Watching Olympic track and field stars run at insane speeds, jump to seemingly unreachable heights (and lengths), and hurl just about everything except the kitchen sink—what exactly is a discus, again?—makes them appear superhuman. And while their talents on the track put them in a category all their own, even everyday runners can take something away from their training.
No matter if you’re “the fastest man alive” Usain Bolt training for the 100-meter dash at the Olympics or if you’re just looking to PR your next 5K at the local park, when speed is the name of the game, training at the proper pace, and knowing how to budget your energy is something runners of all levels can do to see results, says Andrew Kastor, consulting coach for ASICS America.
Kastor, who is also an exercise physiologist and the head coach of ASICS Mammoth Track Club in California, has spent his running career training athletes at all levels—his wife is an Olympic medalist and American record holder for the marathon if that tells you anything. He says that if you want to beat your previous 5K or 10K time, all you need to do is run quicker than your goal pace. Sounds obvious, right? Well, Kastor says the biggest mistake most runners make when it comes to speed training is thinking they need to start off in a dead sprint. Slow down and practice running as fast as you hope to be on race day—even if it’s not for very long at first. “When an athlete practices at race pace, they continue to ingrain those motor patterns into their nervous system,” he says.
And don’t think that just because you want to improve your speed means that longer, slower runs are off the training schedule. Nope, quite the opposite, says Kastor. “It’s important to run the entire ‘running spectrum’ throughout the week,” he says. (This includes a wide range of paces and efforts, meaning running at a low intensity well below your race pace, as well as shorted relaxed sprints or “strides” at about 80-90% of your max speed.) Kastor says you should aim for an ideal 80/20 split for the week with 80 percent of your weekly runs at lower intensity endurance training miles, and the other 20 percent at high-intensity short sprints (a.k.a strides) with hard, sustained effort throughout.
You might notice Olympians like Usain Bolt and USA’s Justin Gatlin performing a handful of those strides right before a race, and Kastor says they aren’t wasting any energy; these pre-race rituals are all part of their strategy. “By doing these strides, athletes recruit all the muscle tissue they are going to need, and this facilitates putting all the joints in the legs through their full range of motion, which is important just prior to the start of a hard workout or race,” he says.
To help you with your week’s last 20 percent of hard runs (and to help you practice those strides for race day), Kastor developed a speed-training workout anyone can do to shave off some time.
- 10-15 minutes: Start with a light run at an easy pace
- 5-10 minutes: Stretch it out. (The Best Stretches for Runners is a good place to start.)
- 5-10 minutes: Perform dynamic running drills, such as skipping, high knees, and butt kicks (moving along the track as you perform each move)
Complete 16 rounds of 400m runs at or just below your goal 5K (or 10K) pace. (There are many free apps for runners that can track your pace and help you set goals accordingly.)
- Round 12 and round 16 are the pace exceptions and considered your “hammer” reps, which means you give it all you’ve got during those two 400m runs.
- Recovery times between runs or sets should be 1:1. (This means if you run 400m in 1:45, rest time before your next set should last 1 minute and 45 seconds as well.) Adjust this for every 400-meters.
- 10-15 minutes: Slow your heart rate back down with some easy running.
- 5-10 minutes: Light stretching. (Our 30-Day Running Challenge has five moves to stretch your hips, calves, glutes, hamstrings, and quads.)