David Lowes on speed endurance
THE ABILITY TO SUMMON A SPRINT AT THE END OF A DISTANCE RACE IS A GREAT WEAPON IN ANY RUNNER’S ARMOURY, WRITES DAVID LOWES
THE world’s best endurance athletes have one great asset – they can run forever. No surprise there then. However, all of them can also run fast over the closing stages of their races – and some can run unbelievably fast. So much so that it almost feels like what happened before the bell blurs into obscurity.
An obvious example over 10,000m is Mo Farah. With 24 tough laps completed, the lap counter signals just one final 400m circuit and it is game-on for Farah.
While others run a swift 55-56sec circuit – and as impressive as that sounds – it usually results in a place outside of the medals, whereas Farah, at his pomp, was able to run a 52-53sec final lap.
In this article I’ll take a look at the role of speed in endurance events. However, before I do this let’s consider that the physical make-up of an athlete can have a huge influence.
I’m talking here about muscle fibre in particular. The percentage of fast, slow and intermediate twitch fibres varies from person to person and is determined by genetics, but can be changed with appropriate training. I’ll examine some of the limitations, potentialities and options for training these in the following in order to improve endurance speed as well as look at the different types of speed required for successful endurance running – see the panel opposite for more on muscle fibre.
If we look at events from 800m through to the marathon, it’s quite easy to see the speed and endurance requirements. There are three basic speeds of training: slower than race pace, race pace, and faster than race pace. All are vitally important.
Those that gain success deal with the spread of those paces better than others. Too much ‘top-end’ speed, although essential, has to be blended with slower paces, including an appropriate recovery to produce improvements and peak performance and develop muscle fibre relevantly.
Although many club runners love a 16x400m session with a 60sec recovery, a 4x400m flat-out session with a 5-8min recovery can be even more beneficial if done at the appropriate time in training.
A chat with most endurance runners would reveal that they class fast 400m reps as speed work when in fact it is a speed endurance session albeit with a high incidence of lactic acid.
Endurance runners face the dilemma of trying to train at many differing paces and distances in the hope of improving race performances by way of increased aerobic and anaerobic capability. These contain: within race pace, cruise pace and within top-end speed, sub-maximal sprinting and of course outright maximum speed sprinting.
The latter is a lot easier to produce when free of fatigue but when legs feel like a lead weight, it is no easy task at all. This therefore needs to be practiced regularly all-year round. And with this comes a big focus on mental toughness too – of which more later.
Before we go any further,
I’ve not found many runners who can deliver all of the above speed options. Certain runners will push hard for most of their chosen event and wear the opposition down, while others will be able to hang in and make a long run for home well before the sound of the bell.
However, whether your race is 800m or 10,000m, it will cause great frustration if you have played all your aces and still have three or more runners breathing down on you with only 100m remaining.
Those that have a great finish may well have that asset as a natural inherent ability (and the determination to unleash it). If you haven’t got it then you had better do something about it so that you have at least a chance to succeed. More on this again later.
How you can capitalise on your speed
If you are born with a preponderance of slow twitch muscles fibre you may actually struggle to improve your speed at all. However, having said that most research indicates that most of us are born with a fairly even distribution of fast and slow twitch muscle fibres. This means we should be able to take them in a specific sporting direction with the right training.
Although continual aerobic work, speed endurance and strength endurance sessions will be the staple of an endurance runner’s training regime with its focus on slow twitch muscle fibre – speed, and its potential effects on fast twitch muscle fibre, should never ever be neglected.
If we define speed as the ability to run as quickly as possible before the onset of lactic acid, it should become obvious that very short distances are desired to produce this effect. In conversation with the great Peter Elliott many years ago, the athlete said: “I came to realise that doing flat-out 200m and 150m reps were not only giving me constant injury problems but also the comprehension that I never ever ran anywhere near that pace in an 800m race.”
He added “I then started to run at, or around, my race pace and finished off sessions with things like flying 40m sprints which were done at 100%.”
These explosive efforts done regularly can help with leg turnover and stimulate fast twitch muscle fibre. Research indicates that running at these high anaerobic power efforts will also boost running economy, VO2max and lactate tolerance.
A further idea may be to do some sprints of maybe a slightly longer duration on a very slight downhill slope, so that the assistance allows for an increase in speed compared to on flat running. This may improve your run power and turn over.
A strong mind and body
Also, what’s often neglected when it comes to speed for endurance is potential muscle weaknesses in areas such as the core, glutes, hamstrings, quadriceps, calf muscles, or technically inappropriate foot plant, arm action and so on. These must all be identified and addressed accordingly through some form of testing and improved posture, appropriate drills, work in the gym and plyometric exercises.
As I’ve eluded to, a further aspect that’s often overlooked when it comes to endurance speed and one that can make a huge difference is working hard on your mental toughness to the point where you almost disregard fatigue and concentrate solely on the execution of your race. Your “speed” will take care of itself and hopefully your competitors.
Training is where you will work on this and the idea is to make yourself believe that no matter how tired you feel you still have the gears to explode into action when required. It’s tough, but it can be done.
While aerobic improvements can be improved significantly, even with the appropriate training, speed improvements may at best be minimal. However, if they are improved by even the smallest margin then those three runners breathing down your neck with the finish line in sight, may still be doing that as you take victory!
David Lowes is a freelance level 4 coach, writer and photographer, BMC academy chair, event organiser, English Schools 880 yards winner and 7:52 3000m and 2:15 marathon runner
Mo Farah: would line up in top-level global races confident of his sprint finish
Peter Elliott: adapted his speed work with experience