By Pia Johansson
Too hot outside to run long? Races coming up? Maybe now is the right time to do some speed work? Here are some tips and thoughts on how to vary your runs to help you run faster and to make training more fun.
My new, cheery running motto is “Every run is a good run!” This works both on a mental and a physical level. I really like running, and I love being out there, and sometimes just a quick reminder of that and a smile during my run makes it more fun again.
In terms of making you faster and having more fun, almost every run is indeed a good run, as long as it is not the same run every time. If you run 5k every day at the same speed, you won’t get faster or fitter. Now, I am not a sports professional and not even that fast, but here is my two cents worth in regards to upping one’s game in terms of speed.
In terms of fun, varying your speed, length and route stops you from getting stuck in a rut. In terms of speed and fitness, in a way it’s easy: you run faster by running faster, and get fitter by running more. It has been found that volume is directly correlated to performance: that is, the more you train, the better you get. Here, the trick is not to run too much, as that increases injury risk and long slow slogs alone are not quite enough. I like to group runs into three major types: long runs, speed-work and easy runs. They are all equally important, including the easy runs. If you don’t let your body recover, then your hard work will be for nothing.
For some of these, it is better if you have a running watch (or an app on your phone that you can look at when you run) and if you know your current average pace and PB pace. Your average pace is the pace you are mostly running at, where you feel comfortable, but which is still a reasonable work-out. It’s the pace you go at when you just “go for a run.” Your PB pace, or Race-pace, is how fast you can run a certain distance.
So, for the speed-work: there are so many different types, all good. What they have in common is that they all involve you running faster than normal. If you run faster you become faster. But obviously, as running fast(er) is hard work, you do it for shorter distances. Either in intervals or in shorter race-pace runs.
Intervals is a science on its own, but to keep it simple, they come as sprints and long intervals. The speed decreases as the length of the interval increases. Do a five-minute easy warm up first.
I do sprints without looking too much at my watch. I sprint, i.e. run almost as fast as I can, for 100 meters or so. I then rest a minute or two in between them and repeat them maybe 10 times. Easy! Just do it. It doesn’t matter if they get shorter or slower, just run.
Medium and long intervals
They don’t have to be divided; just consider them longer intervals. The idea is that you run at a pace that is faster than your normal speed, faster than your desired race-pace, but slower than sprints. Do 500 to 1000 meters, then rest by walking or jogging. These are hard, the hardest for me. I always run too fast or too slow and it’s really hard to keep going. Here, I think a watch and a pre-decided outline is important. Decide how long (time or distance) and how fast you are going to run. Then stick to it as much as you can. And remember you can always adjust it next time. If running at, for example, 5:45min/km for 800m was too hard, then adjust the pace next time. Or just try again next time. Here, I would also like to stress the importance of being realistic, in your choice of speed, otherwise you won’t get the benefit (as much – because all runs are good runs!).
Yes, hill runs are great. They make you work your muscles harder. You can do sprints (yup, sprint up the hill!) or just incorporate hills in the run, but run at normal speed. Both are good. The only thing I would suggest is not to run up a hill that is too steep as that changes your gait and posture too much. If your convenient hill is not steep or long, just go up and down, up and down. Rinse, lather, repeat.
These are longer runs at relatively high speeds. I like to think of it as running as fast as you can, but still being able to make the distance (yes, exactly like in a race). Since it is not actually a race, you don’t really have to pace yourself in the beginning or aim for negative splits (also remember running with negative splits, ie getting faster at the end, is optional). I like to do these runs without looking at my watch; I track it and look at speed and splits after. If I train for a 5k race, then maybe I do a 4k race-pace run, so almost the distance of the race. These runs are also very hard work but can be very satisfying after. But maybe don’t do them too often and allow for recovery!
The Long Run
This is how you build stamina and endurance. In the end, it will also make you faster and keep you fit longer. You can do two types of long runs: the longer run, where you run at a normal average pace for a bit longer than your easy and speed-work runs; then there are the loooooong slow runs. Do one of these maybe every two to three weeks; make them significantly longer than your average run. Maybe 75-100% longer (if you normally run 5k, make the long run 8-10k; if you normally run 10k make the long run 17-20k). What is important here is to run slowly. Not too slow, because you still need forward momentum, but at a very relaxed speed. I also tend to run too fast (apparently every run is a race), so for me it is beneficial to use a watch for these.
The Easy Run
When you just go out and run at a relaxed comfortable speed (it doesn’t have to be super slow, just whatever feels good). These runs are so incredibly important. Don’t skip them. They are vital for mental and physical recovery and for your general enjoyment. The other runs are a bit harder work, so you need to recover physically. The body likes to recover with exercise as long as it’s gentle (if you run three times a week this run can just be a normal run, for elite/hardcore runners the proper recovery run also plays an important role, but I have sort of merged recovery and easy/fun runs here). These runs are where you look at the birds, sing a little bit, increase the pace a little for a little while – where you run faster than you think you are because all your speed-training is paying off! Wonderful, isn’t it!
Then you take these and mix them up. I try to run three times a week, so over a two week period I try to do speed work once or twice, one easy/fun run and one longish run, and the others are a bit in between. I run to or from work sometimes, which is great for getting the miles in, and for sanity, but they tend to be less structured, sort of transport runs, but yes, you guessed it, they are still good runs! And before I end, I have to say: have fun and remember that speed is RELATIVE – it’s all about getting faster compared to yourself. Set new goals and reach them. Running is great because it’s so individual and social at the same time. Now, go out there, work hard and have fun!
Pia Johansson is a research scientist in neurobiology, mother of two and working mum. She was an expat for almost twenty years, in Australia and Munich and a short wild stint in Dublin many many years ago. She is in the throes of being repatriated to Sweden with her Australian husband. She likes talking, running and talking about running. And chocolate (although mostly 85% these days, as crazy as that sounds). In addition to staying fit and eating healthy, and raising happy healthy children, she dreams of doing something a little bit creative like writing or becoming a photographer. Or at least organizing her photos soon.