A couple years ago, I had the opportunity to share how to train for acceleration and closing speed in distance running and our success at Downers Grove South High School. The implementation of running mechanics, fly sprints, and running-specific strength training in addition to our training cycle led to drastic end-of-season improvements at the state meet for each of our runners racing for 3 miles. Over the past two years, we have continued to implement speed training in our training plan, leading to a fifth-place finish at state in 2019 and top 10 ranking for much of the 2020 season.
Unfortunately, over this past summer, with restrictions related to COVID-19 and uncertainty about the status of the upcoming season, our team was not able to meet for in-person camp. Therefore, I sought out athletes seeking training. I had the opportunity to train a couple of distance runners: Morgan was a high school runner, and Annie had just finished her freshman year in college.
When both athletes came to me in May, they had not run a competitive race in more than two months. Morgan had continued to do 4- to 5-mile runs throughout the spring, with the hopes of running an outdoor race (which never occurred). Before she was to take a two-week break, I told her to run a 2-mile time trial around the streets by her house just to see what she could run. She ran 13:02, which put her on target to run her personal best from cross country in the fall, which was 19:33. By contrast, Annie came to me with shin splints in both legs, which had been bothering her for over a couple months. She stated her shin splints were the result of too much volume and not being able to run on softer surfaces as she had during cross country.
As we began training, I decided to use the aerobic speed reserve algorithm to determine the number of fly repeats each athlete should complete during the session. I timed each athlete running a 20-meter fly and 300-meter run. The algorithm provides you with a time range depending on the distance of the fly for a given workout. For max-velocity workouts, I kept both athletes between 10 and 30 meters. The goal for each workout was for the athlete to run each repetition within the given range. Once the athlete missed the time range twice, the workout ended.
Overview of Summer Training
For the first three weeks, I had each athlete primarily focus on running mechanics through the use of mini hurdles and 20-meter flys based on the 1999 research by Lassi Paavolainen, which suggested that improving 20-meter times led to improving 5k times. I started to implement lactate workouts once per week, in addition to one max-velocity day after the first three weeks. Here were the primary speed workouts for the summer:
- 20-meter flys (15-20 fly-in; rest: 2-3 minutes)
- 5 x 100 meter with 10-meter fly-in (rest: walk back)
- 800-meter predictor, 2 sets x 3 x 150 meters (rest: 3-4 minutes between reps, 8 minutes between sets, add 10 seconds to total time)
- 800-meter predictor, 2 x 3 x 200 meters (rest 3-4 minutes between reps, 8 minutes between sets; add each time, multiply by.667 + 4 seconds for each set)
Note: The 800-meter predictors are to predict event performance; they’re not a formula for workout prescription. For predictor workouts, the goal is to run each interval fast but maintain consistency with times, much like the event itself. One of the reasons I used 800 predictors was because Morgan wanted to break 2:30 in the 800. The predictor workout allowed me to see what she would run without running the actual distance.
Throughout the summer, I had each athlete complete each of these workouts at least once. We started with 5 x 100, since it was the least volume of the three workouts. The purpose of this workout was to give me an idea of what they could run for a 400 without sprinting a lap around the track.
Through trial and error, I found repeat 150s to be the most effective for each athlete. Morgan made little progress in any of the lactate workouts but was able to improve her 20-meter fly time. On the other hand, Annie improved slightly with the repeat 150s and improved her 20-meter fly time by .16 in six weeks.I continued to stress that, even though the progress was small, the consistency of addressing speed would lead to much more noticeable gains in longer distances, says @Coach Farthing. Click To Tweet
As far as analyzing why each athlete responded minimally to the lactate workouts, I had to remind them and myself these were often the second training session of their day. I continued to stress that, even though the progress was small, the consistency of addressing speed would lead to much more noticeable gains in longer distances. Each athlete shared their coach’s summer training plan, and I determined to have them complete a max-velocity or lactate workout based on feedback from the athlete and times from workouts. Morgan’s training plan consisted of more tempo runs, hill workouts, and long runs on Friday. Annie’s summer training plan consisted mostly of 5- to 6-mile runs rotating between easy, progression, and tempo runs.
In terms of determining the training effect of speed training, both athletes completed 2-mile time trials over the summer. Here are the improvements Morgan made over the summer and from last season to this season:
*Season was cancelled. Athlete ran 2-mile time trial prior to a break before starting summer training.
*Indoor 800-meter split from 3/9/20.
Annie’s coach also had athletes complete 2-mile time trials on the track at the beginning and end of summer training to demonstrate the payoff of running over the summer and used the times for workouts. Here are her times:
*High school personal best
After summer training, I asked each athlete some questions about the effectiveness of their speed training:
Q: Of all the different drills and training you did, what do you feel helped you the most?
Morgan: Out of the variety of drills you had me do during our speed sessions, I found that the lactate workouts helped me most. More specifically, the 150-meter lactate workouts. These workouts were the hardest that I encountered while training with you. As a distance runner, I felt that they were very beneficial. I loved the change of pace from normal mileage and the idea of being able to predict what I could run in certain races.
