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The Need for Speed


This article isn’t an advocacy for desiring amphetamines, or becoming a sprinter (I promise - but see Addendum). It’s about your running training and the proposition that whatever your running goals are, you need speed work in your weekly training programme.


If you have run for more than eight weeks, I.e. 99% of the Club Members, you can and should introduce interval sessions into your running plan.


Why?

Mile and 1500m world record holder, Faith Kipyegon of Kenya, had a good 2023


Whatever your running goal is, it’s much easier to achieve if you can train consistently, i.e. avoid injury (see my previous Blog : Keep Running). Many of us set ourselves a goal, get a good plan and are part way into it, when we get a niggle. Whatever the cause : overload (whether "too much too soon” or inadequate recovery between sessions or “I’ll just run it off”),

or a technique deficiency that leads to a chronic problem, most of us know, in hindsight, that it was preventable.


Where some of us go wrong, is that we believe running is all we need to do to be able to run, and to run at a steady pace.  In reality, this is a bad strategy, as any defects in our technique or ‘structural’ weaknesses persist and the body will try to compensate, often resulting in overload somewhere else. So what should we do?


We should run fast and here’s why.

(SImon Hansen, left, sprinter from Denmark, I follow his very informative reels on Instagram)

When we run faster, for most of us this is achieved by an increase in stride length. Generally, stride frequency doesn’t increase until we’re nearly flat out. What does this require from our bodies? An increased stride length requires a greater range of mobility and strength. As a longer stride means we cover more ground when in the air, we need to apply and absorb more force. This requires stronger muscles and tendons. At first our bodies are limited in how much extra force they can apply and absorb, but the body adapts to the stimuli, so next time it will be stronger. There may be some DOMS (delayed onset of muscle soreness) but this will disappear in less than 72 hours. The other aspect of running faster is that our technique will be tested more and should reveal deficits more clearly. This will enable us to better self-diagnose (although having access to a coach is best), and therefore work on correcting it, usually through some specific strengthening regime for the deficiency. (SImon Hansen, sprinter from Denmark, left - i follow his very informative reels on Instagram)


I have heard some runners say that they don’t do speed work because they’re worried about getting an injury. Undoubtedly, doing speed work places a greater stress on the body and if it’s not prepared, we’ll get a strain. That’s why it is essential to do a proper warm-up for speed work - not a two lap jog, but including proper mobilisation of the major muscle groups, a so-called RAMP warm-up. All our coaches are taught how to lead a proper RAMP warm-up. In my opinion, not doing speedwork just lets our body become progressively weaker, increasing the risk of injury.


You may think, "I’m planning on running a marathon or even further, I don’t need to do speedwork". Unfortunately, again, this is the wrong strategy and it’s not just me saying that.


Recently, I interacted (by email) with Liam Butterworth, otherwise known as the “Online running coach”. I have received emails from Liam for quite a while and the reason I do so, is because he talks sense about running and the things that influence it.


He was offering personalised training programmes and although he couldn’t help me - he was only doing endurance runners - he did share some interesting information. He had some testimonials for how his programmes have benefited runners. In most cases, improvements were achieved not by increasing mileage, but sometimes reducing it, but in the cases cited, the introduction of weekly intervals (speed) sessions was a common factor, whether that was runners doing Parkrun or marathons.


When we get injured, the first action is usually to stop training. When you are injured, and don’t train your muscles (and tendons) weaken, so you are at greater risk of injury if you apply the same load. What’s most important about any rehab plan is that it includes strengthening the body to enable it to take the same load and higher so it won’t fail once you get back to your normal running. If you don’t you’ll either get injured or get progressively slower. Effectively you have to build up the strength of body by applying greater loads or enabling it to cope with greater loads. There are a couple of ways of doing this : through running and through supplementary exercises. The former has a risk, as the load has to be managed to only just exceed what is comfortable to stimulate training adaptation but not too much else the injury recurs. Supplementary exercises take many forms depending on what you are strengthening, recognising the symptom and cause may be in different places. Best to get proper advice, but there are some typical areas that endurance runners get problems : feet and ankles (Achilles). These can be strengthened through exercises that target the soleus in particular, e.g. bent leg calf raises, best done singly with additional load, if you manage it. Use of ice packs is also recommended as increased blood flow helps recovery and reduce inflammation, especially for the Achilles which is the thickest tendon in the body and has low capillarisation and so blood flow anyway.


One thing to note about strength exercises, whether with additional load of just bodyweight, is that they build what I call “slow strength”, which is good at underpinning the body, but when we run we apply a force at speed, so we need to train our bodies accordingly, I.e. bridge the gap between resistance training and running,


This is what plyometrics are good at. “Plyos” could be described as jumping about. For endurance running, we only need to do extensive, not intensive plyos : activities such as skipping, skips, hops, jumps. These are best done single legged, as we’re not kangaroos, and doing single leg plyometric exercises is good for balance, in addition to building strength and resilience to withstand the increased braking and push off forces when our feet make contact with the ground.


