Speedwork for Running Training—Deconstructing the Jargon

Written by Bruce R. Copeland on October 25, 2008


All runners benefit from a certain amount of speedwork. Speedwork can substantially improve overall health and fitness, and that applies equally to those of us who do trail running and ultramarathons. In fact, it is sometimes claimed that ultrarunners develop slow legs because we spend too large a fraction of our mileage doing long, slow distances.

But what kind of speedwork? The terminology can be confusing and often doesn’t describe either how the workout is done or what the workout is supposed to accomplish. So here’s a breakdown of the main types of speed work for ALL runners:

  • Intervals—Any series of hard effort separated by short periods of recovery running. Examples are 7×800 meter, 4×1 mile, or a ladder(s) of 100 meter, 200 meter, 400 meter, 800 meter, 1.6 km. On trails, distances are less obvious or relevant, so a typical example might be 7×3 minutes. Total duration of high intensity effort is usually 20 – 25 minutes. The emphasis is on good running form at high effort. Intervals are intended to embed good form into muscle memory.
  • Fartleks—Literally speed play. These are any form of intervals in which the emphasis is on enjoyable speed rather than the discipline usually associated with intervals. This tends to produce a more effortless version of good running form.
  • Anaerobic (Lactate) Threshold Workout—Typically a 30 minute workout done at a sustainable pace in which the muscles are starting to burn or feel tired. The idea is to work hard enough that the muscles are just barely beginning to become anaerobic. It is very important to continue moving at a recovery pace for at least 10 minutes after the high intensity part of the workout is finished. Anaerobic threshold workouts increase the efficiency and number of muscle mitochondria, thereby raising anaerobic threshold.
  • Tempo Workout—Typically a 30 minute workout done at high turnover (tempo) with good running form. Originally this was synonymous with an anaerobic threshold workout; more recently the two workouts have come to mean slightly different things. The emphasis in a tempo workout is on sustained running form at high turnover, whereas an anaerobic threshold workout pushes muscle physiology toward the anaerobic threshold. Tempo workouts are functionally very similar to 4×1 mile intervals done with very short recovery periods.
  • VO2 Max Training—An all out effort for about three minutes, repeated six or seven times with at least 2 minutes recovery in between. The emphasis is on effort (as opposed to running form). VO2 Max training improves general cardiovascular capability and increases the number and size of mitochondria in the specific muscle groups used. It is similar to 800 meter intervals but should be done at a considerably harder level.
  • Pickups—A series of 15 to 20 short (30 to 45 second) accelerations with one to three minutes recovery in between. These are intended to improve acceleration and the perception of strength, as opposed to speed.
  • Hill Work—Any form of speed work done on hills. Uphills can be used to intensify any of the other types of speedwork that don’t have an emphasis on running form. Speedwork types that DO emphasize running form can often be done effectively downhill. Downhill running involves eccentric muscle contractions, and downhill speedwork can help to minimize quadriceps soreness in races.
  • Heat Stress Training—A series of three or more 20 to 30 minute anaerobic threshold workouts interspersed with 10 to 15 minutes of recovery pace. Heat stress training builds long distance resiliance. Though it has substantial benefits for muscles, it is really intended to train the mind to accept higher effort over longer periods of time. Done in moderate temperatures, it simulates many of the effects of extended running in heat.

In all cases recovery is done at a heart rate 60 – 70% of maximum.

Clearly there is some overlap between different kinds of workouts, and there is no universally best workout. Maybe you recognize a workout that would be useful to you on your next training run. If you already have preferred workouts, maybe this description helps you understand why those workouts are effective, and/or what you might want to do to augment them.