Build Speed Despite the Snow

Running guru Phil Clark offers tips for upping your pace indoors

Jane Morley // Photo by Zoey Sless-Kitain

Snow. Ice. Freezing rain. Cheek-stinging wind and teeth-chattering temps. These are a few of my least favorite things—and not just because they make me crabby and cranky and a more-nervous-than-usual driver, but because they interfere with my running schedule.

Since I registered last month for a mid-March 5K in Haddonfield, I’ve been fiercely determined to set a new personal record, or “PR,” at that distance. For the first time, well, ever, I’m actually committed to doing speedwork, and I’ve got a fancy training schedule packed with technical sounding workouts (7×400 meters at mile pace! 45-minute tempo run!) to help me develop cheetah-like leg turnover.

But while my motivation and dedication are at an all-time high, the mercury has been at a cheek-numbing low. My neighborhood is covered in large, glacial patches of danger, and the gravel track by my house—a.k.a. the site where I had planned to transform my legs into veritable speed machines—has been either covered with snow or just plain frozen since early January, thanks to the positively dreadful weather we’ve had this year. And since the track was walked on before the mercury plummeted, its surface is pocked with bumps, grooves and ice-filled footprints.

Worried that I’ll show up on race day feeling more like a tortoise than a hare, I turned to Phil Clark of the Training Station in Northern Liberties and picked his brain about how to keep up with my training schedule when Mother Nature makes the roads and the track un-run-able.

“You should be able to convert track workouts to the treadmill,” Clark says, as long as you set the treadmill at roughly the same pace you’d hit doing track repeats he says. “Running one-lap track intervals at two minutes per lap, for example, would be similar to running one-quarter mile treadmill intervals at an eight-minute-per-mile pace.” (To figure out how fast you should run each repeat, divide your goal race pace per mile by four.) If running an equivalent pace doesn’t feel hard enough, increase the treadmill speed gradually, until the effort feels similar to how hard you’d push yourself on the track.

To help build speed, Clark recommends identifying your goal race pace—for my race in March, that’s about eight minutes per mile, for a 24-minute 5K—and figuring out how long you can currently run at that pace. “Then I would set out to gradually increase the time that you can run at the goal speed,” Clark says. So if you can run five minutes at goal pace during a 30-minute workout today, try running for seven minutes at goal pace next week. But, he adds, “Without good reason, I wouldn’t be interested in improving your ability to run significantly faster than goal speed. The body adapts in a particular ways to particular exercises. Sprints, for example, rely on and develop a particular energy production system—a system that would rarely be used during a 5K.”

Running on the treadmill means you don’t have the distractions of outdoors, such as cars whizzing by, uneven pavement underfoot or frozen-solid snowdrifts, so it’s a perfect setting to improve your running form. “Practice landing on the ball of the food or flat-footed, keep the angle in the elbow at 90 degrees or less, and move the arms with as little effort as possible—let momentum swing the arms,” says Clark.

While it’s true that you should train outdoors in order to prepare for a race that’s held outdoors, so that your legs grown accustomed to pounding on the road’s hard surface, treadmill running offers advantages, too. Taking advantage of the treadmill’s incline function, for example strengthens your legs in ways that running can’t. “One should think of overland and treadmill running as two different activities,” Clark says, and runners can benefit from engaging in both.