strong contraction, running at top speed does exactly the same thing. The mechanism is different but the effect is very similar.

Just like the NFL advises many types of training strategies to increase speed, we must also look for different ways to get faster.

Lifting weights, running high mileage, drills, and even sprint workouts will all help increase your overall speed.

But how is it best implemented in your training program?

What is Speed Training?

Most runners call any fast workout a “speed workout.” But technically, it’s not really speed training. Sorry, a tempo workout, fartlek, or track session is not actually a “speed workout.”

It sounds like semantics, but let’s get our terms right so we can have the same conversation.

Speed training is really the development of your maximum speed in several different ways:

Acceleration is how quickly you can go from a position of rest to maximal velocity. In other words, it’s how fast you can get to top speed from a standing position. It’s a good measure of power.

Maximal velocity is your top speed – the absolute fastest that you can run. If you try to sprint at 100% effort and reach your “top-end” speed, then you’re at maximal velocity.

Speed-endurance is how long you can hold your maximal velocity before slowing down. Most runners can only maintain their top-end speed for about 40 meters (this is normal!).

These aspects of speed aren’t typically addressed by distance runners – but a small amount of training can give you a lot of benefit.

The purpose of any speed development session is to improve one of these three metrics so don’t worry about lactate threshold, VO2 Max, aerobic capacity, or anything like that.

Instead, the goal is power, neuromuscular coordination, athleticism, and improving economy.

Want to race faster? Run sprint workouts! <– Click here to tweet this quote!

Who is Ready For Speed Workouts?

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If you’re thinking about attempting a speed training session (like the one I demonstrate below), it’s important to make sure you’re ready so you don’t hurt yourself.

First, ensure you hav a basic level of strength before you start a formal speed training session. If you haven’t been getting strong for 2-3 months, you’re simply not ready for these sprints just yet.

Start here but ideally, you’ll also have spent some time lifting at the gym to ensure your connective tissues are ready for the impact forces of sprinting at this effort.

You should also be comfortable running strides, which are accelerations that work up to about 95-98% of maximum speed:

Once you’re comfortable running strides and lifting weights, you’re ready to run as fast as possible during a speed development workout.

But is it still appropriate for the event you’re training for?

Sprints like these are more important for events like the 10,000m or shorter, though you will get benefits no matter what race distance you’ll be racing.

When Should You Run Sprints?

Depending on the type of runner and what goals you might have, there are three times when you might run a speed session.

The Beginner

If you’re a relatively new runner or a beginner, you should replace a regularly scheduled workout with a speed training session. Jenny Hadfield has a nice primer on the basics of sprinting here.

The stress of sprinting at maximum speed is high – as is the injury risk – so we don’t want to stack this stress on top of your other workouts.

It’s best to take a more conservative route and replace a more traditional workout with speed development.

The Intermediate Runner

Most runners will fall into the category of being an intermediate runner:

  • Weekly mileage in the 30+ miles range
  • A variety of race distances have been completed
  • Experience with many types of workouts

These runners can add a small amount of speed training to the end of a relatively easy workout or replace part of their regularly scheduled workout with speed training.

For example, let’s say you have a 5-mile tempo run planned. Instead of that 5mi tempo run, cut it to 3 miles and run a series of sprints like I demonstrate below.

The Advanced Runner

If you’re a more advanced runner who has more experience with a variety of workouts (including sprints), you can be more aggressive. Sprints can be scheduled 1-2 days before your scheduled workout.

Since the volume of speed training is always very low (especially for distance runners) you won’t need too much recovery.

And the sprints will actually improve your performance in the later workout due to higher muscle tension!

No matter if you’re a beginner or an advanced runner, you won’t need too many speed development workouts during your training cycle: once every 10-14 days is sufficient.

Do more speed training sessions and you’ll likely ignore the more fundamental workouts like tempo runs and race-specific repetitions.

And if you run less speed work, you won’t be able to progress much because they’re spaced too far apart.

Speed Workout Demonstration

I think it’s important to have a visual demonstration of a speed training session – to show you the recovery, effort, and distances used.

So I went to the track and recorded a sprint workout: 4 x 20m at maximum effort with a 1:30 – 2:00 walk recovery.

Check out the video below:

A few important reminders about speed training and this workout in particular:

  • Not sure how to use a track? Use our outdoor track infographic.
  • There’s a good chance I was off a little bit with the track markings. Don’t be a slave to perfection!
  • Err on the cautious side when it comes to the recovery interval. If you think you need the full two minutes, then take it.
  • I used a 3-4 stride run-up to the start/finish line since endurance runners will never begin a race in starting blocks

What you won’t see in this video is the extensive warm-up that I did before I started sprinting:

I recently shared this photo on Instagram about the structure of a workout. You’ll see that you have to work up to a hard effort by gradually warming up through a variety of strategies.

Speed training is no different! In fact, it’s even more important to warm up thoroughly before sprinting at maximum effort.

For best results (and the least injury risk possible), make sure you don’t skip the critical warm-up phase of the workout.

Advanced Speed Development

The speed workout I demonstrated above – 4x20m – is a relatively easy session. There are ways that you can make it more complex and challenging.

Jay Johnson has a demonstration of a more difficult speed training workout:

This workout has a higher volume of work and at varying speeds (Jay uses a percentage of max effort to assign speeds).

You’ll notice that within the workout, there’s progression to the maximum effort. Sprinting on tired legs is an advanced strategy, particularly when that pre-sprint work is already quite fast.

A workout of this difficulty is best saved for highly advanced runners or intermediate/advanced runners who are training for middle distances like the mile or 1,500m.

But wait!

Speed training is not the only way to get faster. A safer, though less specific, way to increase your top end speed is through explosive weight lifting.

We’ll be diving into strength training for runners in more detail next month, but expect:

  • The structure of the workouts – exercises, recovery, and progressions
  • Specialized Physical Preparation – the runner-specific, bodyweight portion of strength work
  • How and when to use plyometrics for more explosive power

Runners on my email list will be the first to hear about the new coaching material so sign up here before you miss anything.

A Final Word on Speed Training

It’s helpful to think of speed development as the “cherry” on top of your training sundae. It’s the final finishing touch or the icing on the cake.

Speed work is not fundamental to the success of distance runner so it should only be incorporated into your training once you have:

If you overemphasize speed training, you’ll ignore the more important endurance-oriented workouts. And that means you won’t be as fast of a runner.

But a small dose of sprints in your training can give your power, strength, and efficiency to set your next personal best.

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