Why and How to Integrate Speed Training Into Marathon Training

I’m 46 years old, training for my 12th marathon, the 2010 Boston Marathon, to be held on April 19,  following a 16-week training schedule. Since I spend a lot of time nursing my back, hip and foot aches and pains, I’m not sure how many more  of these races I have left in me. But, I’ll give it my best shot, and if I qualify for Boston again, I’m sure I’ll trudge through another cold winter. Follow me as I put one foot in front of the other.

Today’s post is inspired by a question I just got from one of my friends via email:

Can you help me with the strategy behind sprints and running?  I’m trying to figure out the best way to do them…I have really just come out with my own technique.  What have you read about this and the most effective strategy?  I just don’t like sprints so this is definitely new territory for me.

When I think of speed work, three things come to mind. The first (pictured below) can be described in one word – misery. The second can be described in five words: still dreadful but TV helps. Especially when I can attempt to get my mind off my misery, thanks to…. But seriously, speed work has helped me, as much as I absolutely hate it. I started integrating speed work when I did the Coolrunner training program (from Runner’s World) last year. In a nutshell, it recommends one day/week of mile intervals (at a pace which is tied to your overall marathon goal) followed by a week of tempo running. Tempo runs are like mile intervals only a hair slower with no break in between the miles. Both of them suck. Speed workouts build fast twitch muscles, so over time, you run faster (at least you should!). For me, I was running so much more slowly after having a child and entering my forties, I needed to try something new. And even though I am running fewer miles/week than I did when I was 32, my marathon times are just as good as they were then. I am convinced it’s because of my dedication to those dreaded aforementioned workouts. But don’t take my word for it. I asked some other runners about speed training, and I got some incredibly useful and practical advice. First, I asked John Kachurick his opinion about the importance of integrating speed workouts into marathon training, and he some wonderful advice to impart. His suggestions are meant to make these runs less monotonous and injury-free. “I always thought that doing speedwork was essential only if I was looking to run a fast marathon. It took until the fourth marathon that I ran to find out that speedwork provided much more value besides that. I decided to add just a small amount of speedwork into my training plans at first by doing 100-200 meter sprints once a week for 35 minutes or so, and the results from that little bit of effort were almost immediate. I found that it made my legs stronger, increased my running efficiency and made me run stronger on my other training runs throughout the week. This ultimately helped me run a better marathon and finish stronger than I ever did before I started doing speedwork. Since then I’ve never completed a marathon training plan without it. I’ve found several different ways to add speedwork to my marathon training to keep it from getting boring. I found that it doesn’t have to always be at a track and as its own formal workout and can be just adding short sprints to any run during the week. Sometimes I add a 30 second sprint to every mile or run the last mile of a run at an increased pace. Regardless of how I do speedwork, the results have transformed me into a better marathon runner. One thing that I did find once I added speedwork was that I needed to find a way to stay injury free while still getting the value out of the workout. I decided to change the way I did speedwork by not focusing on a specific target time if I was doing 400m or 800m laps or sprints of any kind. Instead, I now focus on just pushing the pace and then challenging myself to go as fast as I feel I can handle, regardless of the actual time it takes to run it. This helped me to not get injured by pushing myself at a pace that was just too fast for me which unfortunately side-lined me for two weeks during a training plan once before. It took awhile for me to understand what the benefits are of including speedwork in my training and that its not just for running a fast marathon, it really helped to make me a stronger overall runner. Next I asked Dena, a NC native who is currently training for the Boston marathon, having qualified with a 3:44 race in Chicago. Given that she knocked 30 minutes off her Personal Best by integrating speed work (via treadmill), I think her advice is also insightful: “First, let me be clear: I LOATHE speedwork. There is not a fast-twitch muscle fiber to be found in either of my legs, I’m convinced. But I 100% believe that the speed work, combined with the tempo and faster than usual long runs, contributed to the 31 minute improvement. I felt a lot of guilt when I first started using the treadmill for speed work. I try to keep the incline on 2%, which I’ve read simulates outdoor running, but I know it’s not the same. However, I’ve moved past my guilt. Better to do speedwork on the treadmill than to blow it off or cut the workouts in half. So long as I do tempo and long runs outside, I don’t see that the treadmill speed work has hurt me. I started doing intervals on the treadmill for several reasons:

  • I’m bad at holding a steady pace on the track. And trying to look at my watch and calculate what my quarter or half lap times should be when running a 1200 repeat at a 5:22 pace is quite simply beyond me, math wise.
  • When I started the Furman Training, we were in the middle of some intense NC humidity. I just couldn’t maintain the required intensity levels out in the heat.
  • I don’t like doing speed work alone on the track. There was no one in my training group running the same pace as me, so I felt very isolated on the track, even when surrounded by other runners.

Now, while I still don’t enjoy speed work, I feel I can manage it. I slip in my ear buds and let Lady Gaga carry me through some 800 repeats. My workouts follow the Furman plan, which you can see online. This week, for example, I did a 12 minute warm-up and then 3 x (2 x 1200) at an 8.7 pace on the treadmill. There’s a 2 minute rest interval between 1200’s, and a 4 minute rest interval between sets. Then a 1 mile cooldown. (This is for the 3:40 marathon training plan.) I usually walk half of the rest interval and then do a slow jog the second half. My favorite, if there is such a thing, intervals, are 400 repeats. I can suffer anything for a minute and twenty seconds. My least favorite are the mile repeats.” Lastly, I asked Rick Bergeson, someone who has broken the allusive 4 minute mile barrier (in his college days when running for University of Oregon). He also happens to be my running partner’s brother (so no wonder she can qualify for Boston 6 times/year — it’s in her blood). Here’s what he had to say: “It’s important to integrate speedwork into marathon training because if you do nothing but run “long and slow” you’ll be good at nothing but running “long and slow.”  In other words, you need to train your legs for running at a faster pace than race pace so that your race pace becomes easier and faster. Example:  If your marathon race pace is 10:00 per mile, it would be good to do 8 X 800 with 2 minutes rest at a faster pace i.e. 8 minute pace or 4 minutes per 800.  Do this once per week.  Once your legs and body become accustomed to 8 min/ mile pace, all of a sudden your 10 min/mile pace feels easy, and your race pace starts to come down to say 9:40 pace or even faster.” I hope you enjoyed their advice as I much as I did. If you have more suggestions or stories, I’d love to hear them via your comments. Maybe if we join together, we can all figure out a way to make the dreaded speed workouts more bearable.

Melinda Hinson