2011-06-21

The Marathon: Part X - Speed Training and Track Work

Speed training is classic. Speed training is what makes the difference between a casual jogger and one who is aiming for a specific goal. There is a lot to be said about speed training and track work, so I will get right down to it.

How Traditional Speed Training Differs from Fartlek TrainingIf this is your first exposure to serious training, then you have not yet encountered speed training, only fartlek training.As I mentioned in Part VIII, fartlek training is somewhat subjective, focusing primarily on how a pace feels to you personally, rather than aiming for a specific distance within a specific time frame. The goal of fartlek training is to improve pacing and increase your VO2-max (i.e. to improve your body's efficiency in terms of aerobic cellular respiration).

In contrast, the goal of speed training is to develop your muscles. If you've ever seen a world-class sprinter, for example, (the fastest human beings on the planet), their leg muscles are enormous. That's because it requires a lot of fast-twitch muscle fiber to go that fast. We're training for a marathon, so we won't be developing that level of muscle mass, nor that level of speed.

What we want to do is bring our abilities in line with our goals. Which brings me to my next point.

The Idea in Principle
We don't just want to run a marathon at our current level of ability. (Especially if you've never run a marathon before, right? You don't yet have the ability.) Instead, we want to aim for a goal. I ran my last marathon in 2:47, which corresponds to about a 6:22/mile pace. Suppose this time I'd like to run closer to 6:00/mile pace. Then, 6:00 per mile becomes my goal pace. This is the pace by which I plan my speed training.

When we engage in track workouts, what we are trying to do is accustom our bodies to that sort of speed, understanding all the while that we cannot currently run that speed (or at least, not for 26.2 miles). We do this by engaging in two techniques to build speed and speed tolerance: (1) Running faster than goal pace and (2) Running goal pace for longer than you can.

Let's start with (1).

Running Faster Than Goal PaceTrack workouts of this variety typically involve short or very-short distances at high speeds. One classic example from my high school track coach was running 20 x 200m repeats (that is, twenty iterations of running half way around the track). Generally speaking, you can run 200 meters at a much faster pace than you can run 26.2 miles. Because we're training for long-distance running, though, just running a few 200-meter repeats won't suffice. Twenty 200m sprints corresponds to ten times around the track, or 2.5 miles. Not bad for a high schooler, but not great for an adult marathoner.

A better way to go might be to tackle your race distance. For example, if you're training for a 5K, you'll want to go for something more like 12 laps. This would correspond to 24 x 200m repeats. That can be a lot of sprints all at once, so to accommodate for the workload, we might break it up into three pieces, as follows:
  1. 8 x 200m repeats with 60 seconds rest in between each;
  2. Three minutes' rest;
  3. 8 x 200m repeats with 60 seconds rest in between each;
  4. Three minutes rest;
  5. 8 x 200m repeats with 60 seconds rest in between each.
This ensures a rigorous track workout with plenty of recovery time to keep you going all the way to the end.

Running Goal Pace for Longer Than You Currently Can
Another series of track workouts operates under the assumption that your goal pace is perfectly reasonable - or even easy - for a shorter distances, but very difficult for the distance you're training for. For example, I might be able to run a 5K quite comfortably in 19:00, but to keep that pace for an entire marathon - more than 8 times that distance - would prove a formidable goal.

So my track workout might consist of one-mile repeats (four laps) at 6:00/mile pace, or 1:30 per lap. Each one of these one-mile repeats individually might not be a big deal. But if I do enough of them - say, six - then I'll get a very good workout.

Setting Your Baseline
If you have never done any track workouts before, set aside your first track workout day as an experiment. Run a one-mile repeat at tempo pace. Then run a 1200m repeat at tempo pace. Then 800m, 600m, 400m, and 200m. Write down how fast you ran all of them, and use that as your "starting point." Next week, when you tackle your track workout, use the corresponding time as your pacing guideline.

Okay, now we're ready for a track workout!