A Summer of Speed

Hello! Feels like it’s been a long time since we’ve properly sat down to chat. How are you? Enjoying the summer heat? Have you found ways to adapt your running to the conditions? It can be a real shock coming out of the long cold winter and suddenly facing 30+ degree days. The temptation is to dial back the training and enjoy the weather, and if that’s what you’ve decided to do then absolutely go for it. I’ve taken a different approach though.

The first part of this year for me was so much about gearing up towards running my first ultra. I became dedicated to fitting in kilometres wherever possible, and ran a few 100km+ weeks in the process. It definitely helped that I wasn’t working for the first few months, because I’m not sure I would have managed otherwise! That training put me in a great place to run 4 marathons in 4 weeks and then complete the North Downs Way 50miler in May. I had successfully turned myself into an endurance machine.

Ultra-running was a bit of an experiment for me, and although I think that one day I might tackle another one, the overwhelming feeling it left me with was a desire not to run long for a while. Since embarking on ultra-training, and in fact, starting to run marathons back-to-back in 2016, I’ve stopped making progress over short distances. I miss the time when I was setting new 5km PBs every few months, rather than consistently writing ‘Run a sub-20min 5km’ on my goals list every year and then not achieving it.

Which is why this summer I’m working on building up my speed again over short distances. I’ve mentioned this before, in context of the Adidas 10km Paris which I ran as a ‘benchmarking’ exercise back in June. However, I wanted to more fully outline the whyhow, and what of tackling this project by answering some questions I’ve been asking myself.

Why run fast if you can run long?

I love running long. I really do. It’s fun, it’s meditative, it’s different. However, the training needed to improve your marathon time requires a massive commitment, and honestly can’t be done by the normal person more than once or twice a year. The other option is to keep running longer and longer distances and setting new PBs in that way – a main reason I wanted to try an ultra. However, successes still don’t come very frequently (and you’ll probably be too tired at the end to truly appreciate them!).

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I don’t want to train hard. In fact, I would argue that the training sessions for 5kms are probably harder than those for the marathon, because you’re running multiple speed workouts each week, rather than just accumulating time on feet. But it is much easier to fit in 45 minutes of intervals before work than an easy 15km run. With my new job needing more of my day, it’s partly a practical choice.

Mostly though I just want to develop a side of my running which has been neglected. I have a solid base of endurance from those years of marathoning, but speed has become an unfamiliar territory. If I ever want to get faster at the marathon, I will need both speed and endurance to get me across the finish line in PB time. Many elite runners take years and years to slowly build up from 5kms and 10kms, through the half and then finally to the marathon, but I skipped many of those interim steps. In fact, I’ve only ever run 5 half-marathons! These short distances are the building blocks to also improving at the longer ones.

How do you go about getting faster?

Run faster. It sounds simple, and it really is. The more fast running you do, the more your body adapts to running fast. Over time, a pace which once was difficult requires less effort, and therefore you can reach new heights of speed. In these past few weeks of training, I’ve already run faster than ever before in my life.

But oh jeez it’s difficult to get there. Running fast really hurts! A typical week for me will now include three interval/speed sessions, with only a few short easy runs sprinkled in between. These interval sessions can be any of the following:

  • Short-reps (1-2mins) at 5km pace, repeated lots of times
  • Longer reps (6-9min) at threshold pace, repeated 2-3 times
  • Steady/threshold state running (~15min) in the middle of a longer run
  • Descending time intervals, eg. 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1mins
  • Progressive pace intervals, increasing in effort across the reps
  • … or any combination of the above!

The training started off alright, but now we’re combining different paces together into one workout, and it’s getting a lot more difficult. For instance, tomorrow morning my session is 15mins at threshold, then 6x90sec at 5km pace with a 45sec recovery – yuk! When you’ve got multiple sessions like that, it can be hard to motivate yourself to go out for the next one, but that’s all part of the training. I’m also starting (slowly!) to realise that I don’t have to hit every session perfectly to still get the benefits. Sometimes I can’t get through the last reps, or my pace is slower than I’d like, and that’s OK. The cumulative training load will teach your body what ‘fast’ is, even if the specific workouts don’t go exactly to plan.

What do you want to get out of this training phrase?

That one is easy: I want to smash some PBs! My best 5km time of 20:45 was set in July 2016, and it needs to be broken. On the other end of the scale, I’d love to BQ again and hopefully also improve on my 3:28:41 marathon time. Both of those records were so satisfying to achieve, and I know I have it in me to better them.

I’d also like to get over my tendency of giving up when the going gets hard. This doesn’t mean pushing myself to the point of ruin, but rather recognising and getting to where my true limits lie, rather than seeing them in the distance and stopping early. There’s a big difference between the two, and that’s where real progress can be made. I don’t feel like I’ve properly breached that space yet, but I hope that it will come soon. Just as I learned so much from discovering that I can keep on going and going in an endurance event, I think there’s some exciting lessons in pushing through some mental barriers in speedwork as well.

So there you have it: my summer of speed! I’m probably 6-8 weeks into it now, but the really hard stuff is only just starting. I haven’t seen any massive improvements straight away, but there are little indicators starting to creep up here and there which are promising, such as a solid parkrun time of 21:39 or running a 400m rep in 1:25 without realising. There’s no target event on the calendar for now, but I’m looking forward to seeing some great results over the upcoming weeks and months!

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