Speed development and speed work are two terms which are often used interchangeably but mean something very different. Here we are talking about your top end sprinting speed – your max velocity. Contrary to what most people think, speed development is actually essential for recruiting muscle fibres in your leg muscles, developing neuromuscular coordination and increasing leg speed efficiency, all of which can contribute to faster times despite running far slower than your max velocity in a race. This goes for marathoners as well!

Whilst many long distance runners focus on trying to hit a set number of weekly miles in their training, little thought ever goes into what top speed they can reach. Since many endurance athletes racing distances in the half marathon and above never go back down to the ‘fundamentals’ of running, they can lose the ability to generate explosive amounts of power in muscular contractions which may result in a decline of running efficiency, economy and consequently a weaker running form over time.

Running at max velocity requires a strong core. At its essence, speed development workouts are the type of workouts you see sprinters doing on the track.

Speed Development vs Traditional Speed Work

Speed development is about trying to hit your top speed. These workouts are aimed at improving your acceleration, maximal velocity and speed-endurance (surprised?). To hit these targets, this means you’re generally running reps of less than 100m – run much longer and it becomes very difficult to run at max velocity. To simplify things, let’s define these three areas that speed development workouts are focused at:

Acceleration: How fast you can reach top speed from a position of rest. This is a measure of power.

Maximal Velocity: Your top speed – 100% flat out. Simples. Many Olympic sprinters reach this speed around 50-60m into their 100m sprint.

Speed-Endurance: How long you can hold your top speed before decelerating. For most runners, this is about 40m.

Sprinting or speed development will increase the range of speed that is available to you. This will help you to feel more comfortable during the faster paces of races from 800m to 3000m.

Speed development will also force and stimulate the production of more fast twitch muscle fibres in your legs. This will give you a larger supply of fast twitch muscle fibres to call upon which will allow you to sprint faster at the end of a race.

One thing to note here is that I highly doubt Sir Mo Farah certainly neglects his speed development work. Why? Because he holds only the 16th fastest time over 10,000m and 31st fastest time over 5,000m on track (as of 24th August 2017) yet he has managed to win 10 Olympic or world gold medals! Clearly, in tactical races, he is able to deliver a top speed that almost no one can match in the last 400m in order to come home in 1st place!

Another benefit of speed development is increased running economy where you have extra muscle fibres that you can use when you’re tired or fatigued during training or racing.

Speed development work is alactic which means you don’t use oxygen to release energy and don’t even produce lactic acid provided that the duration of the intervals is short enough (usually no longer than 100m). The alactic energy system can provide energy for about 10 seconds of intense exercise.

Traditional speed work where you run 400m repeats up to a mile repeats is focused on increasing the anaerobic threshold and improving VO₂ max. This is why your lungs are often gasping for oxygen – because of the duration and effort of the repeats combined with a minimal period of rest.

Adding Speed Development to your Training

Despite the very low volume speed development work has, it is highly stressful on your neuromuscular system due to its high neuromuscular component. It challenges the communication pathways between the brain and the muscles hence why such a long period of recovery is required (typically between 2 – 4 minutes).

For this reason, it’s best to add speed development work at the beginning of a training session when you are relatively ‘fresh’.

Examples of speed development workouts include:

  • 6 x 8 second hill sprints (1:30 – 2 minute recovery)
  • 8 x 30m sprints (3 minute walk/standing recovery)
  • 6 x 20m sprints (2 – 2:30 minute walk/standing recovery)

You could add speed development to your training by dedicating a 4 – 6 week block of training to doing speed development workouts 2-3 times a week. Another alternative is to add is as part of your weekly training in order to build power, efficiency and speed!

How much speed development work do you do? Let me know down below!

Further reading – Speed Development: How to Develop True Speed