The Need for Speed (Work)

There is more to running than placing in your age group or hitting a new personal best-however, those milestones have an undeniable draw. While  it is important to have relaxing, slow recovery days, but it is also important to hit the track and the roads and start building up your speed. Running at higher intervals helps, not only build our fast-twitch muscle fibers, but also improves our lactate threshold, so s runner can maintain running at a higher rate for a longer time. Along with increasing efficiency, speed work strengths muscles and connective tissue, which lowers the risk of becoming injured while training, all while getting a little faster.

It is a common misconception that only short distance road runners should be spending time on speed work. While it can help a 5k runner shave seconds off per mile, speed work can also do wonders for marathon runners as well as ultra and trail runners.  Of course, an ultra trail runner and a 10k road runner might not do exactly the same kind of speed work


Interval: short bursts of speed for a measured distance, repeated for a set number of times.

Tempo: A workout that involves running at a slower, recovery pace for a set number of miles or minutes, followed by running at race-pace for another set amount of time or distance.

Fartlek: Swedish for “speed play” this involve incorporating short bursts of speed into a longer run by picking a point in the distance, then pushing the pace until that point is reached. This may also be called a “pick-up.”

Keeping Pace

After you determine what pace you should be running, the next step is to find the best way to measure your distance and speed. Much of the benefit that comes from speed work is learning how to pace yourself, so it is crucial to be as accurate as possible. Using a GPS watch is idea, as it will read out your pace and distance, but there are other alternatives. Apps, such as Strava and Map My Run will also show you time and distance, though I do not recommend trying to read your phone while engaging in a workout. You may also use a standard stopwatch while running on an already measured surface, but you will not know your pace until the end of each repetition. Regardless, it is helpful to write down, or digitally record your splits, so you can best insure you are going the correct pace.

Going the Distance

For interval workouts, it is best to use a track, if it is available. Most local middle schools will have one that is unlocked. Be a decent human and avoid using a school track during school hours or while student athletes are participating. I have also used bike paths, especially those that go around lakes, to do speed work, as it is typically flat and consistent.

For tempo or fartlek workouts, try to find a route that is similar to what you will be racing on, to better train your body to adapt the pace to the course.

Picking Speed Work Based On Your Upcoming Race

5K and 10Ks

If you are wanting to run a faster 5k or 10K, you will want to focus on shorter, and faster intervals and hill work. The 5k is more of an “all-out” race, and will require the runner to maintain speed for the 3.1 mile distance, while also managing to pace themselves.

400 Repeats

1 mile warm-up at a conservative pace

4X400m repeats at a pace that is 5-10 seconds faster than 5k race pace with 400 meters at a moderate (around a 10k or half marathon) pace in between.

1 mile cool down

total: 4 miles

This work out helps build up endurance while practicing running at a faster pace. Because this workout incorporates both speed and strength, it is important that the runner not slow down too much on the laps in between.

This workout is best done on a track, or easily measured and moderately flat trail.

200 Repeats

1 mile warm-up

24X200m repeats at a pace that is 5-10 seconds faster. 30-60 seconds of recovery in between

1 mile cool down at a conservative pace.

Total: 4 miles

The 200 repeats will help build the runners speed, as well as help the runner with pacing. It is helpful to focus on your last few repetitions being faster than the first few.

This workout is best done on a track, or easily measured and moderately flat trail.

Timed Pick-ups

6 mile run at a half marathon pace with 30 second pick-ups at a 5k pace every quarter mile.

Total: 6 miles

Doing race-pace pick-ups in a longer run will help the runner find their speed near the end of a race, when they are already feeling fatigued.

This workout is best one on a bike trail, running trail, or road with varying hills that best mirror that of the upcoming race.

Half-Marathon and Marathon

In training for longer distance races, it is important to also work on strength and endurance. While you should not be setting your 5k PR in your next marathon, working on a quick turnover and building your lactate threshold will translate to a faster, an stronger, race.

Ladder Intervals

2 mile warm-up

200m, 400m, 800m, 1600m, 800m, 400m, 200m at a 5k pace

400m recovery at a conservative pace in between

1 mile cool down

Total: 7.25 miles

This ladder workout helps build strength, while also working on speed. By jogging the recovery in between each interval, you are not only keeping your legs fresh, but also adding in some needed mileage.

This workout is best done on a track

More than one way to run a mile

2 mile conservative warm-up

1 mile at the race pace you are training for

4X400m, 2X800m, 1X1600 at 10K or 5K pace

30 seconds of rest in between (walking or stretching)

3 mile cool down

Total: 9 Miles

This workout helps train the body to maintain speed during a longer run. By running your last warm-up mile at race pace, you are creating muscle memory, as well as warming-up your legs for the workout.

Tempo by distance

1 mile warm-up

2 miles at race-pace or ten seconds faster, half a mile at a conservative pace, repeat 3 times.

1.5 mile cool down

Total: 10 miles

This workout is one of the best for strength building and increasing muscle memory. By practicing running at race-pace you are helping adapt your body and lactate threshold, so you can maintain longer during the race.

This workout is best done on a surface that most mirrors the one you will be racing.

Trail Races and Ultras

Depending on the distance of the trail race, you can also include the previous workouts. Similarly, an ultra runner would benefit on from using the workouts recommended for half marathons an marathons. I strongly believe that speed on the road translates to speed on the trail. Most strong road runners can keep up in a trail race, but not all trail runners can keep up on the road, which is almost exclusively due to the lack of speed work incorporated in trail and ultra training.

However, because trail races and ultras also draw upon the need for strength in going up hills and maintaining speed on various terrain, it is important to also add some specialized speed work.

Trail Tempo by Time

20 minute warm-up

3 minutes at 5k-10k  effort, 7 minutes at a conservative pace, repeat for 1 hour.

20 minute cool down

Total: Miles vary depending on terrain an speed.

This workout will help build speed in less forgiving terrain. By pushing yourself on the trail, you are better prepping yourself for a successful race, as well as building lasting endurance.

Long Run Fartlek

Throughout your long run, choose one point in the distance every mile to increase your speed to 90-100% of a 5k effort until you pass it. This can be as long or as short as you would like depending on your ability and the distance you plan on covering that day. Not only will this help with speed, but it will add some fun and strength building to the long day ahead of you.

Speed work is one of the greatest, and most neglected, training tools a runner can use. Increasing speed and strength can greatly drop any race time while mitigating the risk of race-day injury. Finding training partners or a group can be instrumental in getting yourself out for the workouts and reaching your next goal.

Good luck and run fast!

Need some speed work motivation? Join the Golden R.U.T Runners-we meet every Tuesday for track practice!

Lexi Miller

Lexi Miller

Running Coach at Lifelong Endurance

Lexi is the Community Manager and Running Coach at Lifelong Endurance. She works with athletes from a holistic perspective to insure happiness and health through sport.