Speed is essential whether you are a sprinter or a long distance runner and is often the most important variable in running. Even if you are a long distance runner, by improving your basic speed, you’ll be able to run faster over shorter (and longer) distances. In this case, ‘speed’ is the maximal velocity or top speed you can sustain, which Olympic class sprinters can often only maintain for no longer than 30 – 40m.

Speed Development

Since this is how we are defining ‘speed’, workouts a typical long distance runner might do like mile or 400m repeats don’t focus on speed development – they are race pace specific workouts. They are targeted at increasing your VO₂ max by having you run hard at a high intensity with little rest before running hard again. Speed development is focused on improving running economy (how efficiently your body uses oxygen at a set pace), explosive power and form. In fact, speed is the first ability to deteriorate as you age, so if you wish to run fast late on, it is important you do not neglect speed development.

Speed at its Core

In its finest form, speed is the coordination between all the muscle fibres involved in running and the nervous system. The faster these can work in conjunction with one another, the faster you can run. By doing speed development and doing alactic workouts you will further develop the ability to use a greater amount of muscle fibres available (in order to run by contracting and producing force) to run faster. The alactic system can only supply energy for around 10 seconds worth of muscle contractions for maximal effort.

Alactic workouts are bursts of exercise so short that your body uses no oxygen and no lactic acid is produced. Think about the start of a race when the first 100m – 200m feels effortless. It is those muscle fibres you are trying to recruit for speed development.

Speed Development and Muscle Fibre Recruitment

Your body has the option to recruit 3 types of muscle fibres:

  • Type 1 (slow twitch, good for endurance athletes as they are highly resistant to fatigue, but produce less force)
  • Type 2a (oxidative glycolytic, good for middle distance events such as 800m and 1500m)
  • Type 2b (fast glycolytic or fast twitch, useful for sprinters as they produce the most force, but are the least resistant to fatigue)

Speed development workouts train the body to recruit more type 2b muscle fibres, allowing for more powerful muscular contractions, increasing power without increasing effort. It also helps to improve the efficiency of the neuromuscular system, the communication system between your brain and your muscles. This improvement increases the speed of the signals sent to the muscles and contributes to the greater activation of muscle fibres to produce more power. By just having these muscle fibres available to contract means you have the potential to produce more force to run faster for longer, helping you reach a higher speed over a range of distances.

Speed Development Workouts

The most important thing about speed development workouts is not to neglect the rest period. It takes at least 2 – 3 minutes to fully recover from a 50m sprint. Don’t try and shorten the recovery – if anything give yourself longer than you need in order to perform at your maximum speed potential again.

Here are some sample speed development workouts you can try out:

Workout 1: 150m Repeats

The concept behind these 150m repeats is fairly simple. For the first 50m, you accelerate up to around 90% speed. This is to help reduce risk of injury. The middle 50m, you want to run as fast as you can. Make it as fast as you’ve ever been and then go even faster. For the last 50m, just ‘cruise’ and begin to relax your stride ever so slightly.

The focus of this workout is the middle 50m of the repeat. As long as that part is flat out, with hopefully good running form then that is all that really matters. Start off with 4 reps of 150m and jog or walk 250m – just make sure you have at least 2 – 3 minutes recovery before starting the next rep.

Once you’ve gotten accustomed to this workout, you can do up to 8 reps of 150m.

Workout 2: Max 30m Accelerations + 120m Repeats

The idea behind this workout is to work on activating every single muscle fibre you can to generate the power you need to propel you over 30m as quickly as possible.

Make sure you are fully warmed up before attempting this!

Focus on running 30m flat out and make sure you’re focused and try to exert every ounce of force you can on the ground. The recovery is 3 minutes walking. Yes, minutes, walking.

Running 30m flat out is metabolically fueled by the phosphocreatine system (aka the anaerobic alactic system) which works during the first 10 seconds of muscular contraction. 3 minutes of walking allows for sufficient recovery to almost fully replenish all the ATP (adenosinetriphosphate) required for the next 30m sprint.

Repeat the 30m accelerations 2 – 3 times and then move onto the 120m repeats.

Run 3 – 4 times 120m at a fast pace. Not flat out, but at a fast speed which feels ‘fun’ to run at and is maintainable without exerting yourself 100%, say about 85 – 95%.

The purpose of these are to realise how fast you can run comfortably over 120m and to hopefully put this into practice during a race on the home straight of the track or perhaps to use it to surge to the front of the pack in a race.

Recovery

These speed development workouts can be rather taxing on the body, so make sure the next day you either rest, do a recovery run or do say, a long run if you must as part of your training – it all depends on how you feel.

Just avoid doing any VO₂ max workouts or any running at a high speed or intensity as this will hamper your recovery in which you reap the benefits of your training.

Is speed development a part of your training? Let me know down below!