I am starting off today’s post with a story. It will all make sense as you read through and understand what happened when I started speed work, when I began embracing speed work, and how it has helped me become a better runner.
The journey to embracing speed work
So the story — I ran track in late middle school and early high school and hated it. I felt ignored by the coaches because I was not one of the top runners and was an uncompetitive athlete in a very competitive school when it comes to athletics. I just did not fit in and found other ways to get involved with my school rather than through sports. So I stopped running. I ran here and there throughout high school, but never long, never fast, I just did it.
When I got to college, I realized I was on the fast track to the Freshman 15 if I did not start exercising and eating in moderation. So when I got back from winter break and started my second semester of college, I was determined to pick running back up. Not to compete, just to relieve stress during college and to stay active, especially on days when I sat around studying for hours. I found out I actually really enjoyed running (much to the surprise of all of my family and friends from high school) and stuck with it. I continued running during my sophomore year of college. I did not go out with any set distance or time, I just ran. It was a way for me relieve stress and it was my “me time.” Which I realized I really needed on a campus with over 40,000 students. I just went out and ran. I finally started challenging myself with distance and began running more than my usual distance. First I challenged myself to 4 miles, then 5 miles, then 6 miles, and continued bumping up my mileage.
My junior year of college I was able to run 8 miles comfortably. But if you look at my pace from freshman year to junior year it was the same. I went out ran and called it good. I challenged myself in distance, finally running a half marathon after my junior year, but my paces were the same. The only variance in my runs each day was the distance.
After my first half marathon, I wanted a summer off from distance running. I wanted to bump up the intensity of my runs, rather than the distance, so I started heading to the local track once a week. I did not really go in with a set workout, I would just go the local track and make the workout up on the fly. I thought I would hate going back to a high school track since I hated running track in high school, but when I went, I found myself falling in love with doing a speed workout with sprinting and leaving it all out there on the track. All the things I liked about running in track in high school came back to me and I forgot about the things that I hated about it.
I decided I wanted to combine speed work into my training for my second half marathon. I saw people on social media doing it to reach new PRs and since I wanted a new PR, I tried it out. I found a training plan that had speed work in it once a week — either in the form of mile repeats (the worst!) or hill repeats (speed work in disguise). I trained for 8 weeks, completing those workouts every day. I went into race day feeling strong and ready to go. The result? A 7 minute PR and crushing my goal.
So I thought, there has to be something to this speed work. It worked for me!
I cut back on mileage over the winter and decided to wait until March to pick up training again. I signed up for a 5k + 10k race and found a training plan that incorporated speed work 1-2 times per week — in the form of tempo runs, track workouts, hill repeats. Every week I followed the plan and felt like I was getting back into the shape I had gotten in during the fall. I was running faster and felt stronger on my long runs when I was not concerned with my pace.
Why I embrace speed work
Focusing on speed work, even when the last thing I wanted to do when my alarm went off was to head to the track, was paying off. Not only have I been able to increase my speed, which is even helpful for long races like half marathons, but it has made me a stronger runner. I can handle longer runs because my legs are stronger and are learning what to do with fatigue.
I saw that speed work actually worked to make me a better runner. I realized that I am not going to get any faster by running the same pace every.single.day. I have to get out the door and challenge myself to push myself. I have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable in my running. Of course I am not going to push myself so hard I end up overtraining or getting injured. but I am going to push myself to get faster and to get stronger. I began embracing speed work, instead of hating and dreading it.
I embrace speed work because I know it will benefit me in upcoming races, I feel pretty darn awesome sprinting on a track (anyone else embrace their inner Usain Bolt??), and I feel even better when I finish a speed workout and look at what I just accomplished.
Getting started with speed work
This could be a whole post or series of posts in itself, but I thought I would share a few tips for newbies to embracing speed work.
- Have a mantra
Use a mantra to get you through your workout even when you want to give up. I use the mantra “You can do hard things” to push me through every run I want to give up on.
- Understand the track
If you are going to be doing speed work on track, understand how a track is laid out first. Tracks can be different in their distances so understand, before you start your workout, where you should start and end to reach 100 or 200 meters.
- Don’t be afraid to stop and walk
The great thing about going to a track and doing speed work is when you feel the need to stop and rest, you can just step off the track and stop (just make sure not cut anyone off by stopping or cutting across lanes to stop). Speed workouts are tough. If you are like me, you will look forward to finishing an interval set and having a few minutes to rest before starting up again. Sometimes I stop completely, sometimes I slow to a walk, sometimes I just slow the pace. Whatever it is, listen to your body and do what it is asking you to do. There is no shame in taking a break, newbie or not (especially in the summer heat!!).
Runners, do you do speed work?
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