SPEED – The Redheaded Step child of Endurance Training

SPEED!!! We all want it, we all need it, but, most  of us are scared of it! So if it’s speed we seek, why are many so timid about incorporating it into their programs?

A good friend of mine, who is an elite marathoner, often texts me in regards to their daily and weekly workouts. We discuss the details of the workouts, how they went, how they will progress, based on what their coach is giving them week to week, month to month, etc.

This particular individual is an endurance machine in regards to training. Meaning, this person seems to handle, prefer and see the greatest results from high volumes of modest intensity. Based on past training, this individual seems to struggle the most with “speed work” and often finds their body rejecting it by way of tweaks here, nagging niggles or injury there. Often times, these little injuries, be them minor or major, seem to stem from post speed work sessions. So, naturally, it seems the culprit is SPEED!! But, is it?

For some time now, I have been tinkering with the “perfect blend” of components to comprise my endurance specific programming. It’s like a heirloom recipe in that, Grandma always seemed to make it the best. But why? Too often, the endurance game comes down to plain and simple, black and white. It’s either you sleep in “high mileage” camp or you sleep in the “low mileage, high intensity” camp. Very few people cross over and go behind enemy lines.

But what if you could have both? What if you could use one to better the other and vice versa? Maybe your “pinch” of oregano is substantially more or substantially less than Grandma’s “pinch”.

In my opinion, I think speed work gets a bad rap in that, most are doing it wrong (or, doing it in the wrong doses at the wrong time). As most people in the endurance world know, ones respiratory and cardio system(s) seems to progress and adapt at a much quicker rate than that of their musculoskeletal system. Because of this, our muscles, joints, bones and tendons, all respond and adapt at a much slower rate and take some significant time to catch up with the other systems at work. Because most endurance athletes have been doing the long, slow aerobic conditioning for some time (building a base), their bodies can handle these intensities for long periods of time and everything has adapted at a somewhat even rate. NOW, start throwing in speed work and, BOOM!! They get injured and, of course they blame speed work for this. This is where I believe it comes down to HOW one does speed work.

Let’s take a marathon training plan, particularly for those individuals who come from no prior running background (those who were not former track runners or 5k-10k specialists). So, traditionally, it’s not uncommon to see a “speed” workout that consists of 3×1 mile at 5k pace or, 12x400m at 5k or faster. Now, if you notice, each of those examples have 3 miles worth of “speed” with some corresponding rest interval between each. Even with many “beginner” or “intermediate” programs that you can find all over the internet, you’ll see regular bouts of 400 meters or more at 5k pace.

Now, what’s the problem with this? Well, lets get back to that recipe! So, what happens if I go to sprinkle a bit of salt in my sauce and the top comes off? Essentially, I am screwed! You can’t un-mix the damage and you can’t just take a bit of the salt out. Same goes with your training.

You’ve gotta sprinkle that speed in, starting in much smaller doses. A pinch here and a pinch there, rather than a cup here and a cup there. If my 3×1 mile at 5k pace = 6:00 per mile pace, then perhaps, repeats up to a mile in length are far to great to start with, especially if you haven’t been doing much of those paces regularly. Even the shorter distances  of 12x400m could be too much. Not in the sense of total volume (3 miles) but, in the individual repeats of 400m.

Envision these typical speed sessions. How often have you started a 12×400 workout, to get comfortably through the first 4-6, only to start fading (be it pace, form or, both) over the last 4-6? Or, in the same workout, how comfortable has it been to hit your paces for the first 200m of the 400, only to struggle and strain over the last 100-200 meters?

In both scenarios, the same thing is happening. You are starting to push the envelope in regards to your current aerobic threshold. Your turnover and efficiency at those speeds cannot quite match the duration in which you wish to run them. Put another way, the musculoskeletal system cannot keep up with the respiratory and cardio systems for that length of time/distance.

So, how do you get this volume at intensity, without sacrificing form and quickly deteriorating the current efficiency of your musculoskeletal system? You shorten the duration/distance!