I started this part, talking about getting injured and how to recover. Of course, doing the above resistance and plyometrics exercises reduces the risk of injury, in the first place, and provide the base for performing intervals at faster than your race pace.



The great Jack Daniels stated there’s only two paces we should run at, slow steady (Zone 2 HR) and around race pace. There’s no value in doing anything between. We run at the slow pace for our long runs. We run at around race pace in two ways : tempo runs where we run continuously at just below race pace; and by doing intervals where we can run faster than race pace, as we get rests (recoveries) between the less than 5 minute efforts.


This sounds all very good in theory, but is there any practicable evidence that it works?


Well, here’s a couple of examples from experienced Club runners.



Most of you will know Aaron Willis, a very good Club runner over the country and on the roads. He also helps with the Juniors' sessions, having done a Coaching qualification. During the summer training sessions in 2020, Triathlon coach Andy Gardner and I were chatting about Aaron’s rather ragged running technique: quite a lot of upper body movement. Andy determined that the cause of this was that Aaron’s core was not strong enough to stabilise his body when he was running at speed, so his upper body was compensating. Andy pointed this out to him, and Aaron did do something about this, strengthening his core, so now when he runs (and he’s going quicker than before) his technique is much smoother, so is more efficient and he has a lower risk of injury.


The other Club member is Wendy Nicholls, who is one of the best women runners the Club has ever had, representing GB, and winning countless races over the years. I asked Wendy for her views on intervals training.


I find that including weekly interval training builds my fitness quicker than steady running. It's a good way of practising your target race pace. As you get stronger you can reduce the recovery time between the reps. I also like to include intervals during a long run.

Don't skip on strength & mobility work...2 to 3 sessions a week, targeting core, glutes, hamstrings & hip flexor. I've found the gym work has been hugely beneficial in my running during the past year...& strength work is even more important now that I'm in my 50s. I wish I'd included strength work years ago when I was running at my peak.


NB the importance of a proper warm-up (again from Wendy)

The last xc race made my left hip sore. I didn't do my usual warm-up & didn't do the activation exercises to fire my glutes etc up. Ran awful & was so sore afterwards. Hopefully resting from running & lots of gym strength work will settle them down.


I have seen many more Strava posts by club members that include gym sessions and/or Personal Trainer sessions than in the past. So, many members already realise the importance of having a solid base upon which to build their running training. But don't these other activities take away from the running training? After all, the best training for running is running (the Principle of Specificity). Yes that’s true, but from our mid-twenties we lose muscle mass and strength, so mitigating that is important. Also, research has shown that  activity diversity is really important for older runners (~40% Club members).


So if you like New Year’s resolutions, make one to do speed sessions, e.g. Tuesday evening coached Club sessions, and supplement them with resistance training and extensive plyometrics. NB if you cannot make Tuesdays, but could do a Wednesday evening, speak to me, as we do have some parents who train with the Teens.


Wishing you a great and faster 2024.


Dorian



Addendum

These are Mike Trees words (not mine). Mike is a seven times Masters World Champion at triathlon, including holding the British Ironman record at 8:52…

“I believe all runners should sprint. It should be a component of any well constructed program, and should not be limited to sprinters only.

Ten reasons why:

1. Sprinting is good for your brain health and emotional health:

  • It can decrease depression and anxiety

  • Lower stress

  • Increase the feeling of happiness

2. Sprinting will improve your reaction time

3. Sprints help with speed. Yep this one is a no-brainer

4. Sprinting us great for heart health because it gets the heart pumping fast, but with ample time for rest and recovery

5. Sprinting has been linked wit endurance gains because it trains the body to utilise more energy faster

6. Sprinting increases calorie burn. This is related to point 5. But the calories keep burning at a higher rate even after you stop

7. Sprinting builds muscle, as well as strength, power, speed and endurance

8. Sprinting has been linked with helping diabetes, by improving blood sugar levels and insulin sensitivity

9. Sprints work with any fitness routine. Adding in a few sprints to a session is relatively easy for runners

10. Sprinting offers a fun way to spice up your training, and may stop you getting bored from the same old routine.”


NB - if you are intending on including sprints in your training, please ensure you really warm up well. I warm up anything from 15 minutes to 45 minutes, depending on how fast I intend to sprint.


Related articles


Runners World article, May 24, 2018 : "10 Health Benefits of Speed Training That Go Beyond Faster Times"


"Stride length in distance running: velocity, body dimensions, and added mass effects", by Peter Cavanagh and Rodger Kram, published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise · September, 1989


"Ageing and running" by run3d.co.uk


"Biomechanical and Skeletal Muscle Determinants of Maximum Running Speed with Aging", by MARKO T. KORHONEN1,5, ANTTI A. MERO2, MARKKU ALE ́ N1,6, SARIANNA SIPILA ̈ 1,5, KEIJO HA ̈ KKINEN2, TUOMAS LIIKAVAINIO3, JUKKA T. VIITASALO4, MARKO T. HAVERINEN2,7, and HARRI SUOMINEN. Published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise · May 2009

NB - although this paper is about sprinting, the physics and physiology apply to endurance runners.


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