The mental gains were just as much as the physical gains. I was able to use some of the endurance I already had while also working on my speed. The predictions and physical work from these workouts helped me break 2:30 in the 800-meter dash, a milestone I had been trying to reach for a year.
Annie: Out of all the drills I did, I believe running through the mini hurdles was the most beneficial for me. The hurdles helped me improve my form, cadence, speed, coordination, and knee drive, and eventually helped decrease the pain in my shins.
The hurdles were hard at first, because it felt unnatural to run fast while also having to run over “obstacles.” While the hurdles helped more with the fundamentals of running, the 20-meter sprints definitely helped me with my speed at all different distances. Since I am a distance runner, I do not usually work on speed at that short of a distance, but by the end of the summer I was able to carry a fast speed from 20 meters all the way up to 200 meters.
Q: How do you feel speed training helped your distance running mentally and/or physically?
Morgan: I found many positive effects from speed training that helped both my physical and mental states of mind. The physical aspects I noticed right away. I was able to easily kick into another gear while running a faster run, like a tempo. The change of pace felt smoother than it had in previous years. I also found my form becoming more consistent and not changing as much when I would get tired during long runs. The consistency of my form helped my legs feel looser throughout the week, allowing me to train harder and complete more mileage. My legs felt more stable beneath me as well, also allowing me to run more mileage and “pound the ground” with less aches and pains.
There were also a good number of mental aspects that I noticed throughout the weeks. The most prevalent mental gain was being able to see the change from week to week, watching the times get faster. The gaining of speed gave me an amazing confidence boost to run certain times I hadn’t been able to in the past.
Annie: The speed training most obviously helped improve my 2-mile time trial. At the beginning of the summer, only two-ish weeks into training, I ran over 14 minutes for 2 miles. By the end of the summer, I was at 13 minutes, which was over 30 seconds faster per mile. Not only did I feel better physically, by the end of the summer I mentally felt more confident going into my cross country season, since I had seen so much improvement throughout the summer.
During training I did various types of speed workouts, so I constantly saw improvement, and it helped prevent training from getting monotonous. I would run anywhere from 10-meter sprints to 200-meter sprints, with some days focusing on shorter sprints and other days focusing on longer sprints. Then, when I would go back to certain workouts, I could compare it to earlier dates and would usually see improvement. My improvements at shorter distances also helped improve the pace I was running my easy runs, tempos, and long runs, and I averaged about a minute faster per mile than I had during previous summers.
Faster and More Durable
Based on the data, it is evident the inclusion of speed training has a positive effect on running performance. Each athlete had a different training plan for summer, but the addition of speed training led to tremendous improvement in all distance measurements. Additionally, each athlete discussed how speed training and specific running drills and exercises actually led to the elimination of shin splints and allowed them to be more durable throughout the summer and season without injuries.Each athlete had a different training plan for summer, but the addition of speed training led to tremendous improvement in all distance measurements, says @CoachFarthing. Click To Tweet
Although both of the athletes I trained completed speed training sessions in addition to their prescribed summer plan by their coach, it is incredibly simple to implement speed training into any training plan. I know coaches who simply have runners do mostly easy mileage over the summer, while others incorporate a variety of runs such as hills, progression, tempo, or VO2.
I recommend you address speed training twice per week during the general preparation phase of a cross country training plan. Many coaches emphasize “building a base” by focusing on volume through easy runs. However, you can improve endurance with the use of speed training through the lactate workouts or by stacking numerous full effort fly attempts. Runners will not only improve their performance, but also their durability for handling the volume often prescribed by coaches.
In terms of speed training implementation during a season, here is my suggestion: You can afford to have one day during a 9- or 12-day microcycle dedicated to max effort 150s or 200s. After the workout, do NOT have athletes complete a traditional cooldown by jogging more. It will undo the high-intensity training they just completed. For a cooldown, I would suggest exercises like lunges, plyometrics, and ankle rocker drills. I should note that if you notice athletes struggling with 150s or 200s, try a shorter distance like 100 or 120 meters, especially for your younger athletes.
Max-velocity training could be a perfect tool for recovery days. In Coach O’Malley’s article “Training Zones, Mileage, and Mentality,” he discussed how his team sometimes completes 10-second sprints up a hill on easy days. Ten seconds is entirely too long for speed work. Stick with 20-meter sprints, as I’ve mentioned. They are the perfect distance for maximum effort without a breakdown of mechanics. If you do address speed on a recovery day, be mindful of volume and focus on a handful of quality reps instead of worrying about volume. In fact, you can use a timing system or stopwatch to time athletes, which would promote high performance.Stick with 20-meter sprints. They are the perfect distance for maximum effort without a breakdown of mechanics, says @Coach Farthing. Click To Tweet
My hope from this article is that distance coaches will reflect upon their own training practices. If we all have our runners complete similar training plans, why are some programs more successful than others? Speed training will have a profound effect on runners regardless of experience and could be the difference-maker for your program.
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