Speedwork: It Does a Body Good

By: Brad Deel

I took a break from my blogs that challenge conventional wisdom to eat a bit of humble pie after the UC Half Marathon.  However, the sting from that race was washed down with approrpiate quantities of beer and I am succumbing to my curmudgeonly urges to start new arguments. 

One of the things I am grateful for is that I started running without having a clue about what I was doing.  No one was there to tell me I "should" be doing this or I "shouldn't" be doing that.  When I was struggling to run a mile, I obviously wasn’t doing tempo runs or 10 x 800 but I started doing speedwork almost from the start.  It was very informal.  I started with finishing some of my runs hard.  I would start picking up the pace perhaps a quarter mile before I was done and tried to finish in an all out sprint.  I don’t think you’ll find that particular workout in any of the literature but it started getting me used to running even when I was uncomfortable.  It also left me with a real sense of satisfaction after I finished.

I have heard all kinds of advice about when a person should start doing speedwork.  Some say you should wait until you can run for 30 minutes.  Some say an hour.  Others say you should have been running for six months.  A more extreme view argues that you should wait a year before beginning speedwork.  I think a person can begin incorporating a judicious amount of speedwork into their running almost from Day 1 and I would even argue that they should.

I am not convinced that most people get hurt from speedwork.  In talking to runners who have been hurt, it seems that most of them get hurt after pushing their mileage limitations or after trying to run hard too many days in a row. Rather than causing an injury, I think speedwork can help in terms of injury prevention for a couple of reasons.

First, speedowork is strength training in disguise.  Sure, you’re not doing squats or deadlifts but the work you are doing builds your muscles, your joints, your connective tissue, and your bones.  Strengthening those tissues allows you to handle more mileage and reduces your risk of injury.  Second, it adds variety to your running.  We have all heard of workers who receive repetitive use injuries from doing the same task in the same way over and over and over.  I see no reason to think running is any different.  If you’re out there running with the same cadence and the same stride length for the same amount of time every day, it may increase your risk of injury vice doing some different things each day.  Beyond injury prevention, the variety of speedwork can help in an even more important way. 

The vast majority of people who begin running will do like I did numerous times in my life.  They will start running, they’ll run for 2-4 months, they’ll get bored, and they’ll quit.  I have no idea how many times I did that.  I think that going out and doing different types of workouts keeps running much more interesting than just going out and doing the same thing day after day.  Keeping a person on the path to a healthier lifestyle is much more important than how fast they ultimately run a 5K.

Thus, I would encourage any person to start doing some faster running.  It doesn’t have to be anything formal and you definitely do not need a track.  It can be something as simple as finishing that last ¼ mile faster.  It can be fartleks.  (I use blocks.  Run fast for 1 block, jog for 1block, run fast for 2 blocks, jog for 2 blocks, etc).  It can be strides.  (I use telephone poles.  Run fast for 2 poles, jog for 2 poles, repeat a few times).

If you have recently started running, try a few of these things and see how it feels.  You may find that you look forward to those runs when you know you’re going to push a little harder.  If you have been running for a while but have avoided speedwork because you thought it was something only done by skinny fast guys at the track, rest assured that you don’t have to be skinny or fast or at the track to both enjoy and benefit from speedwork. 

On a side note, I typically close with “see ya out there” but I did see someone out there yesterday.  I saw Jason Pyles running down Kanawha Boulevard.  Man what this old plodder wouldn’t give for that long, loping effortless stride.  Nice to see you Jason. 

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