Add these workouts to your running routine for better speed, more fun.
A running speed workout might sound intimidating to a beginner runner. Yet, there’s no need to “sweat it” with the right approach. And, by right approach, it’s a matter of ensuring you don’t do too much, too soon. We will get into more specifics below, of course.
I once read, “to run faster, you have to run faster.” That likely sounds beyond obvious, but the message is that it’s difficult to become a faster runner if you always run at the same steady pace. To that end, here’s some benefits of speed workouts, even for beginner runners.
In addition to gaining speed, including speed workouts enables the following benefits for any runner, not just the beginner runner:
- Better form and running economy
- Stronger legs
- Stronger lungs (better aerobic capacity and VO2max)
- Improved endurance
- Less boredom
- Less injury
Less injury – say what? Given that running is a highly repetitive sport, you’re more apt to injury if you repeat the same workout/pace/distance each time. The change in pace and variety in workout enables you to work your muscles differently, and work different muscles.
Everything above sounds quite appealing, does it not? If so, you may wonder…
As a beginner runner, can I do speed workouts NOW?
While there isn’t a hard/fast rule, an important guide is that a beginner runner should have a few month’s base of injury free running before tackling speed workouts. For most runners, that would entail at least three months of running. If you tend to be injury prone (with other sports), a longer base of ~six months is a good idea.
You may feel some disappointment to read that, but remember a beginner runner already puts a lot of new stress on their body. Soft tissues like ligaments, muscles, and tendons need time to grow and get stronger. Better to let the body adapt, and form a solid running habit before additional stressors, like speed workouts, are in the mix.
Do I have to run on a track for speed workouts?
Definitely not, none of the workouts here require a track (although running on a track is fun, feels different than anywhere else). Interestingly enough, one of the best initial speed workouts for a beginner runner is a hill workout; more on that below.
Speed workouts can be done on a track, or any stretch of smooth, uninterrupted road or paved trail. Try to find an area where there is little/less car traffic. And, while trail running is great for many reasons, I don’t recommend it for most speed workouts.
How do I ensure I’m ready for the speed workout?
It’s always important to warm-up before a run, and especially so before speed workouts. Be sure to include at least a dynamic warm up routine, and at minimum run for 10 minutes before starting the workout.
Overkill? Hardly. Starting a speed workout without a proper warm up is a recipe for injury. Plus, to reap the most benefit, it’s best to have your muscles loose, and your heart rate elevated. Warm muscles, mobilized joints also ensure better form, too.
I think I’m ready, now what?
- Even, consistent pacing is best for your intervals. Do all that you can to avoid running your first portion/interval the fastest! If anything, it’s just the opposite. Ease into the first one or two “intervals” to bridge the transition from a warm-up to the workout. That also will make you less prone to an injury.
- Avoid running at top speed for most speed workouts. In most instances, it’s not necessary, and again, increases your odds of injury.
The RPE scale (rate of perceived exertion) is helpful in this case — even if this is a highly subjective scale. Your rate of perceived exertion is a subjective assessment of how physically and mentally difficult an exercise is for you.
Just like your pace and heart rate, RPE is another tool that reminds you to trust your body and not rely on high-tech devices. “Data, especially data in running, can be imperfect, which can negatively impact the course of a run,” says Megan Roche, M.D., an athlete, endurance coach, and clinical researcher at Stanford University.
In most instances, your fastest speed will be in the 7-8 range on a scale of 0-10. I like Strava’s descriptions of RPE below (note zero is nothing) that are also listed in the app:
- Easy (1-3): Can talk normally, breathing naturally, felt very comfortable
- Moderate (4-6): Can talk in short spurts, breathing more labored, within your comfort zone but working
- Hard (7-9): Can barely talk, breathing heavily, outside your comfort one
- Max effort (10): At your physical limit or past it, gasping for breath, couldn’t talk/could barely remember your name
Avoid the Trap of Undermining Your Recovery…
While the goal is to be consistent with the speed portion/intervals of your workout, you need to pay attention to the rest or recovery period. Many runners, myself included, fall into the trap of not running with enough effort (or inconsistent) on the ‘fast’ part, and running too fast on the recovery.
You’ll get less out of the workout if the paces start to blend together. Recover during recovery!
Speed Workouts ‘101’
Speed workouts include a warm-up and warm-down with the workout itself having both an effort interval, and a recovery interval. Think of the workout as the cream in the Oreo. 😉
Running Speed Workouts for the Beginner Runner
Short uphill repeats are a great beginner speed workout. Hill repeats build strength and speed since you are battling gravity running uphill (and resisting it on the downhill).
Find a hill that is moderately challenging, but not so much that it forces you to walk up it. Run with strong effort on the uphill for a short amount of time, and walk back, or jog lightly downhill to recover.
Sample Hill Workout:
- Run at conversation pace for 10-20 minutes followed by a few strides of 80-100 meters. Do 6-8 reps uphill at a duration of 1-2 minutes, with a jog/walk down the hill. Follow with a 10 minute cool down run.
Of course, you can alter the duration and number of reps. If you notice that your form is falling apart on the later reps, then you’ve done enough reps for that workout. Poor form on hills can lead to injury.
With stride, start at a conversation pace for 10-20 meters, increase speed/intensity for next 40-80 meters, then decelerate to CP again for the last few steps. Pause briefly to allow your heart rate to increase. Or, you can do a light jog, but ensure you allow enough time to recover.
These are fine to do on slight incline/decline, or flat terrain.
Sample Stride Workout:
- Run at conversation pace for 20-30 minutes followed by six strides of 80-100 meters. Note a 100 meters is .06 of a mile!
I know. It’s a funny word/name. It is a Swedish word meaning “speed play,” where the intervals can be structured, or more loose. It’s essentially bursts of faster running without necessarily exact/specific speed and rest intervals of a track workout.
Short fartlek intervals focus on running at a harder effort (versus a certain pace) for a short duration of time, with a recovery period in-between. Hard effort with fartlek is subjective. Just aim to run at an effort that feels noticeably faster than your normal conversation pace. For the recovery intervals, return to your normal easy effort (or walk if you use the run-walk method).
Sample Short Fartlek Workout:
- 10 minutes of conversation pace running; then 6-8 x 1 minute hard, 1-2 minutes recovery; 5- 10 minute warm-down
Conversely, you can be more loose with this and decide to run hard to the next light pole, then easy… picking different landmarks along the way to drive your intervals. Again, it means “at play,” so have some fun with it.