LEANER, FASTER, HEALTHIER, STRONGER AND TOUGHER
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
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.’
MORE IS BETTER
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.
BUILD YOUR BASE
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.’
UP TO SPEED
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.
MIND OVER MPH
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