Speed and interval sessions #REDBED Day 22

I’ve not done a training-based blog post for a little while, so I thought I’d talk about speed and interval sessions.

Do long distance runners really need to do speed and interval sessions?

One of the themes that comes up time and again on the #UKRunChat twitter feed revolves around getting personal bests (PBs).

Without getting into the philosophical arguments of chasing PBs, there is often a desire to run that race faster than you’ve done before. In fact there’s no magical solution to this. Aside from the environmental factors (e.g. course profile, weather) it all comes down to training and nutrition. But at the same time, doing the right training is the important thing here.

Speed – It’s just about going faster, isn’t it?

Well yes, but that’s rather over-simplifying the situation really. One common misconception with doing a long distance race faster is that you just practice that distance at an increasingly quick pace. The reality is that whilst you’ll make some initial gains (if you’re just started out at that distance), you’ll end up plateauing out pretty quickly. Assuming you don’t get injured in the process first.

The reality is that our muscles as made up of different fibres, which have different abilities. Some are (relatively) slow to contract/move, but utilise oxygen within their energy source so have a longer level of endurance capability. Others can contract much more quickly but have a much lower level of endurance.

You may have heard these two types referred to as ‘quick twitch’ and ‘slow twitch’ muscles. One is used predominantly for speed (quick twitch) and the other for endurance (slow twitch).

Utilising the right muscles

OK, so I’ve intentionally suggested that you get to pick and choose which muscles to use. It’s not quite that straightforward! What you can do though is to tailor your training to favour one or other type. It’s this focused training which will ultimately help build their individual strengths and your speed over the distance.

If you just go out and do the same training over and over, the muscles adapt. But once adapted to that training, they don’t get better/stronger; hence the plateau. If you just keep on your long distance runs without mixing it up, you’ll just get to a level and no further.

So instead, adding some speed work into your training helps to build up your quick-twitch muscle fibres. Similarly, your longest runs should be nice and slow, to build up the strength of the slow-twitch muscles. By focusing your training, your race pace should be more easily improved as you’ve trained your muscles to a better level.

What does this look like in practice?

Let me get the long slow run (LSR) out of the way first; it’s sort of what this post isn’t about. Think of it as a time-on-feet type run rather than in terms of pace. You’re certainly not going to be doing your LSRs at your intended race-pace. This is all about making those slow-twitch fibres stronger. So a nice slow steady pace (conversation at this pace will be easy).

The speed-work may be something you’ve not tried before (or at least since you left school!). Speed-work tends to be very short distance at a hard effort, with a period of recovery. The most common style of speed-work is done as a set of intervals. So the distance may only be a few hundred metres up to maybe only 1km. The difference here is that you’re going out hard, but as soon as the effort has happened, you get to rest before doing it all again.

For example one of my favourite interval sessions is 5x 1000m separated with a short recovery period. Each 1km interval should be hard, but at a level where you can do the 5th one at the same pace as the 1st. As your fitness improves, the time needed to recovery will lessen and your interval speed may increase as well.

By focusing your energy into training the right set of muscle fibres, overall you will improve your fitness more than if you tried to do it all in one go. Tailoring your training to fit around you (rather than using an ‘off-the-shelf’ plan) will also help with your training. I’ll leave that one for another day.

Today’s run

The increased intensity of the runs this week has really begun to take it’s toll. Another day today where I wondered how I was going to get a run to happen! But with Run Up 2 Christmas coming to an end on Monday with a 250km target in mind, today was to be another longish (10k) run. But having done an all-out trail exploration yesterday, today was around a nice flat park. Ten times around it! The theory being that if 10k was going to be too much, I wasn’t too far from an abort option!

10 laps of the 1k park!

10 laps of the 1k park!

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