The abil­ity to run faster than we thought pos­si­ble lives within all of us, no mat­ter our age, level of abil­ity or pre­ferred dis­tance. With just a few tweaks to your train­ing you could be rack­ing up the PBS

Runner's World (UK) - - In This Issue -

We have the sci­ence, the tips, the work­outs and the in­spi­ra­tional run­ners who will get you where you need to be

When did you last sprint? Re­ally sprint? Arms pump­ing, heart pound­ing, feet fly­ing. Af­ter­wards, dou­bled over, you suck in oxy­gen as the pain of the ef­fort sub­sides. You should be think­ing, ‘Never again’ – in­stead, you’re smil­ing. ‘Run­ning as fast as pos­si­ble is ex­hil­a­rat­ing,’ says Ja­son Fitzger­ald, head coach at Strength Run­ning (strength­run­ning.com). ‘It’s a pri­mal move­ment.’ But there’s more than fun to be gained from un­leash­ing your inner speed de­mon. ‘The ben­e­fits of sprint train­ing in­clude im­proved run­ning econ­omy [how much oxy­gen you use to run at a given speed], faster top-end speeds, bet­ter neu­ro­mus­cu­lar co­or­di­na­tion and greater mus­cu­lar strength,’ says Fitzger­ald. Jeff Gaudette, coach and founder of Run­ners Con­nect (run­ner­scon­nect.com) agrees. ‘I be­lieve all dis­tance run­ners should have strides and short sprints in their train­ing, even if they’re train­ing for a marathon,’ he says.

‘The fo­cus is on im­prov­ing the ef­fi­ciency of the neu­ro­mus­cu­lar sys­tem – the line of com­mu­ni­ca­tion between your brain and your mus­cles – which will not only con­trib­ute to the ac­ti­va­tion of more mus­cle fi­bres but also in­crease the speed at which your brain sends sig­nals to the mus­cles.’

To appr eg­ceiat­tet win­hgy Tth­wisi mt­cathtey rs even if you don’t race any­thing shorter than a half marathon, you need to un­der­stand a lit­tle about mus­cle fi­bres. Some mus­cle fi­bres are ‘slowtwitch’ – these take time to reach their peak force and don’t pro­duce as much force as their ‘fast-twitch’ neigh­bours, but they are easy to re­cruit and they’re fa­tigue-re­sis­tant – per­fect for log­ging steady miles. In con­trast, fast-twitch fi­bres pro­duce greater force and do so more rapidly – but they also tire more quickly. You won’t be sur­prised to hear that East African dis­tance run­ners tend to have more of the for­mer, while sprint­ers of African de­scent have more of the lat­ter.

The crash-and-burn na­ture of fast-twitch fi­bres means they only get re­cruited when the mus­cle needs to ex­plo­sively pro­duce a very high force (for ex­am­ple, to lift a heavy weight over­head). ‘Sprint­ing ex­poses you to much higher forces than does run­ning at your usual train­ing pace,’ says Gareth Cole, head of ed­u­ca­tion at the Third Space gym (thethirdspace. com). ‘As you adapt to these higher forces, run­ning at slower speeds au­to­mat­i­cally feels eas­ier.’


Most of us dis­tance run­ners rarely trou­ble our fast-twitch fi­bres dur­ing a typical train­ing week be­cause the in­ten­sity at which we are run­ning falls be­low the thresh­old that would re­quire them to ‘step in’. But what hap­pens when our slow-twitch fi­bres’ ca­pac­ity has been ex­hausted through pro­longed ef­fort? For ex­am­ple, at mile 18 of a marathon. Wouldn’t it be good to have fresh re­cruits to step in? This is where hav­ing trained your fast­twitch fi­bres through max­i­mal-speed run­ning comes into its own.

‘Sprint­ing is one of the only ways in which a dis­tance run­ner is go­ing to learn how to re­cruit a large num­ber of those harder-to-re­cruit fast-twitch fi­bres, in­creas­ing the size of the pool of re­cruitable mus­cle fi­bres,’ ex­plains per­for­mance coach Steve Mag­ness (sci­ence­ofrun­ning.com).

The larger the pool, the more mus­cle fi­bres are avail­able when the go­ing gets tough. ‘When the slow-twitch fi­bres are be­ing over­whelmed, you have other fi­bres avail­able to do some of the work,’ says Mag­ness. The re­sult? You’ll be able to main­tain your sub­max­i­mal paces for longer with­out suc­cumb­ing to fa­tigue. You’ll also be able to pro­duce a mean kick on the home straight of your next race – be­cause those fast-twitch fi­bres will be ac­cus­tomed to fir­ing.

Ac­cord­ing to Gaudette, speed de­vel­op­ment boils down to im­prov­ing both your run­ning econ­omy and your ef­fi­ciency – the amount of ef­fort it re­quires to run at that speed. ‘In lay­man’s terms, bet­ter base­line speed al­lows you to run faster and fur­ther with less ef­fort and while ex­pend­ing less en­ergy,’ he says.

