Speed Training for 5K to the Marathon
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4 speed workouts for runners of all abilities

If you want to become faster and improve your race times, no matter if you’re running a 5K or a marathon, you absolutely have to run faster in training. Speed workouts are challenging in different ways than long runs, but, like your high-mileage days, they can be enormously satisfying. With elevated endorphins, you’ll find that running fast is exhilarating and can provide a big boost in fitness when it’s part of a well-developed training program.

“Speed workouts” may mean different things depending on what type of race you are training for. Here it’s used as a more general term to refer to workouts that push you beyond your easy running pace.

The four workouts described below can be modified to fit into just about anyone’s training plan. By adjusting factors such as pace, recovery interval, workout length, and when the workout falls in your schedule, the options are virtually endless.

Fartleks: Fun with Speed

Fartlek is Swedish for “speed play.” Because fartlek workouts can be performed in so many different ways, they’re an ideal workout for every level of runner. Fartleks can be as simple or as structured as you like, and the intervals and paces can be varied as needed.

In a less structured fartlek, you might just use landmarks along your run as an indicator to pick up the pace. For instance, you can intersperse running easy with intervals of running hard to the next mailbox or stop sign.

But fartleks can also be structured with specific paces, number of repetitions, interval time, and recovery time. Here are a few examples:

  • 8 x 1-minute at 5K Pace with a 2-minute jog recovery
  • 8 x 2-minutes at 10K Pace with a 90-second jog recovery
  • 5 x 5-minutes at Tempo Pace with a 1-minute jog recovery

If you are a new runner or coming back from time off, unstructured fartleks are a great way to add some pace variation to your runs. But if you are training for a specific distance, you may want to add fartleks that are paced appropriately for your goal. They can also be included toward the middle or end of a long run to teach you to maintain a harder effort when you’re tired.

Tempo Intervals: Building Stamina & Efficiency

Tempos are a “bread and butter” workout for runners of all distances. They build endurance and teach you to maintain both physical and mental focus when fatigued. Tempo pace is often described as being “comfortably hard,” or the maximum pace you could sustain for about an hour, and usually falls somewhere between 10K and half marathon pace.

Tempo intervals are slightly different than a typical tempo run because you break up your time at tempo pace into shorter segments.  This allows you to spend more time at your lactate threshold than you would be able to do in one non-stop effort. You’re also able to run slightly faster than tempo pace with intervals of less than a mile.

Here are a few examples:

  • 3 x 10-minutes at tempo pace with a 1-minute jog recovery
  • 4 x 1-mile at tempo pace with a 1-minute jog recovery
  • 8 x 1K at tempo pace -10-seconds (10 seconds per mile faster than tempo pace) with a 90-second jog recovery

Tempo intervals can help you work toward building greater endurance at your threshold pace. They can be used throughout your training cycle, but may increase in length or intensity as your fitness improves.

Progression Runs: Learning to Finish Fast

Progression runs are a type of fast-finish workout that are best used in the early, base phase of training. They’re a fun way to finish a run feeling fast and strong, and teach you to push at a hard but controlled effort when you are feeling fatigued.

Progression runs are typically more structured than a typical fast-finish run because you continue to cut down your pace as the run progresses.

Rather than simply running the last mile as hard as you can, progression workouts teach you to work your way down from a pace that feels easy to one that will feel slightly uncomfortable by the time you get there.

An example is after four miles of easy running, run a progression for the final two miles of the run. Gradually increase the pace from easy so that the final 3-5 minutes of the run are at your tempo pace.

Mile Repeats: A Classic Interval Workout

Mile intervals are a classic workout, often done on the track. But if you don’t have a track accessible, don’t worry! They can be done on just about any flat, smooth surface, as long as you have a way to measure the appropriate distance.

If you are training for a 5K or 10K, mile repeats at goal race pace are intense workouts, testing both your physical and mental toughness, and should be scheduled when you are reaching peak fitness. Running 3 x 1 mile at 5K pace or 6 x 1 mile at 10K pace is not for the faint of heart, but they are an excellent indicator of success when you can maintain your goal pace throughout.

Mile repeats can also be used by half and full marathoners.  Running a shorter set of repeats at 10K pace every 2-3 weeks is an excellent complement to your slower marathon pace workouts.  But you can also do a higher volume of repeats at goal marathon or half marathon pace to make the workout more race specific.

Here are a few examples that would come during the final third of your season:

For half–marathoners:

  • 6-8 x 1-mile at goal half-marathon pace with a 1-minute jog recovery
  • 3 x 1-mile at 10K pace with a 2-minute jog recovery

For 5K runners:

  • 3 x mile at goal 5K pace with a 2-minute jog recovery

Build any or all of these workouts into your training plan throughout the season, and your race times will reap the benefits!

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.