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Today's topic I'm writing about is speed work and how it helps. I am relatively new to speed work, but can honestly say that in the 4 weeks I've been doing speed work, I've had two PR's in the two races I've run in that time (5k and 10k)
Speed work or sprint training is generally defined as short high-intensity intervals usually run at a pace much faster than that of runs of longer distances.
I've recently availed myself of the Big River Running summer speed work sessions where each week is a different speed work out divided into groups based upon a 5k goal time.
We've done ladders, 400 repeats, 600 repeats and a mile time trial. All of them have felt to be beneficial and honestly really fun! It has been a long time since I ran all-out on a track and just left every single thing I had right there. So other than having fun, what is the real benefit?
A 2005 study out of McMaster University in Canada tested 8 fit cyclists during 6 sprint training sessions to see what the benefit, if any, of sprint training was for these endurance athletes. The following summarize the results:
The cyclists showed a significant increase in muscular markers for storing and processing fuel during exercise.
No change in their VO max, the amount of oxygen they used during exercise.
Performance of the cyclists in a ride-to-exhaustion improved dramatically as well, moving from 26 minutes until exhaustion to 51 minutes.1
So the oxygen consumption during exercise didn't change, but efficiency for fuel storage and exhaustion levels did increase, quite significantly. These seems to indicate that the benefit is more from an efficiency in muscle usage rather than cardiovascular endurance, which is what is strengthened during longer training runs.
This increase in efficiency is from an increased level of a protein called MTC1 which is produced during sprint training. This protein helps move lactic acid from less-stressed areas to the legs in order to replenish energy stores during longer training runs.
So there's the science behind it, however there's also a mental aspect that I feel is beneficial. Once you get out there and are running fast and it doesn't kill you...it kind of feels great. No I cannot sustain sprint pace over a large amount of distance, but I have found that I've been pushing myself to go just a little bit faster each time.
I highly encourage you to start incorporating speed workouts into your training. If you're not sure where to start, I would suggest the following possibilities: