By Mike Smith
A question I get many times from the runners I interact with is “What place does speedwork have in training for a 26 mile race, Mike?” The question is a good one; in a race so far, wouldn’t you want to just get good at running for a long time? Why would anyone need to practice running fast? It turns out that faster workouts don’t only have to be performed because you want to be a sprinter. These types of workouts can play an important part in preparing for longer races as well.
Speedwork for marathoners has been highlighted in the training of world-class runners since the 1960’s. When studying the training of these athletes there is great variation in this type of work; how long, how far, how much, the recovery, on the track, on the road, and when in the training cycle this falls. The one common aspect of all this work, and the most important aspect at that, is that the pace is faster than the goal pace of the race these athletes are preparing for.
I like the starting point for this explanation to be that the best way to run a marathon, no matter how fast, is with good pacing. When you target a goal race pace, you want to train to become as comfortable at that pace as possible. One obvious way to do that is to practice that goal race pace during certain workouts or long runs. Another way is to spend some time at paces even faster than that goal pace. This is where speedwork for marathon training comes into play.
The largest benefits to running shorter, faster workouts while getting ready for a big race is to make you more efficient at that pace which you hope to maintain for 3, 4, or 5 hours through the improvement in running economy, or how efficiently you use oxygen at a particular pace. Many people are surprised that these benefits can be derived by only slight increases in pace, not necessarily by “sprinting”. For example, threshold running, or tempo runs, tend to be only slightly faster than marathon goal pace, however can make a great difference in how comfortable that race pace feels. Even adding strides, or quick accelerations, to the end of a run can have this effect.
Depending on your running background, sometimes a speed workout can feel unnatural to a distance runner. Because you aren’t used to this type of running, arms and legs may feel out of sync, breathing is labored, and pacing can be all over the place. This is OK, remember, most of us aren’t trying to become short distance speedsters, these workouts are done with our longer races in mind and their benefits can be derived without the workouts being perfect. Also keep in mind, like any new piece of training, it takes time to adapt, don’t seek perfection from the get go!
Once you do get used to these faster workouts, you’ll find they are a lot of fun. With the marathon being such an aerobic race, most of the preparation is long hours and mile after mile of slower running. These workouts give you a chance to create some turnover in your legs and break out of the drudgery of running lots of miles.
At the Run SMART Project, we recommend working with a coach who can help design these workouts with you specifically in mind, and also impart the knowledge you’ll need to do them safely and effectively. Once you’re off the ground, you’ll find speedwork to be an important piece of your preparations for long distance races!