Inclusive speed for all to succeed
Gavin Hall explains the training session he has developed that makes speed training accessible and fun for all.
How many thousands of club runners run virtually every mile at the same pace? Who can blame them when "speed session" can strike fear into the heart of all but the leanest racing snake? All too often then, many athletes undertake similar sessions, secretly wanting to go faster, but not having the self-confidence or knowledge to make a change.
To improve the athlete's running times, we have to develop their speed. Running every mile at an eight-minute pace makes the athlete excellent at running eight-minute miles. Only by introducing some carefully managed overload can we sharpen up for speed.
I have developed a training session that makes speed training accessible and fun for all. It is designed for a mixed ability group to run on a road circuit of around eight miles. It is a low-tech approach, relatively easy to coach, safe and lots of fun.
Best of all, it works - 100% of the athletes that have undertaken this session with me once a week for twelve weeks have achieved a level of speed endurance they previously thought impossible. Come to think of it, I have achieved the same effect myself by coaching it!
To coach this session, you will need to create a road route of around eight miles designed around the speed interval lengths that you will read about below. Each interval should begin and end with a clear marker and consist of smooth, reasonably flat, well-lit surfaces.
Paramount in the design of your route and interval sessions is safety (not a great idea to have a road junction in the middle of a speed interval!).
The Session Itself
As the coach, you should:
Put the group into reverse speed order (fastest at the back). Bring any new members up to the front to run alongside you as you start the warm-up. Keep the group tight, and keep the group slow, i.e. slower than the comfort level of the slowest runner. First mile very slow jogging including gentle mobilisation of the joints through striding, short-striding etc. The second mile includes some drills and strides to increase the heart rate and further warm the muscles.
One Mile Effort
As you approach the first-mile effort, brief the group on safety and on the specific aspect of technique that you want them to focus on for the session. Make sure that everyone knows where the end of the mile effort is and what to do when they get there, e.g. jog back slowly to fall in behind the slowest runner. Tell them to accelerate gradually for the first minute to reach the top speed that they can sustain for the rest of the mile.
Set your runners off (still in reverse speed order) for a maximal effort mile. First the nine-minute milers, then the eight-minute milers and so on. The aim is to try and have all runners finish the one-mile effort at the same time.
Make sure that all runners don't just stop at the end of the mile. As they finish, get the athletes to jog back and hook up behind the last runner completing the mile (because despite your best efforts, they will not all finish at the same time!).
Re-organise the group into revised speed order again - making any adjustments based upon performance during the first effort. Keep everyone jogging along as you do this.
Keep the recovery period short (a couple of minutes after the last runner finishes). Use this time to individually coach and motivate the slower runners. Re-emphasise the aspect of technique that you are working on and re-establish the reverse speed order you need. Check that nobody has any signs of injury - anyone who does, knock off the speed and jogs the rest of the way. Re-emphasise safety, identify the half-mile endpoint and set your runners running (now the 9-minute runner only gets a 30-second head start from the 8-minute mile runner of course!)
Quarter Mile Effort
Now it's time to use those motivational skills. l am not talking about screaming and shouting, just emphasising the positive a thousand times more than you usually do. Remember that all of your athletes should be finding this difficult. Tell them that it's OK to feel that way. Remind them that there is no shame in being slowest - check that nobody is in pain. Re-establish that reverse speed-order, adjusting again as required. Get everyone to summon up their deepest reserves, sort out your speed order again, halve your head start times again, three, two, one GO!
Lamp Post Interval Mile
By now, you should have about three miles to run. Tell that to the group - it's reassuring to those who are tired. After another short recovery jog, it's time to put those coaching skills to the test again.
This time use lampposts (or similar landmarks) as individual effort markers for your group. Send them off individually, setting each a series of tasks to keep their effort level high over the next mile.
Use your skills - the fastest runners might run 6 x 200 with jog-back-to the slowest-runner recoveries over this mile, whilst the slowest runners might make just 2 x 100 efforts without running back at all. Alter this section of the run each week to make it interesting. Consider "lamppost ladders" (forward two, back one, forward three, back one etc.) or any other adjustment that you like - but be very cautious about making your tired athletes turn sharply - remember that their legs, joints, muscles and tendons will be tired.
During this section encourage everyone to keep the effort level high - remind them that the bulk of the speed work is done and that it will all be over in less than half an hour.
Re-group with only two miles to go, put yourself at the front with the slowest runners, put in a good five-minute slow jog recovery whilst you thank and encourage the group. Tailor the last mile of the run to suit the needs of your group. Hardened and experienced athletes might want to put in some more speed whilst the slower runners jog back with you. This provides a great opportunity for you to get some feedback whilst further encouraging your slowest superstars.
And so, the journey ends - save for the cooldown and stretching. I am sure you have your methodology - I emphasise bringing the heart rate down slowly before leading a carefully explained stretching session. Seek feedback, give positive feedback and end with a huge round of applause.
The Four Golden Rules:
Forgive me for being over-prescriptive, but here are the words that I use to introduce this session - l am sure that you will have your rules and words; these work for me:
Putting it All Together
Reading through the above, I am struck by the simplicity of this session and apologise to those who had hoped for something more scientific. I am amazed that it works so effectively. However, the results that I have seen from delivering this session consistently with real enthusiasm speak for themselves. Long established personal best times reduced by minutes, overall distances by athletes of all abilities. Many of these athletes had previously lacked enough confidence for track training, but others had trained on the track regularly. Pleasingly, this session has left us all injury-free for over six months.
I love coaching this session as it enables me to coach effectively whilst training at high-intensity myself. It allows athletes of differing standards to work together inclusively and to access an ability that they had not previously dreamed of.
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About the Author
Gavin Hall is a British Athletics level 3 performance Coach specialising in Endurance events. He is an active endurance athlete, running two or three marathons a year and some of the longer distance triathlons.