I've targeted the Kingston marathon in October to get a new PB (target sub-3.30, current best 3.38 at Edinburgh in 2014). Over each of the next 16 weeks, I'll be addressing a different aspect of marathon training. Follow me on my journey and tell me about yours!
For many seasoned marathoners, the idea of doing speed work is as natural as breathing, if not quite as easy. For newbies, it can be a confusing notion. If you're going to run 26.2 miles at 10-minutes miles, why would you need to run faster than that in training? Surely if you train at a certain pace for a certain distance, that will be enough? The answer is both yes and no.
Let's start with yes. It's possible to train for and complete a marathon without doing any speed work. Focusing on increasing mileage is of paramount importance to the beginner. But, done properly, speedwork will benefit the runner no matter what the level or experience.
In running guru Hal Higdon's book entitled 'Marathon' he quotes Melvin H. Williams, PhD of the Human Performance Laboratory:
Running faster also means you have to move at your most efficient, which means focusing on technique. And if you can improve that, you will not only run faster over short distances but eventually over long distances as well.
One of the most common comments I hear from non-runners is that running must be boring. Typically, these are from people who have either only ever run on a treadmill (and there is definitely a time and a place for that) or only run the same 3.4km loop, and always at the same pace. Anyone would get bored doing the same runs all the time.
Speed work provides a very different workout to your long runs and there are a multitude of variations even within these sessions. Although many are scared of speed work - especially the unfamiliar track sessions - after a while, you might find you actually look forward to them. First, because you get faster and second because they're such a welcome change of pace.
There are various types of speed work, all with a slightly different purpose.
Unless you're training for 100 or 200 metres, sprinting flat out is somewhat risky. You need to be very warm to avoid getting injured and the benefits of very short bursts are limited for endurance running. However, at 80-90% of full effort, they can be a good way to get the heart pumping and to stretch the legs as part of an interval session.
Typically done on a track, an interval is actually the rest period between running repetitions, and not the running itself. The distance and pace of each rep, as well as the length of interval, can be varied but common sets are 6-10 reps of 400m or 800m, and 'pyramid sets' such as 400, 800, 1200, 800, 400. The longer the rep, the longer the interval for recovery.
Swedish for 'speed play', fartlek is basically an unstructured interval session. On your own or in a group, simply pick trees or lampposts to run between, jog to recover and repeat.
The pace of a tempo run should be comfortably hard - whatever that is for you. The pace and length of session can be varied, for example, 45 minutes at target half marathon pace. This will get the runner used to maintaining a controlled pace for an extended period.
Once you get into the habit of speed sessions, you might find you prefer them to the longer runs. They hurt more but they’re over quicker and the impact they can have on parkrun PBs, for example, can be dramatic.
A word of warning: to begin with, one session of this intensity per week is enough or you’re in danger of injury. You won’t get fast overnight but you can get injured in an instant. When you’re more experienced and stronger, two sessions a week should still be the maximum for marathon training.
Whatever combination of these you do, you will see results from consistent training, as long as you give yourself sufficient time to recover. It won't be easy - running fast isn't - if it was, everyone would be doing it. As Oprah Winfrey (of all people!) once said, "Running is the greatest metaphor for life because you get out of it what you put into it."