If You Want to Run Fast, You Have to Train Fast
In 2017, U.S. ultrarunner Camille Herron shattered the 100-mile world record by over an hour, completing the distance in 12 hours 42 minutes 40 seconds. Last month, at the U.S. 100 Mile Road Championships, she broke her own world record, finishing in 12:41:11, a time that placed her first overall, ahead of the top male runner by almost 30 minutes.
When she started competing in ultramarathons (any distance longer than the 42.195 kilometers of a marathon) in 2015, Herron was already a pedigreed marathon runner. She had qualified for the U.S. Olympic Trials three times, and had been a high school cross country and track star. She had run a marathon in 2:48 dressed as Spiderwoman.
But it is at the longer distances that Herron found her groove. She has set world records on the roads and on the track at distances from 50 miles to 24 hours, and she is a three-time winner of the IAU 24 Hour World Championship.
What does it take to run 100 miles? Or 24 hours?
Well, mostly it takes determination, and a good nutrition strategy. Christopher McDougall, author of Born to Run, described ultrarunning as: “An eating and drinking contest, with a little exercise and scenery thrown in.”
What does it take to run 100 miles or 24 hours fast? It takes determination, a good nutrition strategy, and speed work.
The same is true for the marathon, half marathon and the 10K.
If you want to run fast, you have to train fast.
After her recent 100-miles world record, Herron told The New York Times, “I don’t do very many long runs, maybe 18 to 22 miles is my long run. I only do a long run every couple of weeks. In the eight weeks before a peak race, I do 900 to 1,050 miles, so that’s about 120 miles (less than 200 kilometers) a week.”
Herron added, “There are a lot of ultrarunners who train with extreme long runs, and I’ve never done that. I think maybe some ultrarunners should rethink their approach and take a more speed-specific, marathon-specific approach that might bring them more success.” She continued, “I do a lot of speed work. I do short intervals, long intervals, tempo runs of 30 to 45 minutes. And I also do hill training to develop strength in my legs and my body.”
Her bottom line: “It’s not like I can do a 100-mile run in training for a 100-mile race.”
Every runner who races, or just wants to record a new personal best time for his or her “home course”, can benefit from speed work. Without it, at some point you’ll stop getting faster.
Why? Because if you go out to East Coast Park every day and run eight kilometers in 40 minutes, after a few years of doing the same workout you will be very, very good at running eight kilometers in East Coast Park in 40 minutes. Will you be able to ask your muscles to do eight kilometers in 36 minutes? Not likely.
How can you train yourself, then, to run 36 minutes when you want to? For example, when you sign yourself up for a Sunday road race? It’s simple: you’ve got to train your muscles to run faster.
Interval training is a training method that combines short, faster-than- normal runs with a regulated rest period, the “interval”. The point of interval training is to condition the body to the pace at which it will be racing.
Interval workouts can improve performance dramatically because they get the legs accustomed to running faster than usual, which has the effect of making the previous pace feel slow. In a racing situation, your legs are more easily able to perform at a faster pace because they've done it many times in practice. The action is ingrained in your muscle memory, much as repeated practice of tennis forehands results in consistent shot-making.
The key is to limit the amount of rest between sprints. Although the body is not completing the full race distance during each sprint, with short rest the athlete can string together a number of sprints that may add up to more than the eventual distance to be run.
This is a technique that need not be done only on a track, nor is it a training method for world class athletes alone. Runners can pace off approximate distances on their favourite stretch of road or path and devote one training session per week to “track work”. If a track is available it will probably be uncrowded and will provide accurate distances and a change of scenery.
Interval training is a technique that also can be used by indoor athletes: treadmill joggers, exercise bicyclists, and indoor rowers. Many exercise machines are computerised and provide accurate information about distance traveled.
The next question is: "How much rest?" Trial and error is not a bad method for determining this, since individual fitness levels are extremely variable. Athletes who race will find it helpful to set performance goals.
Complete recovery (i.e. ten minutes between 400-metre dashes) is too much. If ten minutes does not seem adequate, the pace of the sprint is too fast. Conversely, unless you are already in top shape, a rest period of ten or fifteen seconds between runs is too little. As an example, race pace for a 45:00 10km runner works out to 4:30 per km. This runner might hope to run 43:00 and slash 12 seconds per km from his or her pace, to 4:18.
Interval training for our hypothetical runner might select 4:10 pace as the training target, and the maximum training distance at first might be one km. As fitness increases, 3km in 12:30 is feasible.
As an example, you might decide to do six 800-metre (two laps on most tracks) runs in 3:25, with a rest of two minutes between each. Alternatively, you could do two or three 1600m runs in 6:50 with a rest of four minutes. Both of these workout possibilities would take around 30 minutes to complete, plus time for warm-up and warm-down.
There are plenty of training guides online to fit everyone’s fitness level and pace targets, and if you are in a running club or training group, some of your more experienced colleagues will be able to suggest training sessions.
Do marathon runners need to do speed work? Absolutely! My best time for the marathon is 2 hours 23 minutes. That works out to just under 3 minutes 25 seconds for each kilometre, for 42.2 kilometres. It means I ran four 10- kilometre sections of the race in 34 minutes. With no rest.
So what? My point is that when I ran that 2:23, I was able to run under 30 minutes for a single 10K. As a result, I was able to run 34 minutes easily for the first 10K of my marathon, and feel relaxed doing it. A good thing, too, since I had 32K to go at that stage.
For most people, the daily run, or swim, can get to be a grind. Up at six, lace up the shoes, and out the door for a sleepy-eyed plod around the same circuit, day in and day out. Not only will the addition of a once-or-twice- weekly interval session add variety to your workouts, it will in all probability improve your race performance.
[First published on RUN Singapore, March 2022]
📸: Jubilee Paige