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3 Highly Effective Speed Workouts for Distance Runners: Does Speed Work Really Help?

Updated on July 21, 2012

Speed Workouts for Distance Runners

There is much debate in the running world about how effective speed workouts are for distance runners. Some runners swear by them and others believe they have little to no value. If you’re reading this article, I'm assuming you have made up your mind that ‘yes’ speed work is important for your routine and now you're in the mindset of seeking out highly effective routines that will enhance your skills and abilities. Perhaps this is your very first exposure to this type of workout and you’re looking for a good way to reduce your times. Whatever the case may be, you’ve come to the right source of information.


Benefits of Speed Workouts

These workouts can be beneficial for several reasons. First off, they help strengthen leg muscles which in turn allow runners to run faster and for longer periods of time. Many distance runners, including myself, see results within about a week after incorporating some of the routines mentioned below. In order to receive the full benefit of these workouts, a runner must push their abilities to the max otherwise the muscles won’t be stretched enough to provide any substantial gain.
It’s also important to remember that these routines can help burn additional calories and allow for shorter workout periods, with enough intensity. These routines should last about 30-40 minutes and the pace should be much faster than normal runs. Keep in mind the idea is short, intense workouts. Distance is not the goal for these.

30-20-10 Speedwork

This is probably the simplest routine to incorporate and it will definitely strengthen muscles and build endurance. Since incorporating this into my runs, I have seen almost two minutes dropped from my 5K time. The other aspect I like is that I’m not sprinting the entire time. It builds up and then tapers off.

  • Start with a ½ mile to a 1 mile warm up period.
  • Start the routine with 30 seconds of jogging.
  • Move to 20 seconds of running after the 30 seconds of jogging.
  • Lastly, sprint for 10 seconds.

That’s all there is to the workout. This pattern is repeated five times to equal five minutes and then you jog for two minutes before starting over. I generally will complete 4 cycles which I wouldn’t recommend starting off with. To start, completing 2-3 cycles will be plenty of work. After about a week (depending upon your stamina) add another cycle and so on. Four intense cycles will be enough to strengthen muscles and start knocking down your lap times and I would recommend using this 2-3 times per week at the most.


1 Mile Run

This is a great routine to monitor and improve individual miles. It’s another very simple yet highly effective technique. One of the issues that distance runners have is maintaining low times for each mile. That’s where this routine comes in handy because now you can see where you really start slowing down and it’s easier to make adjustments.

  • Start with a ½ mile to a 1 mile warm up period.
  • Run 1 mile at your racing speed, or at your fastest pace. Don’t forget to time this!
  • Jog for 2 minutes or walk depending upon the intensity but you want to keep your heart rate up.
  • Run another mile at full speed.

You can continue this for as many miles as you’re able to handle. I find that after about 3 or 4 miles, I’m pretty tired. Again, this workout should only last about 30-40 minutes if you’re working hard. You should start seeing improvement with your mileage within about two weeks if it’s incorporated about once per week.


Interval Running Workouts

This is probably the most popular type of speed work routine and you may recognize them as Fartleks. The style I have used is a little different than the traditional interval runs in that I like to keep things simple. Over complicating these can really put your mind and body into a state of exhaustion and confusion, so for our sake here, simplicity and intensity are crucial!

  • Start with a ½ mile to a 1 mile warm up period.
  • Sprint 400 meters at full speed. This can be tracked by GPS phone applications, GPS watches or tracks. Remember there are 1600 meters in 1 mile.
  • Jog for 800 meters.
  • Sprint another 400 meters
  • Jog for 2 minutes and start the process over.

This sounds familiar, right? This routine and the 1 mile run are very similar except with this workout we are focusing on smaller distances and really working on strengthening upper leg muscles. I usually incorporate this in my routines about once every two weeks. It’s important to change up your running workouts, otherwise if you’re like me, boredom sets in quickly and then motivation drops.

Highlights for Speed Workouts

Speed Workouts Should Be
High Intensity
Short Duration- 30-40 minutes
Incorporate at least 1 time per week

Running Reminders

If you’re new to speed workout routines, start off at a pace your body can handle. Too many runners jump in and start pushing their bodies to the limit without much preparation. I don’t care if you’re a marathon runner, if you’ve never used speed workouts; start with 1-2 per week. These routines are much different than running long distances. They work even better when you have a partner and track progress. Also, if you start experiencing pain while running, make sure you stop or at least slow down. Listen to your body or risk the consequences of injury. Most importantly, have fun!

How effective are Speed Workout Routines

Do you find speed workouts have improved your distance running times?

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Submit a Comment

  • winstonpilates profile image

    winstonpilates 5 years ago from Santa Monica and Los Angeles

    Brilliant hub. Running is an awesome way to increase your aerobic fitness, but it can get boring if you don't mix it up. This is a great way to improve your running and keep yourself motivated.

  • yeagerinvestments profile image

    yeagerinvestments 5 years ago from Wisconsin

    Great, let me know how it goes!

  • sonnyhodgin profile image

    Sonny Hodgin 5 years ago from Indiana

    Good stuff here. I've been doing a lot of intervals, but I haven't tried 30 20 10s yet. I'm gonna give it a shot tomorrow

  • CyclingFitness profile image

    Liam Hallam 5 years ago from Nottingham UK

    Nice hub. As a cyclist we see so much improvement to event performance through speed training. Some may question the nature of the sport but time trial events have similar physiological requirements to running and are greatly enhanced by speed training over short intervals