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Clearing Up Misconceptions Surrounding Speed Work

After doing a lot of thinking about this one, I came to the conclusion that it was better to put this information into a blog post rather than a video.


Because I would end up rambling for hours and you wouldn’t watch it. Plus, I am terrible at hiding emotion, and this is one of those calling every type of soda a “Coke” type of subjects. It cuts me to the core.

As a coach, I am constantly talking to people about how they can improve their speed. (Mostly as it pertains to running, but also with cyclists.)

The common misconception that I hear is that speed work (also widely known as intervals, track workouts, farleks, etc.) must always be hard.

I have to really watch what I say to people that I don’t coach because if I tell them they need to do speed work, they will likely go out and crush themselves on their local high school track in the proceeding days. Even if all I meant was they need to work on their leg turnover or work on holding a slightly higher pace for a longer period of time.

So below you will find my personal definitions of many commonly misunderstood terms, and the way we at BPC break down “speed work”:

  • Speed Work – (Sp-ee-duh Wer-k) – noun – Training that improves speed regardless of duration or intensity. [Before someone jumps the gun on me, yes, even endurance based runs can improve speed for newer runners, but generally speaking, only running long and slow will keep you, yup, slow]
  • Intervals – (In-ter-vuls) – noun – Training that involves specific durations at varying intensities.
  • Track Workout – (Trak Werk-ow-t) – noun – Training done on a track regardless of duration or intensity. Usually while trying to avoid a youth soccer practice.
  • Fartlek – (Fart-lick) <—never gets old – noun – Translates to speed play – See definition of Intervals.

So, since speed work is anything that improves speed, here is how we break down the different types of speed focused training sessions. Knowing which to do at specific phases of your training is also very important so I will put some info on that as well.

Note: the type of speed work you perform should be determined by your training experience and your current limiters.

Speed Skills

  • These are generally easy (not always) training sessions that incorporate mechanics work, drills, and other methods to improve your overall coordination and efficiency. Speed skills sessions are mostly focused on body position, ground contact work, improving leg turnover, and improving stride length. Other speed skill sessions can be used for improvements in overall coordination. These sessions are the absolute quickest way to increase your speed. Mark my words….
  • These are normally done in the early phases of a training program, but can be very useful as active recovery days for more experienced athletes. These sessions can also be added on the front end of another workout to increase the overall duration.

Speed Strength – These are sessions that involve improving overall run specific strength.

  • First developing durability and superior muscle activation, then, moving into maintaining a specific effort with a higher cost to the muscular system than the cardiovascular system.
  • A big focus of speed strength sessions is improving the extension phase of an athlete’s running gait and, in turn, optimizing stride length.
  • The most common form of speed strength sessions are HILL REPEATS.
  • These sessions are best done after an initial base building phase when developing durability and fatigue resistance is the focus as opposed to aerobic capabilities.
  • These training sessions can also be used in a competition phase if training for a hilly event, or if strength is a known limiter for the athlete.

Speed Endurance – These sessions are meant to develop the athlete’s ability to hold a higher sub-threshold to threshold pace for a longer period of time.

  • The most common type of speed endurance session is the tempo run.
  • These can also be done with a high number of short, moderately-hard intervals with recoveries that are not walking.
  • Recovery period is just as important as the interval itself because the athlete is learning how to recover while still running at a long run pace.
  • These training sessions are best done in the late build phases or competition phases.
  • They should be very controlled with a lot of focus on breathing and mechanics. Since you should not be going into oxygen debt, this should not be a problem.

An example would be: 16×400 meters at 5k pace with 1 minute recoveries at long run pace and 3 minutes after every 4th interval.

The big thing to note here is that the efforts are NOT even close to all out, but the cumulative time spent at a higher intensity would equal a very hard effort if done without recoveries.

Race Pace – The ever important race pace sessions. It still amazes me how people think they are going to run faster on race day than they have in training. If you never run an 8 min pace in training, you are not going to run it on race day. Simple as that.

  • Race pace training sessions are focused around banking time at a specific race goal pace (intensity).
  • There is some overlap here, because for long course athletes, this might mean adding in blocks of time at a steady state or tempo pace.
  • For short course athletes, this might mean doing more VO2 Max style workouts.

Just know, the closer you get to your goal event, the more time you need to spend at or above race pace. With that increase comes more time recovering between race pace training sessions.

VO2 Max – These sessions are hard as hell. No way around it.

  • You are putting out a maximal effort spread out over a specific amount of time and/or number of intervals.
  • These sessions are generally short, with walking or “off” recoveries.
  • VO2 Max sessions are there to push up your maximal cardiac output and oxygen uptake by going above and beyond what is considered hard.
  • These sessions are also great for training mental toughness and an athlete’s ability to suffer.
  • VO2 Max sessions are generally done in a competition or peak phase, but can be added into any phase depending on the structure of the workout (and rest) to help increase stride rate as well as maintain base aerobic fitness without the need for long slow efforts.

Mental Adversity Training (MAT) – These are sessions that we at BPC have developed over the years to help athletes become supremely aware of their body and effort regulation during times of uncertainty. This means you learn to maintain speed when the s#!t hits the fan.


  • You see the 1st place person up the road in front of you, but not the finish line, and you are already red lined.
  • You are maxed out in a breakaway, and an attack goes 2 miles from the finish.
  • Your Garmin dies and you have no clue how long you have left in the race.

Unfortunately, these sessions can only be done under the guidance of a knowledgeable coach. They pretty much entail your coach giving you the workout plan, letting you get into it, and then changing it on the fly.

Example: You start a hard interval that pushes you to the limit. Once there, your coach extends the interval by 1 minute. And at the end of that one minute, the coach tells you that you now have 3 minutes left. Before you know it, you’ve done a surprise threshold test. These sessions usually involve a few curse words, but you are definitely psyched when they are over.

Important training note: MAT sessions can be peppered in periodically by your coach as they see it necessary based on your wimpiness factor.

We hope this has helped clear up not only the types of “speed work” that are out there, but also helps you scale back your intensity when appropriate. Remember….not every “speed workout” is an all-out effort!

If you’re in the Memphis area, and you want to dig into the Speed Skill side of running fast, you won’t want to miss our Speed Maximization Run Workshop on February 13, 2016. Click the image below for details.

If you have questions or comments, feel free to post them below. We’d love to hear from you.

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