Whether you’re a race regular, new to running, or an avid walker, speed training could be the ticket to easier workouts, even as you rack up mileage. A recent overview of studies published in the The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research shows adding short, explosive training sessions can help you run (or walk) faster and more smoothly for longer periods of time.
“You’re improving your economy,” says elite running coach Brad Hudson, author of Run Faster and Little Black Book of Training. In other words, you’re teaching your body to move faster with less effort.
In Running Science, author Owen Anderson explains that the pace you are able to sustain at any distance is a percentage of your maximal running speed. If you can improve your max speed over short distances, you will be able to sustain a faster pace when you run or walk longer distances. This type of training, however, isn’t about lungs and heart—but rather nerves and muscles. “Maximal speed improves as the nervous system learns to coordinate the muscles in ways that promote faster stride rates, shorter contact times per step, and quicker generation of substantial propulsive forces,” Anderson writes.
“Going all-out is like turning a fire hose on full,” Hudson says. “It recruits every nerve and muscle group, including ones that don’t often get used.”
Hudson explains that the body engages as few muscles as possible to accomplish any task, like fuel-saving car engines that only use only as many cylinders as needed for the load. Many bundles of nerves and fibers don’t get called up until you either get very fatigued—like at the end of a long run—or you ask your body for everything it’s got.
Rest assured we’re not saying you need to take on Usain Bolt. You don’t have to be fast to go all-out. “Maximum effort” is relative to your own fitness and experience. This type of training shouldn’t feel overly demanding, either—in fact, if you’re straining, you’re going too hard, or too long.
The simplest way to include explosive work is to add a few short sprints during a normal walk or run. Here are the rules:
Speed without Hurry
“Go as quick as you can—while staying relaxed,” Hudson says. Focusing on maintaining a smile or a relaxed face can help keep you from straining.
To ramp up your speed: Whether you’re walking or running, swing your arms faster, which will increase your leg turnover, and drive your elbows backwards, which will help move your stride behind you.
Push for 10 Seconds
Once you hit your top speed, you need to shut it down as soon as you start to feel it takes any effort to maintain. Pushing too long—any longer than 10 to12 seconds—will kick in your anaerobic energy system and increase acidity in your cells. That can sabotage your fitness gains by damaging the enzymes and mitochondria (energy powerhouses in your cells) you are building during aerobic training.
Your speed burst should happen so quickly that your heart rate and breathing don’t have time to react. You won’t see your heart rate go up on your Fitbit until you’re done with the burst and you start to recover.
Slow to an easy walk (even if you’re running) and rest for few minutes after each burst. Don’t start another fast segment until your heart rate has returned to within a few beats of its original rate. This ensures that the workout doesn’t become anaerobic, and allows your muscles to regenerate ATP, the molecule that provides energy—so you’re ready for another maximum burst of nerves and muscle. Your last burst should feel as easy—and be as fast as the first.
If you’re just starting, try one fast effort, maybe two per training session. Do this two to three times per week. As you feel more comfortable, add more, building up to eight to ten bursts. More advanced athletes can do sprints up a steep hill to maximize muscle recruitment and effort.