Speedwork for Runners: These 5 Workouts Will Make You Faster

Want to boost your mile pace and improve your kick? Speedwork for runners doesn't have to be old-school track laps.

If you want to get faster, you don't have to circle the track a nauseating amount of times.

If that's your thing...cool.

But if you're looking for speedwork for runners tips to get faster that don't require a hamster-wheel mindset, check this out...

Speedwork for runners: Get comfortable with going fast

If endurance runs are all about learning to handle a little bit of pain for a long time, speed runs are the exact opposite: how much ouch can you withstand in one short but brutal sitting?

Workouts epitomize the concept of quality over quantity.

  • They shouldn’t take up a ton of time.
  • Why? Every second that you’re out there counts. 
  • By the end, you’ll likely find yourself just as exhausted as you feel at the end of a long run in half the time… or less. 

Pulling out all the stops like that requires digging deep.

When you’re training for speed, the focus shifts from ENDURANCE to POWER.

As we learned in our long run analysis (Long-Run Secrets: 6 Runner-Tested Tips to Ramp Up Your Miles), endurance requires patience more than anything.

You may not be moving at your limit in terms of speed, BUT you’re pushing the envelope when it comes to how long you can keep it up.

Speedwork for runners turns that on its head to pack a real punch...

  • You’re engaging your fast-twitch muscles.
  • You're picking up the pace to a level of difficulty that you can’t maintain for more than a few minutes at a time, max. 
  • And if you can… well, you’re probably not cranking it quite hard enough. 

Get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

It takes courage to dive into that level of discomfort.

Yeah, the light at the end of the tunnel never looks too far away — especially compared to the daunting feeling of looking hours ahead to the end of a long run.

But if you’re doing it right, that short period of time will likely seem endless.

When you’re in the middle of a fast tempo or clawing your way to the end of a hard hill sprint, seconds feel like hours too. 

I know, I know; I’m really talking this up. 

I don’t blame you if you’d rather say “no, thanks” to speed training entirely. 

  • Maybe dropping a few seconds on race day doesn’t sound worth the pain.
  • Or you might think that there’s no place for speed workouts in your running schedule because you’re a long-distance runner and care more about duration than intensity. 

😲🏃‍♀️🏃‍♂️👉 But I’m here to burst your bubble: Speedwork for runners at every level is beneficial.

Runner and WeeViews Ambassador Lucie Hanes shows you FIVE ways to make speedwork part of your training.

Get faster with speedwork for runners

Let’s start with the obvious: Speed training makes you faster. 

That’s something that both sprinters and marathoners care about in their own way. 

  • Even if you’re not gunning for a five-minute mile, shaving a few seconds off of your finish time in any kind of race can mean the difference between stepping up to the podium and looking up at it. 
  • And no matter how you stack up to others, running the same distance at a faster pace than before demonstrates undeniable personal growth. 
  • With so many runners out there working hard in their own ways, your best competition will always be yourself. 

So what's the secret to speedwork for runners?

It's really not a mystery. 

The simplest explanation goes back to the idea that “practice makes perfect”. 

The more you practice running fast, the easier it will get to reach high speeds — and then crank the dial even higher. 

Rinse and repeat. 

This is what running fast does to your brain & body.

Running fast has a physiological effect on your body. But it’s a bit complicated. 

  • Lactate threshold. When you’re running at or near your maximum capacity for speed, the uncomfortable feeling of your limbs pumping hard with blood and your heart racing so fast you can barely breathe comes in large part from reaching your lactate threshold. 
  • Glycogen for energy. Glycogen, or the stored form of carbohydrates in your body, serves as the main source of energy when you’re running. As you burn through glycogen during exercise, your body produces a substance called lactate. Lactate can then be turned back into glycogen for more energy, like a revolving door. 
  • Aerobic limit. But as you start to approach your aerobic limit, your body produces more lactate than it can transform into glycogen. 

👉 This tipping point is called the lactate threshold.

  • Running on borrowed time. Once you hit this stage, you’re running on borrowed time as more and more lactate builds up in your blood. Pretty soon, you’ll lose precious power, energy, and stability — and maybe even your breakfast🤮 — before grinding to a heartbreaking halt. 

Get to know YOUR lactate threshold.

Everyone’s lactate threshold sits at a different spot depending on your genetic makeup and your training. 

  • There’s not much anyone can do about the traits you’re born with, but that’s where speedwork comes in to make the real difference.
  • Even the most genetically blessed athletes won’t reach their potential without the hard work it takes to unlock it. 

