Run Faster with Regular Speed Workouts

6 Great Speed Workouts with Zest

It’s no secret that running fast is a lot of fun. And no matter if you’re a front-of-the-pack contender, a back-of-the-pack jogger or somewhere in between, a weekly speed work session can bring huge benefits to your running.

Let’s not mince words, though—speed workouts are hard. You push your body to run hard for short bouts, with small amounts of recovery time. As challenging as speed training can be, though, there’s a great sense of satisfaction that comes from completing a tough workout. Whether on the road or track—and even the trails in some cases—faster running helps us build strength and speed while pushing our limits both physically and mentally. Adding speed workouts to your weekly training routine can help you improve your fitness, your running mechanics and, of course, your race times.

Knowing how to mix up your workouts can keep your running fresh and fun while challenging you in new ways. But it’s also important to start gradually if you are new to speed work so you don’t end up sidelined with an injury. You should always finish a session with a little left in the tank—not completely exhausted.

Make sure you engage in a good warm-up prior to starting a speed workout, both so you can avoid injuries and also prepare your body to run at faster speeds. At the very least, that should include 10–15 minutes of slow, easy jogging, followed by a dynamic warm-up routine that includes range of movement drills (such as butt kicks, high knees, skipping, bounding, grapevines and shoulder rolls) and finally three to five striders (or wind sprints) of about 50 to 75 meters with a 15-second break in between. (Those striders—aka “strides” or “buildups”—should gradually build to a strong sprinting effort but should not be all-out sprints.) Also, to maximize the effectiveness of the work and the positive adaptations you hope to achieve, be sure you’re fully rested on the day you plan the workouts and that you have an easy day of recovery planned the day after your speed sessions.

If you’re looking for a way to get faster, trying to get out of a training rut or just want to add some zest to your routine, consider adding one of the workouts below to your weekly training regimen. They can all be modified for beginners or advanced runners.

Fartlek Workouts: Fun with Speed

Fartlek runs, or “speed play” workouts, are an ideal way to get started with speed work if you’re a new runner or new to faster running. They can be structured in endless ways, so feel free to get creative and mix it up.

Workout 1: Pyramid Fartlek

This type of workout builds from shorter to longer intervals, then back down again. Fartleks are typically run by time rather than distance, and the amount of rest between each interval can be consistent or vary with the interval length. The shorter intervals can be run at a quicker pace (5K or mile pace), and the longer ones can be run a little slower (tempo pace, for example).

How to do it:

Start the pyramid by running two minutes at mile race pace, three minutes at 5K race pace, five minutes at 10K race pace and seven minutes at tempo pace, then back down to five, three and two minutes. Jog two minutes easy between each interval, or take a longer rest if needed.

Workout 2: Race Course Fartlek

This workout is perfect if you have access to a course you’ll be racing on, whether road or trail. While it’s most effective for a shorter race like a 5K or 10K, you could run a similar workout on a section of a longer course. This race-specific fartlek can be a great predictor of the times you’re capable of running on race day.

How to do it:

On the race course, run intervals of three to six minutes at your goal race pace with two minutes of easy recovery jogging in between. The exact number of intervals will vary with your race distance, but can range from three to six repeats depending on their length.

Tempo Workouts: Building Your Aerobic Base

Tempo runs are a staple workout for all distance runners. They help maximize your aerobic potential and develop lasting endurance. Whether you’re racing a 5K or a marathon, tempo workouts should be part of a varied workout approach.

Workout 3: Tempo Run with Surges

This is a challenging tempo variation, and is best done by runners who are already familiar with standard tempo runs. A multi-pace workout like this one teaches you to surge when you’re already fatigued, and finish a race with a strong effort.

How to do it:

Begin the first repeat at tempo pace. Hold a steady tempo effort for five minutes, then surge for 30 seconds at 5K race pace. Repeat this five or six times, moving from tempo pace to 5K pace and back with no rest in between each repeat.

Workout 4: Tempo Run + Hills

This combination workout is a great fit for the base period of your training early in the season. There is plenty of room for variability, but start by shortening the length of your tempo as well as the number of hill repeats you would typically do as a standalone workout. (Try to find a long hill that is gradual enough to be runnable but steep enough to create resistance.)

How to do it:

Run at tempo pace for 15 minutes, and then run easy for two to 10 minutes before starting the hill repeats. In subsequent workouts, shorten the rest to increase the intensity. For the hill repeats, start with 4 reps of 60–90 seconds each. Hill repeats are often run by effort rather than a particular pace, so aim for 5K race effort on the hills.

Interval Workouts: Time for Some Intensity

Interval sessions are designed to be intense, so be sure to allow adequate recovery between workouts. While a track is not a necessity, it’s a useful tool to precisely measure distance and compare your interval paces. Because they will quickly bring you to peak fitness, intervals are typically used in the final, sharpening phase of your training cycle.

Workout 5: Descending Ladder

This workout is similar to the pyramid fartlek, but you’ll start at the top and work your way down. The longer repetitions are run at a slower pace, and you speed up as you descend the ladder. Unlike fartleks, intervals are usually based on distance rather than time.

How to do it:

If you are preparing for a fast 5K, start with a mile interval at 10K race pace. For most runners, 10K pace is just a little faster than tempo pace. Proceed down the ladder with 2 x 800m at 5K race pace, (for a 25-minute 5K runner, this means a 4:00 800m split) then 2 x 400m at mile race pace (for example, an 8-minute miler will run 400m repetitions in 2:00), and finish with 2 x 200m at a controlled sprint (fast and smooth, but not all-out sprinting). Jog easy for 400m between each rep.

Workout 6: Multi-Pace Intervals

Spice up your typical track workouts with multi-pace intervals, rather than sticking to one pace the entire time. This allows you to alternate two or more paces while running a set interval distance. If you’re working toward a fast 10K, for example, include paces from tempo down to mile race pace.

How to do it:

Running 800m repeats works particularly well for this type of interval session. Run 6 x 800m with 400m jog recovery in between reps, and alternate the pace of each rep as follows: tempo, 5K, 10K, 5K, 10K, mile. This can improve your sense of pacing and help you finish strong!

Here are a few example pace ranges:

A 30:00 5K runner will run 800m repetitions in 4:50 at their 5K pace and 5:01 at their 10K pace.

A 25:00 5K runner will run 800m repetitions in 4:00 at their 5K pace and 4:10 at their 10K pace.

A 20:00 5K runner will run 800m repetitions in 3:13 at their 5K pace and 3:21 at their 10K pace.

Now go run fast and have fun out there!

Jason Fitzgerald
Jason Fitzgerald is a 2:39 marathoner and the USATF-certified coach behind Strength Running, an award-winning blog and podcast that helps runners set personal bests. His work has appeared in Runner's World, The Washington Post, Health Magazine and many other major media publications. Follow his work on Twitter at @JasonFitz1 and at StrengthRunning.com.