If you’ve seen your running efforts plateau, it may be time to add in some speed work. Runner and writer Katie Yockey asks running coaches for their best tips and beginner-friendly workouts.
There’s something really comforting about going out and running your same usual loop at your usual pace — and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Every run is a good run, and no matter how fast or slow you’re going, each mile is money in the bank.
But while easy runs are the bread and butter of your training, sometimes you need to add a little something extra. A garnish can elevate things, and trust me, you’ll notice the difference.
This is where speed work comes in. Tempo runs, fartleks and intervals sound kind of scary and intense, and running faster than you’re used to can feel hard. I’m not going to sugarcoat it – learning how to pace yourself is tough but also really rewarding. After crushing a hard workout, you’ll feel like a total badass.
So if you’re new to speed work, where should you start? How often should you try to run fast and how can you avoid getting hurt? We’ve asked three running coaches to share their best tips, advice, and favourite beginner speed workouts.
Running fast can do things easy runs can’t
OK, this is going to get a little science-y for a minute, so stick with me. When you’re running at an easy, conversational pace, your body is primarily relying on slow-twitch muscle fibres. These fibres are packed with myoglobin, a protein that binds to oxygen and iron, and mitochondria, which produce energy. This means that slow-twitch fibres take a long time to tire out, making them essential for distance runners.
The more you train these fibres, the more efficient they get. During speed training, such as tempo runs and long intervals, “you maximally activate your fast-twitch muscles and intermediate muscle fibres, which increases your aerobic capacity,” says Alex Maxwell, an England Athletics certified running leader.
“It also increases myoglobin – if you increase this, you improve your body’s ability to quickly transport oxygen to the muscles for energy, making you able to run faster.”
Running fast is good for the brain
And running fast doesn’t just create physiological adaptations – it can train your brain, too. According to Colorado-based running coach Laura Norris, during speed work, “you train your neuromuscular system to recruit fast-twitch muscles, which helps you become faster in the long term.”
Many runners find that when they start doing speed work, they learn they can run way faster than they thought they could. “The more you practice a skill, the more confident you feel at it,” says Norris. “Running faster in a speed workout just once a week can build confidence for an upcoming race.”
Speed work is just one part of the puzzle
According to Rhode Island-based running coach Montana DePasquale, speed work is what really moves the needle when you’re looking to improve running fitness — but it’s not everything.
“Imagine easy running as the bottom of the fitness pyramid,” she says. “First, you need to build a good aerobic base through lots of easy running and long runs. Then, the next layer on top of that is speed work.”
A 2016 systematic review — which looks at the results of a group of studies — found that a combination of speed runs and consistent easy runs was important for success. Endurance runners who did both “improv[ed] maximal oxygen uptake and running economy”. These adaptations mean runners can go more efficiently for longer periods of time.
Most experts recommend starting slow
“Less is more,” says Maxwell. “Aim for less volume but more intensity. To begin, do shorter intervals with longer rest periods.”
DePasquale agrees: “We have several different variables we can play with: volume, intensity and rest/recovery,” she says. “I recommend newbies use a fairly low total volume to start with and more generous recovery intervals. As you get fitter, you’ll be able to handle more total minutes of hard running and shorter recovery times.”
But if you’ve just started running fast and you’re feeling great, why not push yourself to go harder?
As tempting as this may be, you’re putting yourself on the fast-track to injury. “Doing too much too soon leads to a high injury risk for most people,” says Norris. “Aim for no more than 8% of your weekly mileage to be done at faster speeds. For example, if you run 25 miles per week, you want to do no more than two miles total in high-intensity intervals.”
It can be tough to pace yourself during reps if you’re not used to running fast. While it can be fun to go balls-to-the-wall, “resist the temptation to race speed workouts,” she continues. “A good rule of thumb is to finish with the ability to do a couple more reps. Running too hard increases injury risk and can inhibit long-term adaptation, meaning that you may not get as fast as you could.”
Ready to run fast? Here are some great speed workouts for beginners
If you’re excited about upping your running fitness, try adding one of these workouts to your routine. Don’t focus on the time or distance — instead, pay attention to effort. How fatigued do you feel after each rep? Is your breathing laboured? Is your form breaking down?
Of course, you should warm up before trying any of these workouts. Start off with at least 10 minutes of light jogging and some dynamic stretching to get your muscles ready to go.
One minute intervals
DePasquale’s go-to workout for beginners is super simple, and you can easily add it to one of your usual weekday runs. Here’s how to do it:
- Use your running watch, phone or a timer to measure one minute. Run hard, but not too hard: DePasquale recommends aiming for a six or seven RPE (rate of perceived exertion) on a scale of one to 10 (10 being almost dead, one being lying in bed)
- Rest for one minute. You can stop, walk or do a very light jog if you feel up to it
- Repeat this one-on, one-off protocol five times. As you get fitter, you can increase the number of reps.
If you have access to a track, Maxwell’s pyramid workout is a great way to keep things interesting with varied distances and paces. Here’s how to do it (for reference, a standard track is 400 metres around).
- Run 200m (half the track) at a comfortably hard pace. Rest for one minute.
- Run 400m (the whole track) at a comfortably hard pace. Rest for one minute.
- Repeat this with 600m, 800m, and 1000m distances. Then go back down the pyramid in reverse order: 800m, 600m, 400m, and 200m. This can be a tough workout to pace, so add longer rests as needed.
Norris loves time-based intervals because they can be adapted to any ability level. As you get fitter, you can increase the duration of your reps, and you can also use them to learn what paces you can hold comfortably for different lengths of time.
All you need is a watch or timer for this workout. Here’s how to get started:
- Run two minutes at 70–80% effort.
- Do a slow recovery jog for two minutes.
- Repeat five to eight times.
For more running tips, visit the Strong Women Training Club.