Saturday, January 21, 2012

Questioning the Necessity of Speed Training in Distance Running

I don't believe it would be a stretch to say that at one time or another most of us believed the teaching that racing well could only be achieved by doing interval work at maximum effort. I know that's what the coaches taught while I was a student, it's also what I heard in later years after I became a coach. There was a certain machismo or warrior aspect associated to dropping onto the infield of a track after doing your second set of three all out 4x400 meter reps.For far too many school age distance athletes, "going long" aerobically, was something done for a brief period at the beginning of the season and later pretty much abandoned for "quality" speedwork sessions. Not surprisingly, this necessity of speed mindset has remained with most runners who have continued to run after their schooldays. It's a mindset that carries with it the potential for injury,limited performance and dimminishing enjoyment of this great sport.Before you read the following,consider this, if you ran track as a youth,why did you run the distance events as opposed to the sprints(or vice versa)? I didn't do the sprint events because I didn't have the necessary speed to be competitive,no matter how much I trained.Would it be a stretch to say that speed is inborn?
As Joe Henderson wrote in Long Slow Distance:"Nature, in all her wisdom,has provided us distance runners with a means to compensate for the speed she has denied us. That is endurance.Endurance at it's purest and best comes slowly, and steadily and can climb to fantastic levels if approached just that way---slowly and steadily" You see, increasing per mile speed for distance runners isn't accomplished by hammering on the track,it's done by building your maximum aerobic efficiency.This takes time, patience and a willingness to learn the hows and whys of what you are doing.For those who have read Lydiard's books you will recall him referring to building cardiac efficiency and capillary development through aerobic training.As capillary development increases over time and with the accumulation of miles,ones ability to take in oxygen and use it in the process of giving us the fuel to go farther and faster increases.
There is of course a time and place in our training for a type of interval and fartlek work but it shouldn't include gut busting reps on the track. Dr. Van Aaken,who I have referenced in prior posts,had this to say about another often forgotten danger in running too hard: "The continual practicing of high speed, beyond racing speed,is uneconomical and leads to decreases in reserves." Arthur Newton,the greatest ultra runner of all-time until the arrival of Yannis Kouros,wrote: "Speed trials are worse than useless.
They merely squander all your carefully built-up vim in order to convince you that it was there,and in so doing puts the clock back for weeks with regard to your condition."
Accomplishing great things in distance running comes through patience, intelligent work and time.


  1. Strength training is a very important element of fitness for virtually every sports man and woman. Maximal strength is the main point of force an athlete can probably generate.

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  2. True--my point is that speed training is too often overused and that the benefit of building a solid aerobic base is overlooked in long distance training.When I wrote the above I was thinking about the distance runners who run hard and fast throughout most of their training regimen.I follow and believe in a classic Lydiard program which eventually builds up to fast stressful work before a period of racing.