Training

Build Speed Without Stress

Three ways for "slow" distance runners to comfortably incorporate max speedwork into our running.

In the award-winning 1981 movie Chariots of Fire, 1920’s running coach Sam Mussabini tells sprinter Harold Abrahams, “We’ve an old saying in my game, son: You can’t put in what God’s left out.” Coaches today continue to quote this maxim, and maintain the belief that either you are born with speed or you’re not.

The quote persists because it contains some truth. Top-end speed is indeed genetic: studies show that those who win sprints were already the fastest kid in the class before they began training. We who weren’t fast became distance runners—finding running success only by building our endurance and efficiency. Bottom line: If you want to be an Olympic 100-meter champion, first choose your parents well. Or what old Sam Mussabini said.

The danger of this quote, however, is that we tend to believe that if we’re not given the gift of speed, there’s nothing we can do about it. We accept that we’re not fast, and devote all our energies to ensuring we can we can keep whatever speed we have going for a long time.

If we can’t put in what God’s left out, we ignore all explosive training, because what’s the point? We’ll only be embarrassed and probably hurt ourselves. Which is a pity, because while training can’t make you fast compared to true speedsters, it can make you significantly faster. And developing our max speed improves our springs and our stride, making running at every pace easier and more fun.

Going fast recruits all your muscles fibers, strengthens those muscles, and improves your efficiency by increasing the neural connections between your brain and your muscles. The result: you’ll be able to contact the ground quicker and more powerfully.

For those of you who immediately dismiss sprinting as not for you, or who are interested but reluctant to try, I offer these suggestions that have helped me not only to include max-speed work in my training, but also to enjoy going fast regularly (as much as my max velocity can be considered “fast” these days).

1. Go fast alone.

There’s nothing more demoralizing than going “all-out” and having gifted runners pull away like you’re going backwards. The point is to go as fast as you can, not win a sprint race. If you’re by yourself, you feel fast (one advantage of socially isolating): Your legs turning over in a blur like the Road Runner, your stride driving backwards powerfully, popping off the ground with each step, the wind in your face, fire in your heels. It really doesn’t matter how fast that is, or isn’t. One caveat: if you’ve got someone of similar speed, sprinting beside each other or chasing each other up a hill can be even more fun, but make sure you follow rule 2…

2. Keep it short.

As distance runners, we don’t believe anything has value unless we’re gutting it out long after others fall away. Even in a sprint workout we try to hold on to the pace after we tire and our form starts to fall apart, or we pace ourselves so we can keep going strong. Not only does this negate the purpose of the work but it ruins the fun. This is one place where you get to take off the governor and just let it fly, then shut it down before you have to dig deep. Done right, you don’t even feel tired, or sore — until the next day.

3. Do sprints and drills during your run.

On most days, most of us distance runners just go for a run; we don’t do long, complex workouts where we stand around half the time. If you wait until your run is over to add on some sprints or plyometrics, you’ll too often decide you don’t have time, or you’re too tired, or you just don’t feel like doing more. During the last few years, I’ve taken to doing sprints during my last mile (one telephone pole “on,” one “off”), or hill sprints on a short incline a half mile away from home, and even drills and exercises on a quiet stretch where no one can see me weirdly hopping and bounding. And when the run is done, I’m done, as usual—but I feel loose and powerful and fast.

Remember, it’s not about what God left in or out, it’s about what you do with what you’ve been given. And we’ve each been given enough to feel fast— and to get faster.