The difference between an average runner and a better runner isn’t mileage. And it isn’t weight, diet, shoes, or mental toughness either. It’s leg speed. But speed training isn’t simply about running a faster 5K. Pushing your pace will also provide a whole host of other fitness and health benefits. As if a faster time isn’t enough, here are 10 expert-backed reasons you should add more speedwork to your routine.
1. A Stronger Stride
Your running speed is determined by stride—specifically, by how far each stride carries you and how fast you can complete it. There are two phases of a stride: the time you spend in the air, and the time you’re on the ground. On the ground, you apply enough force to get back into the air. In the air, you reposition your legs for the next landing. Now for the surprising part: Everyone from Usain Bolt to the last place finisher in your local 5K can reposition their legs in the air equally fast. That means differences in leg speed are determined by what happens on the ground. Runners who quickly apply greater force to the ground get back into the air faster and generate a longer stride. Of course, you don’t do this by stomping your feet like an angry toddler. Instead, you must train your nervous system and muscles to increase force production with each stride. Try exercises like jump squats, bounding drills, and depth jumps to fire up your legs.
2. More Muscle
We begin to lose muscle mass around age 25. The good news is that slow-twitch muscle fibers (a science-y term for “muscle cells”), the ones you rely on most during distance runs, are highly resistant to age-related atrophy. The bad news is that faster muscle fibers, which drive stride length and are required for top performances in races from 5K to the marathon, disappear at a rate of up to 1 percent each year. The result is slower times and an average stride length reduction of 40 percent over your lifetime. But don’t panic. With a mix of resistance training and speedwork, you can cut muscle fiber loss in half.
3. Better Fat Burn
At what pace do you get 100 percent of your energy from fat? It’s a trick question because the answer is this: You burn 100 percent fat while standing still after a sprint, resistance exercise, or other high-intensity effort. When you jog, only about 70 percent of your energy comes from fat. During a distance run, it’s about 50 percent. At mile pace and faster, you use 100 percent carbs for energy. But after those high-intensity efforts, your body spares carbs by using 100 percent fat to resupply your first-response anaerobic system and to fuel recovery. So get out there and sprint!
4. Reduced Risk of Injury
That’s right. Training for speed doesn’t increase the risk of injury; it reduces it—if you do it right. Speed training puts your muscles through a fuller range of motion, improving flexibility. It trains more muscles (and more muscle fibers within muscles), leading to better muscle balance. And it incorporates exercises that directly strengthen injury-prone muscles. Take your hamstrings, for example. Your hamstrings endure loads of up to eight to 10 times body weight just before and after your foot touches the ground. By performing exercises that strengthen your hamstrings for this phase, you reduce your odds of hamstring injury by two thirds.
5. Stronger Bones and Other Connective Tissues
Just like muscle, bones and tendons are living tissue so they respond to training by getting stronger. A 2008 study from Stanford, which followed almost a thousand runners and non-runners, concluded that runners were less likely to require knee or hip replacement. By adding speedwork and resistance training, you can increase running’s strengthening effect for bones, tendons, fascia, and even ligaments.
6. Improved Running Economy
Running economy is a complex concept, but in part, measures how efficiently you use oxygen at a given running speed. Use your current 5K pace as an example. If you improve your running economy, you’ll require less oxygen to run that pace. With the spare oxygen, you can either fuel a faster pace or maintain your current pace for a longer race, say an 8K or 10K. High-intensity workouts are key to improving the nervous system component of running economy, with numerous studies showing up to 6 percent improvement in as little as four to six weeks.
7. More Anaerobic Endurance
Many runners hold the mistaken belief that running—outside of a timed mile or the finishing kick in a race—is exclusively aerobic. Not true. The first 30 to 40 seconds of any run or race is largely fueled by anaerobic energy. At the start of exercise, there’s a 30- to 40-second delay before you can provide your muscles with enough oxygen to increase aerobic energy production (all aerobic energy is created within your muscles). Until then, your anaerobic system fills the gap. By doing speedwork, you’ll lessen the fatigue associated with anaerobic energy production.
8. Better Balance and Proprioception
Without balance, you’d topple every time your foot touched the ground. And without proprioception (an awareness of your body’s position and movement in space), your legs would tangle with each stride. Unfortunately, distance running provides minimal training for these two senses. A 2013 study found that runners crossing a wobbling platform experienced sudden, reduced balance. Their nervous systems and muscles simply shut down. By incorporating dynamic moves into your speed training such as running backward, side steps, and single-leg exercises, you’ll improve your ability to handle any terrain.
9. Improved Agility
Agility is for soccer players, the NFL combine, and childhood games like hopscotch, right? Wrong. Agility helps you navigate sharp turns on a trail, hop off the curb, and dodge dogs charging to the end of their leash. Agility depends on balance and proprioception, but it also requires its own unique prescription of neuromuscular communication and strengthening. Performing quick footwork with ladder and cone drills will also boost your agility off the run.
10. Easier Strides
Every time your foot lands, your tendons and other connective tissues stretch, storing energy generated by motion and gravity. A fraction of a second later, you release this energy—like a slingshot that helps catapult you back into the air. More than 50 percent of the energy used during each stride comes from that elastic recoil so strengthening the tendons and nervous system pathways involved will make you stronger, faster, and give you a more effortless stride.
Bottom line: Speed training is about more than just speed. And If you’re a distance runner who isn’t training for speed and strength, you’re getting beaten by one who is.
Pete Magill is an author, coach, runner, and 5-time USA Masters Cross Country Runner of the Year. Adapted with permission from SpeedRunner by Pete Magill. Buy Now