It seems that a lot of runners are intimidated by the idea of doing speed work, especially the kind that involves running on a track. I’ve talked to many beginning runners who feel they are not experienced enough to do speed work. As far as the more experienced runners go the most common excuse is that they get injured when they do speed work. While I admit that doing speed work may increase the chances of injury much the same way increasing mileage does, if you introduce speed work into your running schedule gradually and properly the benefits far outweigh the risks.
The problem is that we tend to think of doing something like 400 meter repeats as fast as we can when we think of speed work. I was guilty of this myself a few years ago when I decided to start doing workouts on the track for the first time in over 10 years. In my mind I still felt like I was in college and should be doing the same sort of track workouts I did back then, my body however did not feel the same way. So I started out with two speed sessions a week of repeat 800’s and 400’s. By the end of the third week I had to quit doing speed work and cut way back on my mileage for about a month to get rid of all the new aches and pains I had.
One of the best (and most overlooked) ways to introduce speed work into your training is with strides. Strides are usually around 100 meters in length. They are broken into three sections; the first section is used to accelerate. During this portion you gradually build your speed so that at the start of the second section you hit your top speed. This isn’t necessarily an all out sprint but rather a controlled fast pace. You then hold this pace for the second portion of the stride. The final section is for slowly easing back down to either a walk or slow jog. Personally, when I do strides I like to do them on the straightaway on a track or barefoot on the infield. That way I can use the markings on the football field to designate the different sections of each stride. I go from goal line to goal line with the first 30 yards being the acceleration phase and then I hold my top speed for the next 40 yards and then gradually slow down over the final 30 yards.
The great thing about strides is that they can be worked into just about any type of run. Often times people like to do them after they have completed a normal easy run. However, they can also be done in the middle of a run. When I run from my house there really isn’t a good spot for doing strides in my neighborhood after I finish my run. So what I will do is plan my run so that at some point I pass by a track where I do several laps of jogging the curves and striding the straights. Basically, strides can be done anywhere you find room to safely do about 15 seconds of faster paced running. I would recommend trying to do your strides on a softer surface (grass, dirt, a track, etc.) if at all possible and as with any sort of speed work, always be sure and do a good warm-up first. One other way of doing strides that I have found to be fun change of pace is to do them up hill. If you are doing strides up hill just go for time instead of distance. Find fairly steep hill and do about a 15 second stride up the hill. You can then walk back down for your recovery. This is a great way to build strength in your legs.
When doing strides the most important thing to focus on is your form. You want to work on running fast but relaxed. Also, make sure you are not over striding. Your foot should be landing directly under your body, not out in front. For me it always feels a bit awkward the first few times I do strides after not doing any speed work for a while. But if you keep at it and pay attention to your form eventually it will start to feel comfortable.
Strides are a great way to ease your body into speed work for the first time or after an extended period away from faster running. Also, they are perfect for keeping you used to faster running during times of the year when you are backing off your normal speed work. And, they are easy enough on your body that you can even do them when you are focused on building your mileage.