Wor­ried your sprint­ing days are gone? You’re just the type of run­ner who needs it most. ‘As ath­letes get older, more em­pha­sis is needed on speed train­ing to com­bat losses in strength, num­bers of fast-twitch fi­bre and neu­ral re­cruit­ment,’ says Mag­ness.


A reg­u­lar sprin­kling of flat-out run­ning will also help you hone bet­ter run­ning tech­nique. ‘Sprint­ing pro­vides an ex­cel­lent plat­form to work off and im­prove run­ning me­chan­ics,’ says Mag­ness. And that has ben­e­fits be­yond just look­ing bet­ter in your race-day pho­tos. The abil­ity to store and re­cover elas­tic en­ergy (the en­ergy stored between con­trac­tion and re­lease – think of when a rub­ber band is pulled back taut) from the length­en­ing con­trac­tions of mus­cles and ten­dons is known as the stretch-short­en­ing cy­cle and is a key part of run­ning econ­omy. The more for­ward propul­sion you can de­rive from this ‘free’ en­ergy source, the less oxy­gen you use at any given pace and the more you can de­lay fa­tigue. ‘Through sprint­ing, the body gets bet­ter at

stiff­en­ing the lower leg upon im­pact, thus im­prov­ing en­ergy stor­age and re­turn,’ says Mag­ness.


In his book The sci­ence of run­ning (Ori­gin Press), Mag­ness puts for­ward the con­cept of build­ing a ‘speed base’ be­fore leap­ing into more spe­cific speed­work, in the same way that run­ners should look to build an ‘aer­o­bic’ or en­durance base be­fore pro­gress­ing to more spe­cific train­ing ses­sions. ‘A base is the foun­da­tion on which we build more spe­cific work,’ he ex­plains. ‘Pure speed­work pro­vides the foun­da­tion on which to build up­wards to­wards speed en­durance and race speci­ficity.’ The idea makes sense to Alex Hutchinson, author of En­dure: mind, body and the cu­ri­ously elas­tic lim­its of hu­man Per­for­mance (Harper Collins). ‘It’s im­por­tant to build speed in a pro­gres­sive way,’ he says. ‘ Your mus­cles have to be pre­pared for such de­mands.’

That’s why the first step to a faster you is to look for a steep hill. ‘Hill sprints work as a great in­tro­duc­tion to sprint­ing be­cause it is al­most im­pos­si­ble to get hurt do­ing them,’ says Mag­ness. Pop­u­larised by Re­nato Canova, the leg­endary Ital­ian coach who has worked with many elite Kenyan marathon­ers, hill sprints are now pre­scribed by many coaches as a pre­cur­sor to flat sprint­ing. ‘They in­tro­duce max­i­mal-in­ten­sity ef­fort – in­creas­ing the pool of mus­cle fi­bres avail­able to you – with less me­chan­i­cal stress than flat sprint­ing,’ ex­plains Fitzger­ald, who is a keen pro­po­nent. ‘It’s like weight-lift­ing for your legs, only more run­ning-spe­cific.’


To ben­e­fit from hill sprints, you need to run them as fast as you can. That means keep­ing the vol­ume low and tak­ing plenty of re­cov­ery between reps to min­imise the risk of over­do­ing things (see Un­leash your speed, p43). Look for a hill with a gra­di­ent of five-to-seven per cent. A tread­mill can help give you an idea of what this steep­ness feels like. If you like, you can per­form your ses­sion on the tread­mill but make sure it’s one with a top speed of 20kph, and en­sure you’re con­fi­dent about jump­ing your feet out to the sides of the mov­ing belt to rest between in­ter­vals; oth­er­wise, stick to out­doors.

Af­ter a few weeks of hill sprints – cap­ping both the du­ra­tion (in

Bet­ter base­line speed al­lows you to run faster and fur­ther with less ef­fort

sec­onds) and num­ber of reps at 10 – Mag­ness rec­om­mends in­tro­duc­ing al­ter­nate weeks of flat sprints, grad­u­ally build­ing up the dis­tance of these to 100m. Once you’ve reached that stage, you will have de­vel­oped a good speed base and can main­tain your gains with a sprint ses­sion ev­ery two to four weeks. ‘Dis­tance run­ners don’t need to sprint too of­ten,’ says Fitzger­ald. ‘Do­ing so would just take time away from more ben­e­fi­cial work­outs.’ But adding strides (short but re­laxed bursts of quick run­ning) to the end of a reg­u­lar run once or twice a week is a great way to help you re­tain top-end speed, be­lieves Hutchinson. ‘It could just be four or five sprints or ac­cel­er­a­tions of 10-15 sec­onds each.’

De­spite the high in­ten­sity of the sprint work­outs sug­gested on these pages, you won’t need to de­vote days to re­cover af­ter each one be­cause the over­all vol­ume is so low. ‘ You may feel a lit­tle sore af­ter the first sprint ses­sions, but as you get more used to them you’ll be sur­prised how fresh your legs feel the fol­low­ing day,’ says Cole. ‘In fact, many coaches sched­ule short sprint ses­sions the day be­fore ath­letes’ tougher work­outs to en­sure they go in with plenty of bounce.’


In tra­di­tional run­ning terms, af­ter build­ing an en­durance base, you would start to gear your ses­sions more specif­i­cally to­wards the pace you plan to run over the race dis­tance you are tar­get­ing. In pre­cisely the same way, once you’ve de­vel­oped your speed base, you need to progress to the right kind of speed­work for your cho­sen race dis­tance. ‘Get­ting faster over a half marathon re­quires a very dif­fer­ent ap­proach than does speed­ing up your one-mile time-trial PB,’ says Cole. And nei­ther can be con­quered on a diet of sprints.

‘The con­cept of speed is to­tally con­text-de­pen­dent,’ says Hutchinson. ‘In any dis­tance event, the “fastest” run­ner at the end of the race is the one who has sim­ply tired the least. In that sense, the biggest lim­it­ing fac­tor for most run­ners is en­durance. Even for a 5K race, around 97 per cent of the en­ergy you re­quire comes from aer­o­bic sources, which means the best ad­vice for many run­ners could sim­ply be “run more.”’

That’s par­tic­u­larly true for new run­ners, who of­ten be­gin to add speed­work and tempo runs be­fore they’ve built a solid base of easy run­ning – ‘run be­fore you can walk’ syn­drome. But it’s equally ap­pli­ca­ble to run­ners who train spo­rad­i­cally, but mis­tak­enly try to ‘get the most’ out of their in­fre­quent ses­sions by mak­ing them all in­tensely chal­leng­ing. ‘Most elites do about 80 per cent of their train­ing at rel­a­tively slow paces, fo­cus­ing on cov­er­ing long dis­tances with­out wor­ry­ing about pace,’ ex­plains Hutchinson. ‘The other 20 per cent is done at thresh­old pace or faster, mean­ing that it feels hard. This mix is a pow­er­ful way of work­ing on your race speed from both ends of the spec­trum.’

And it ties in nicely with the con­cept of the speed base. To work to­wards your cho­sen race, you start your build-up by log­ging easy miles, com­bined with pure speed de­vel­op­ment. While main­tain­ing

and, in­deed, de­vel­op­ing your aer­o­bic fit­ness with steady runs and thresh­old train­ing, you grad­u­ally gear your speed train­ing more specif­i­cally to­wards your race de­mands and your goal pace – main­tain­ing your newly honed pure speed with the oc­ca­sional sprint work­out.


Could your mind help you run faster? Sci­ence sug­gests it can. Re­searchers at Ox­ford Brookes Univer­sity showed that for two groups whose train­ing in­creased their phys­i­cal ca­pac­ity (VO2 max and lac­tate thresh­old) by the same amount, the group whose train­ing was more un­com­fort­able – short, hard ef­forts rather than long, mod­er­ate ones – was able to per­form much bet­ter in sub­se­quent per­for­mance tests. The re­searchers be­lieve it comes down to mak­ing friends with pain. They tested pain tolerance and found that those suf­fer­ing through 6-8 x 5 mins of in­tense ef­fort in­creased their pain tolerance by 41 per cent. The pro­longed group didn’t im­prove at all.

‘Prac­tis­ing dig­ging deep in train­ing makes it eas­ier to face in­creas­ing ef­fort and dis­com­fort in the clos­ing stages of a race,’ says Gaudette. He likes to get run­ners to do ‘ham­mer in­ter­vals’, in which one or two in­ter­vals within a set are run all out. ‘Be­cause the rest in­ter­val stays the same, you don’t com­pletely re­cover as you would in a typical in­ter­val ses­sion and you start the next hard rep still tired,’ he says. ‘This pro­vides a more race­spe­cific work­out and teaches your body how to push when it counts.’

An ex­am­ple ham­mer work­out for run­ners train­ing for a 5K could be 8 x 800 me­tres at 3-5km race pace with two min­utes’ rest, bring­ing down the ‘ham­mer’ (run­ning as fast as you can) on in­ter­vals 4 and 7. Main­tain the two-minute rest pe­riod af­ter each ham­mer and do your best to get back onto 5K pace af­ter­wards.

For less ex­pe­ri­enced run­ners, Hutchinson be­lieves that part of get­ting faster comes down to learn­ing to dis­tin­guish between warn­ing signs and stop signs rather than en­dur­ing the suf­fer­ing. ‘When you first start run­ning, be­ing out of breath and feel­ing your legs throb­bing make you feel like you ab­so­lutely have to stop,’ he says. ‘As you get more fa­mil­iar with those feel­ings, you learn that you can ig­nore them for a while.’ Which means the bet­ter you’ll be at know­ing when to push your­self. Maybe it’s time to start think­ing about in­vest­ing in an­other medal rack.

IN­FORMED AS­CENT Want to get faster? Find a steep hill

HARD FACTS You may have to make friends with pain, or at least not treat it as the en­emy

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