Instead of say 12×400 at 6:00 pace with 1:00 rest, how about 36×30 seconds with 30 seconds rest? If your math skills aren’t so great, both workouts allow for 3 miles total at 6:00 pace.

So, what’s the difference between these two workouts? Well, clearly the duration/distance but, there is more than that. In the 36×30 second workout, you are able to get up to speed and hold it over a much shorter duration, which means that the heart rate will not climb nearly as high as if you were to extend that duration by 2 fold so that it’s 1:30 as in the 12×400 workout. Over the longer distances/durations, your body starts to struggle in clearing the acidic buildup that your body is creating. Though your cardio and lungs might have no problem handling this pace for what amounts to a “mere” 90 seconds, your muscles, tendons and joints might not be able to efficiently keep up. As you continue to compile the effects of a deteriorating form and progressive fatigue, your muscles are now forced to continue this process in an inefficient manner, ultimately resulting in a strained and broken gait, which over time, will no doubt lead to a strain or other injury.

Now, with the example of 36×30 seconds, the body can keep up with the gradual and minimal increase in acidic buildup, as well as maintain efficient form with a smooth and relaxed gait. This can be best observed using a heart rate monitor and can be a two fold benefit in regards to what you are trying to accomplish with these workouts.

If you are a traditionalist in regards to the long slow distance and or low end aerobic conditioning, then you are likely familiar with Dr. Phil Maffetone. If you aren’t familiar with Maffetone, check out this link to get an idea of his methods. http://philmaffetone.com/180-formula

Now, I personally think the Maffetone method is 100% effective and used it myself to take my MAF (max aerobic function) pace from 8:50 per mile, down to 6:20 per mile in less than 6 months.

The problem with the Maffetone method is that, it’s nearly impossible to get a runner to subscribe to it. Most athletes cannot be convinced of it’s effectiveness and therefore, will NEVER follow the plan 100% as it is intended. So, how do you get a stubborn runner to stay within the confines of Maffetone’s method, all the while allowing them to get in their intensity and “speed”? Easy, you manipulate the duration.

For me, my current MAF heart rate is 150-155. Meaning, to get the best benefit for aerobic development, I need to, according to Maffetone, stay AT or BELOW this range for all of my training (over a certain phase/block/cycle). So, what happens if I go out and run a mile at 5:00 pace? Well, by about 600 meters, I am well above 160bpm. Meaning, I have far exceeded my MAF number of 150-155. So, how do I get in my speed work, while maintaining my MAF or below? Simple, I throw on my heart rate monitor and manipulate the duration of the WORK vs. RECOVERY to allow my heart rate to stay within the set parameters.

I am going to share with you a recent workout that allowed me to stay within my MAF parameters, while getting good volume of “time at pace” during the workout. Keep in mind, I have built up to this workout and started with shorter durations of WORK and longer durations of RECOVERY. Over several months time, this is where I am currently for this workout.

15×30 seconds at pace with 30 second recovery, 15×1:00 at pace, with 1:00 recovery, 15×30 seconds at pace with 30 second recovery. Total time at pace = 30:00 (5-6 miles depending on what race pace I am targeting). The last time I did this workout, my average heart rate for the total workout (60:00 with warmup and cooldown) was 147bpm with a max peak spike of 157bpm.

So, based on the stats of this workout, I was able to get 1 hour of “aerobic conditioning” at or below my MAF, while still being able to get in plenty of volume at both aerobic and anaerobic thresholds. As my fitness improves, I will either increase speed and maintain the same recovery, tweak the volume/duration, and or maintain the same speed and decrease recovery, until I can effectively and efficiently maintain the desired pace for the chosen race distance.

CONCLUSION: Your training is a recipe and can take years to perfect. Just as aerobic conditioning is paramount for endurance training, so is speed and threshold work. To reap the greatest benefits and to reach your max potential, it takes balance and periodization. Rather than denounce speed, find the most effective way to include it in your training, while minimizing the risk of injury or overtraining. The link below touches in greater detail/explanation of how to incorporate speed into “short bursts” throughout your training.


So, stay focused, train smart and, as always, have fun in what you are doing 🙂 #DWEP

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