Broad Street Training: What the Heck Is a Speed Workout?

Baffled by the tempo runs in your training plan? Philadelphia Runner's Ross Martinson helps us sort out speed workouts.

When I trained for the Broad Street Run for the first time three years ago, I completely skipped the once-a-week speed workouts my training plan called for. I was intimidated by them. I had no idea what a tempo run was or how to calculate my 5K pace to do 800-meter repeats. Besides, wasn’t I about to run—gulp—10 whole miles? Straight? What could these shorter workouts really do to help with my distance training?

This year, I’ve taken the speed workouts a bit more seriously—and three weeks into my training, I can already feel the difference.

When a colleague and fellow Broad-Streeter-In-Training asked me about speed workouts last week (she was just as befuddled by tempo runs as I was three years ago), I realized a lot of other runners might be in the same boat. So I asked Philadelphia Runner’s Ross Martinson to explain why speed workouts are important, who should be doing them and, most important, how. Here’s his take.

What is the point of speed work when you’re training for a distance run?

Simple: If you want to run faster, you’ve got to run faster. When you do a faster run, even if it’s just 20 or 30 seconds long or a couple 20-second bursts in a run, your form improves, your heart rate goes up, and your muscles work harder so that when they recover they’ll get stronger. For newer runners, speed work helps you get stronger without the repetitiveness and pounding for a longer a period of time. You can get the same cardiovascular benefits out of a 30-minute speed workout as a 60-minute long run; it’s much more efficient. And as far as training for a distance race like Broad Street, speed workouts will help your regular pace come down as well—it’ll help you run your longer runs faster.

Does speed work matter for people who just want to finish in one piece?

I think it does. We have all our Team Philly beginners doing speed work. In part it’s to help them stay engaged, so they can feel out their pace and look at running a different way. It can also help you realize that, wait a minute, you can go faster than that 12 minute pace. It’s a mechanism to push you to go faster if you don’t know how to otherwise.

What kinds of speed workouts should a person do?

Strides and short pickups are a great place for people to start. After a run, find a place where you can run a straight distance for 10 or 15 seconds. Gradually work up so halfway to the finish you’re just short of doing a sprint. These are strides. It’s a good time to focus on your form. Think about it: it’s almost impossible to focus on form the whole way during a long run but you can for 10- to 15-second spurts. So think about your posture, how your arms are pumping, and what your legs and feet are doing. You should do six to 10 strides after a run when you’re starting out.

Pickups are similar to strides, only instead of doing them after a run, mix then in to your longer runs. You can do them by time—”Ok, for the next 10 seconds I’m going to run really hard”—or, pick a point, like a light post, and tell yourself to run hard until you get past that point. Try getting six to 10 pickups into your workout, and increase the length of each as you get stronger.

Repeats or intervals—800 meters is a good place to start—allow you to focus on building strength and teaching your body to take in and absorb more oxygen. These are three to six minute stints where you’re running so hard that it feels very uncomfortable—not quite an all-out sprint, but you shouldn’t be able to talk by the end. The idea is that because you’re going shorter, you can afford to go a little bit harder. A training plan might have you do four or five 800-meter intervals during a workout. You’ll want to warm up for maybe 10 minutes, then do one 800, followed by rest (walking) or light jogging for a minute or two. Then repeat until you’re finished.

Tempo runs are a little more advanced; I don’t recommend them for beginner runners. A tempo run is one where you’re going 80 to 90 percent of your max heart rate for an extended period of time. You want to be running at the point where you start getting out of breath and you can’t talk comfortably anymore—that’s a good gauge of pace. Typically you do a warmup, followed by the tempo pace for 10 to 30 minutes (the amount of time depends on your training level), followed by a cool down jog. Tempo runs are really effective, especially as you get more advanced. It’s probably the most effective workout you can do for 5K training and up. The idea is to allow lactic acid to build up in your legs and help your body turn it back into energy. When you start out, you can only hold a faster pace for a short time. Over time, tempo runs allow you to hold that pace for longer.

How often should speed work be done?

For a beginner, once a week is good, whether it’s strides or intervals. As people get more experienced, I think they can up it to twice a week. I’ll usually do two speed workouts and a long run every week. The key is allowing yourself enough recovery time in between. So for beginners, it probably makes sense to do speed work on Wednesday and long runs on Saturday. If you’re sore for more than three days after a speed workout, maybe you need to back off a bit; go a little shorter or easier. Just listen to your body and respond accordingly.

Is it helpful to do speed work on a treadmill when you’re first starting out so you can monitor distance and speed easily?

Strides are almost impossible to do on a treadmill because you can’t gradually speed up. In general, I think you almost don’t want to be measuring your pace to begin with. Just run at whatever feels hard to you; don’t worry if it’s an eight minute pace or 10 minute pace. As long as it’s harder than you were running, it’s fine. I wouldn’t break out a stop watch or anything until you’re going for longer distances. If you absolutely have to play by the numbers, there’s a great resource called the McMillan Pace Calculator that a lot of elite runners use all the time. You can put in your best time for whatever distance—5K, four miles, marathon—and it tells you what your equivalent finish time would be at different distances. The calculator also spells out your optimal training paces, so you know what to aim for per mile during your long run, and how fast you should do your tempo runs. I think in general it puts the workouts a little on the fast side, but it will still give you a good idea of what you should be aiming for if you’re looking for a gauge.

>> Also on Be Well Philly: Q&A with Pro Runner Phil Clark

Weigh in: How is your training for the Broad Street Run going? Have you been doing speed workouts? Do they seem to be making a difference? Tell us in the comments!