Speed training helps to raise the ceiling on your lactate threshold.

The higher your threshold, the longer your body will be able to:

  • Flush out lactate
  • Generate glycogen, and...
  • Charge ahead. 

You’ll also be able to reach and maintain higher speeds before reaching that crushing stopping point. 

The most effective speedwork for runners...

...gets your body used to working hard at a level just under your lactate threshold. 

🤔Picture yourself deep in a squat, close to the ground and struggling under a heavy weight on your shoulders. 

👉Speed training feels like growing accustomed to that weight, getting stronger, and gradually pushing it up until you’re standing tall. 

The trick, though, is finding that sweet spot right below the threshold.

  • Cross the line for too long, and you’ll throw off the careful balance. 
  • It’s tempting to just go ham with reckless abandon every workout...
  • But that would be like going straight from a 10 mile long run one week to a 20 miler the next. 
  • You might be able to do it, but such a big leap doesn’t give your body time to make the right adaptations. 
  • You’ll still feel all the hurt… and reap none of the rewards. 

That doesn’t mean that speedwork shouldn’t feel mindbogglingly hard.

🤬 Most runners have a bank of colorful words to describe the unrivaled burn in the final seconds of an interval push.

It simply means that speedwork for runners without a strategy might not get you where you want to go.

Want to use speedwork to boost your mile pack, improve your kick and get faster?

Dive in with a plan in hand to make the most of your efforts. 

Despise speedwork so much you need a little nudge?

Consider working with a coach. As always, the best results stem from working with a coach

  • Why? A coach will be able to program progressive workouts that build off of your current abilities and increase the demand to just the right degree each time. 
  • This way, you’re climbing up the rungs of a ladder and making progress step by step without going overboard. 

If coaching isn’t in the cards right now, you can still train smart for speed.

Try some of these workouts once a week to improve your lactate threshold.

For best results, stick with one workout for about four weeks — gradually upping the intensity each time — before switching gears.

Heading out the door for some speedwork? Remember to:

  • Ease in with a warm-up
  • Embrace the sufferfest
  • Keep your eyes on the prize, and...
  • Stay patient; no matter how it feels in the moment, the right attitude and approach will send you flying come race day. 

👉Ready to give it a try? These 5 workouts will make you faster?

1. Basic Intervals. Want to boost your mile pace, improve your kick, set a PR or get faster. Basic intervals can help.

1. Basic intervals

Intervals are the simplest way to implement structured speed training. 

  • You train in a balance of work and rest.
  • This gives you time to recover from each burst of intensity.
  • A short rest break also helps flush out excess lactate before picking up the pace again. 
  • This way, you don’t cross the line too far or for too long, so you can bounce back in time for the next interval.

Here's how to do a basic interval workout...

  • Set your intervals. To start, simply set your watch for 30 seconds on, 30 seconds off. 
  • Use a watch or timer. Most running watches have interval modes for this very purpose, but a regular watch with a second hand works just as well.
  • Push yourself. You’ll push speed to the upper limit of your capacity for 30 seconds.
  • Rest. Then rest for an equal amount of time either at a slow jog or a walk. 
  • You don’t want to stop completely, because a little movement helps flush out the lactate and trains your body to recover while still forging ahead. 
  • Repeat this cycle three to five times. With each passing week, add one more cycle to the session. 

Basic interval tips

  • You can aim for certain speeds based on your race goals, or judge your speed based on your Rate of Perceived Effort. 
  • During hard intervals, aim for an 8 or 9 out of 10, with 10 being your all-out sprint effort, in order to keep your running form intact.
  • Speed training gets a bad rap for being aggressive on your joints, but that’s only if you fail to keep the intensity at an 8 or a 9 instead of a flat-out 10. In that case, yeah, your form will suffer and your body will carry extra strain. Curb your enthusiasm just enough to keep your limbs under control.
2. Fartleks. ‘Fartlek’ is a Swedish word for ‘speedplay’. Use this speedwork for runners strategy on your next road OR trail run.

2. Fartleks

Fartleks are the closest you’ll get to “just winging it”. 

  • They’re a nice middle ground between a highly structured plan and a free-for-all. 
  • For beginners just dipping their toes into intentional training, Fartleks are a great place to start exploring speedwork if strict intervals feel too intimidating. 
  • Advanced runners appreciate them too for the way they take some off the pressure off hitting exact times, distances, and durations. 

‘Fartlek’ is a Swedish word for ‘speedplay.’

