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SPEEDWORK: Speedwork is a structured workout that uses periods of pacing at your race pace or faster, with easy recovery periods between the hard efforts. This fast training simulates the physiological demands of race days, and serves as the ultimate tune-up for your race season. When done properly, speedwork can improve anyone's pace over any distance. The idea is to stress your body just enough to invoke some adaptation, but not so much to compromise recovery time between workouts or cause injury.

Another name for speedwork that you may be familiar with is interval training. Regardless of which name you prefer, the workout involves repetitions of predetermined time or distance with recovery periods based on time, distance, or heart rate. Typical distances for the reps on a track are from 200 meters to 1-mile. The rest periods are determined by what effect you're looking for from the set; if the goal is work at top speed, long recoveries are needed; if the goal is to build endurance, short recoveries work best. An easy warm-up and cool-down is always part of the workout and the total distance for the fast reps rarely exceeds 3-miles.

A certain amount of base preparation is required for this type of difficult training to be productive and not destructive to your body. This preparation can only come with a minimum amount of easy mileage leading up to the intensity of the speedwork phase. If you run consistently year round, at least three times per week, your body should be able to handle the rigors of speedwork. I recommend that runners who want to add speedwork to their training run at least every other day for a minimum of 15 miles per week.

Maximum efficiency of any movement is achieved when each muscle group contracts at exactly the appropriate moment for application of force in the desired direction. Training a muscle to contract with appropriate force at the desired moment requires an electrical impulse to be generated through our central nervous system [CNS], and this CNS/muscular relationship can only be improved by repetition of the specific movement. The relationship between nerve impulse and muscular contraction is intensified under the stress of fast running. Speedwork helps muscular contractions become as efficient as possible. In a sense your body is being 'forced' to greater efficiency of movement because it's using all available power to propel itself.

The faster you run, the more acidic your body chemistry becomes, especially within the working muscles. This acidic condition is the speed limiting factor, keeping us from running faster when we're already near redline. When we subject ourselves to the 'burn' repeatedly in training, we build a tolerance for the sensation. Speed can also be an addiction; it feels good to move really fast under our own power, so we crave more and more.

Speedwork is best done on a track with a rubber surface. On a track you can tune your pacing with exact distances and set accurate benchmarks for time, hopefully to surpass in future workouts. During my speedwork on the track I'll usually look at my watch every half lap to check my pacing. Intervals on trails work well to. For trail intervals I go by the watch for starts and stops, and I monitor heart rate to make sure I'm pushing hard enough to get benefit. I avoid interval work on the road as the hard surface is punishing to legs. Race day is stress enough.

Most of your intervals should be performed at about 90% of your maximum heart rate. Longer reps will usually elicit a higher heart rate (My highest observed HR has always been for the last rep of a 1/2 mile repeat set on a hot day). This is due to the time lag of your heart's response to stress and the nature of the interval; shorter repeats are more likely to become anaerobic (without oxygen), therefore don't require as much oxygen transport to muscles. If your recovery period is determined by heart rate, wait until observe a number within the 65 to 70% of your max heart rate before you start your next repetition.

Speedwork once a week is sufficient for most athletes. More often is too stressful for all but the most resilient youngsters' bodies. With speedwork outings separated by more than ten days, your body tends to 'forget' some of what it 'learned' between workouts; a portion of the speed previously gained is lost, and the residual soreness in the day(s) following speedwork returns.

A speedwork build-up of six to eight weeks yields the best results. After this, your improvement begins to level-off and the risk of injury increases as you push for ever higher benchmarks. I recommend that you start your speed work six to eight weeks before a competition that's the main focus of your season. Try to improve your speed with each week's workout. Then finish-up with a slightly easier workout for the last week before the key race. After your race effort, take a couple weeks off from speedwork to recharge both physically and mentally. It's difficult for some athletes to take this time-off from the intense workouts, but it really works well over a season. This peak/rest cycle can only take place two, or perhaps three times during a season, so timing is crucial.

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