Pick up the pace – Speed training

At some point in time, most runners will aim to increase their running pace. It may be to achieve a better time for a race, to improve your running economy or to feel the wind in your hair while you run along the beach through shallow water (think “Baywatch” or “Chariots of Fire” for the over 50s).

Whatever the reason, the most efficient way to improve your pace isn’t by simply running faster on your training runs. This typically leads to overstriding and increases your risk of injury while giving minimal speed gains.

To effectively increase your pace, you can use more specialised training sessions such as intervals, Fartlek and/or running out and back. All sessions can be tailored to the level of the runner by varying timings and distances.

As each session involves some higher intensity running, a decent warm-up is important to reduce injury risk from the session itself. The warm-up should be similar to the activities in the planned session and gradually build in intensity to allow heart rate and blood flow to increase to levels appropriate for training.

Interval training

These sessions aim to improve heart rate recovery (how fast the heart responds to a change in demand) and to improve running pace. The session is based around a number of sprints, or “intervals”.

For each interval, there is a set distance, a target pace (commonly 75-85% of max effort) and a set rest period. The runner should attempt to maintain the time achieved in the 2nd interval throughout subsequent intervals. The key elements for an effective interval is a distance that is relevant to your training/race distances (but doesn’t need to match the distance) and carefully selected rest breaks.

If the rest breaks are too long (>120 seconds) then the heart rate can easily recover in time and the session will not be overly challenging. If the rest break is too short (<30 seconds), the heart rate isn’t given sufficient time to respond and the heart rate recovery training effect is reduced.

In saying that, there are times when you will reduce your rest breaks below 30 seconds but this is typically in the lead up to races and looks to bring consecutive intervals together to match the race distance.

For most runners, starting with 90 second rest breaks and reducing the breaks towards 45-60 seconds would work effectively. If you are unable to maintain the same times as the 2nd interval, your rest breaks are too short (or you lack ticker, but that’s a different story).

Vice versa, if it seems too easy to hit your targets, reduce your rest breaks. Alternatively if you can maintain your target timing, you can always add additional repetitions to improve endurance.

Fartlek (variable intensity) training

These sessions also improve heart rate response and pace but with a slightly different focus. This type of session tends to be used for improving pace over longer distances.

For a Fartlek session, the runner can use time or distance to switch from a comfortable speed to a faster (but not sprint) pace and back again. As with interval sessions, the timings can vary and be tailored to suit the individual. For the two different speeds, the comfortable run duration is longer than the faster run duration with the ratios either set or variable throughout the run.

Runners can begin with longer durations for each pace early in a run and then drop the duration down for each phase towards the end of the run whilst still maintaining the ratio of easy:hard. This pushes the intensity and pace of running in the latter part of a medium to long run without running to fatigue and leading to injury.

Out & Back training

The aim of this session is to cover a set distance away from your start point and then return to the start in less time.

This has the runner returning at an increased pace and improves muscle economy by increasing demand on the muscles while fatigued. This type of session is useful for runners who need to improve their pace in the late stages of a race or over longer distances.

The distance covered should be around your medium run distance to avoid running to complete fatigue and risking injury from overstriding and landing heavier. It should also be on a course that is fairly similar in difficulty for both out and back sections with an even balance of up/down hills and flat segments.

The time difference between the out and back parts can be calculated as a percentage and should be achievable for the level of the runner. A figure of 5% is often used for the time reduction on the second part of the run but can be adjusted based on variations in the two parts (eg. slightly easier on the way out). This equates to going out in 60 minutes and returning in 57 minutes or out in 20 minutes and back in 19 minutes.

Although this doesn’t seem like a sufficient target, remember that most runners will lose some time on the return leg due to fatigue. If a runner would normally slow by 5 minutes on the way back, a 3 minute planned difference in out/back would actually be 8 minutes quicker that the return leg of a normal run.

Written by

Pete Colagiuri
Sports Physiotherapist

Pete has over 20 years experience as a Physiotherapist and specialises in running biomechanics and complex injuries. He believes that you must identify and fix the underlying cause of an injury, to recover faster, prevent recurrences and improve performance.

Pete Colagiuri - Sports Physio