It’s exactly what it sounds like: :

  • Playing around with different speeds over various distances rather than sticking to a consistent pace. 
  • It’s more based on feel and fluidity than rigid intentions. 
  • The variability keeps your body guessing so that it’s ready to handle whatever challenges come your way. 
  • You’re able to determine different levels of speed, and come to understand that you’re not just a machine that turns off and on; you’re a complex human being with plenty of options available to you depending on your environment and your goals. 

The whole point of a Fartlek workout is letting go of specific expectations.

That being said, you can still use external factors to guide your choices. 

  • If you’re listening to music, pick up the pace during the chorus and slow down during the verse. 
  • Or, pick out landmarks to chase down in the distance and recover at a jog once you pass it. 

Because Fartleks depend on feel instead of numbers, it’s easy to tweak this workout to match your ability level. 

As you improve, you’ll naturally hit faster paces. You can also increase the amount, frequency, or distance of each rep. 

3. Hill Sprints. Run up. Run down. Repeat. Hill sprints will make you faster.

3. Hill Sprints

I don’t know any runner who couldn’t stand to get a little better at hills. You agree?

No matter what, they’re always tough…which makes this type of speedwork for runners the great equalizer.

Everyone’s cursing something during a hill sprint. 

Surprisingly enough, though, hill sprints are some of the easiest workouts on your body in terms of impact and injury prevention. 

  • Running uphill minimizes the force on your joints, plus builds strength for stability. 
  • Hill repeats are also so simple that you don’t even need a watch to keep track. 

Here's what you need to know about hill repeats:

Instructions:

  • Run up the hill as fast as you can within that 8 to 9 RPE range, then slowly jog back down for recovery. 
  • Repeat for a few rounds, just like in basic intervals, and increase the amount and/or length each week. 
  • Focus on driving your knees forward, picking up your feet, and maintaining good posture. 
  • Try your best to turn around and keep moving at the top of the hill for active recovery (but I can’t say I’d blame you for pausing to wheeze with hands on your knees). 
4. Pyramids. Warm up. Gradually increase your speed. Run your fastest in the middle (the top of the pyramid). Then gradually come down.

4. Pyramids

Pyramid workouts are perfect for runners who need some time to ease into the workload. 

  • They’re also ideal choices for runners looking to find that balance between speedy power and long-lasting endurance. 
  • Just like a pyramid, you’ll build up in intensity and duration as you move through the session.

Here's how to structure a pyramid workout.

Instructions

  • First, figure out the longest and hardest interval you want to place at the pinnacle of your pyramid. 
  • You’ll work backward from there to plan the rest of your workout.
  • If you’re aiming for a five minute push at the top, for example, consider starting with one minute of work followed by one minute of rest. 
  • Next you’ll step up to two minutes of each, then three, then four, then finally five. 
  • Once you finish the full five all at once, you’ll take steps back down to one. 

This plan works for both short and long intervals.

The choice depends on your overall running goals. 

Remember that longer intervals spanning several minutes or more won’t — and shouldn’t — be quite as fast as shorter bursts. 

You’ll need to put more effort into tempering your speed if you’re aiming to keep it up for a longer period of time. 

5. Tempo Runs. Speed up, slow down, and use bursts of speed and power to get faster.

5. Tempo Runs

On that note, tempo runs are the ultimate power-endurance exercise. 

On these runs, you’ll practice hitting and holding higher speeds. 

  • Think ‘pushing’ instead of ‘bursting’. 
  • If you’re aiming for an 8 or 9 out of ten during high-intensity bursts, take it down a notch to a 7 to find a tempo speed that you can sustain for a maximum of 60 minutes. 
  • Most tempo workouts fall in the range of 20 to 40 minutes, like a 5k time trial.

Tempo runs take practice...

Why? Only personal experience can guide you toward a tough but sustainable pace. 

Give yourself permission to experiment, and repeat the same workout for a few weeks in a row so that you have the chance to gather data over time. 

Eventually, you’ll learn what the right pace feels like — mentally and physically — so that you’re able to pinpoint it for various distances even as your speed and endurance improve. 

Speedwork for runners: Love it or hate it?

Tell us about it in the comments. 

Got a favorite workout to boost your mile pace, improve your kick, or get faster? We want to hear about it. 

Or do you run for the hills (and trails) any time someone mentions speedwork? We want to know about that too.

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Lucie Hanes
Ambassador
Eagle, CO

Ultrarunner, rock climber, occasional artist, fond of good wordplay. Small human on big adventures with big goals and big feelings.

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