Speedwork 101: How to do [and read] speed workouts

By Takia McClendon

Have you ever looked at a speed workout and thought you were reading a different language? Or downloaded a new training plan and decided that you'll skip the speed work because you have no idea what the coach is talking about? We've all been there. If you've never run track in high school or college, doing (not to mention, reading) a speed workout can seem intimidating. 

In this post, I'll explain why speed work is important (even if you're not training for a race), go over a few terms and explain how to read a speed workout so that you can hit the track or treadmill without feeling intimidated. 


Speed work terms you should know:

What is speedwork? Speed work is simply running-based workouts that can be completed on the track, road or treadmill. You run speed workouts faster than your usual pace in intervals, repetitions, or at a consistent speed that feels a little harder than your normal effort. 

Who can do speed work? Anyone. Even if you're training for a 5K or hitting the gym to drop a few pounds, a speed workout can help you become faster and more fit. 

1. Intervals: Also known as interval runs, intervals are short, intense/hard efforts followed with a recovery period. If your training calls for 3-minute intervals each interval can be followed up with a 3-minute recovery period that allows you to fully gain your breath. 

2. Repeats: Repeats are very similar to interval workouts except the time between each set is not as long as it is during interval workouts. 

3. Strides: Strides are quick accelerations (usually 20-30 seconds) where you're giving close to 100%. After your normal run is completed, start by gradually accelerating, once you hit your max speed, you begin to decelerate back into a jog. 

4. Tempo Run: These runs are done at a consistent pace that is harder and faster than your easy run. A tempo run is not like intervals or repeats where you stop for recovery. Instead, pick a pace and try to complete your run at the pace. It's common to see tempo runs at "race pace". 

5. Fartleks: The word fartlek means "speed play". These workouts are usually less structured than intervals workouts. Instead of focusing so much on a specific pace, you run at a faster, harder effort and slow down to recover.


How to read speed workouts:

Check out this sample workout below. 

Workout: 4 x 800m @ 10K pace with 1-mile w/u and c/d 

1. 800M = 800 meters. If you're on a track, this is about two times around the track. If you're on the road or treadmill, this represents about a 1/2 mile. 

2. 4 x = represents how many times you should repeat 800m. In this workout you would run 4 sets of 800m. 

3. @ 10K Pace = If you've raced a 10K or have a goal 10K pace, that's the speed you should run the workout. If you easy runs are 11:00min/mile, your 10K pace should be faster than that.

4. w/u = Short for warm up. In this workout, you will run easy for 1 mile BEFORE doing the speed workout. This will help your body get ready. 

5. c/d  = Short for cool down. After you complete your 800m repeats, you'll cool down with a 1-mile easy recovery run to bring your heart rate back down. 

Now that you know the basics, pick out one of our workouts below and try them this week. 


Takia McClendon is the co-founder of City Fit Girls. She's a shoe expert and manager at a running store in Philadelphia and a Certified Level 1 USATF Coach. Follow her online at @takiamcclendon. 

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