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#AboutTrail Episode 8: Speed Training

How to get faster.

Improving your speed isn’t as easy as snapping your fingers or taking a magical pill, but it is as simple as including a speed session to your weekly training. In saying that, speed sessions are tough and may become the one day a week you despise simply because you know you’re going to be pushing yourself to your max. But one speed session a week will dramatically improve your body’s ability to handle a higher pace for longer.

“Without getting too technical, speed work teaches your body to run faster for longer periods of time. The benefits are that you get stronger mentally and physically and this all leads to better performance and better love for running,” says certified Ironman and triathlon coach, STeve Attwell. Attwell is also responsible, along with Garth Dorman for setting the multi-sport club ATC’s weekly track and speed session.


What is speed work?

There are three different ways to tackle speed work, in fact it’s worth switching between them for variety and to avoid boredom. The first kind is called Tempo running. “This is also referred to as Threshold running,” says Attwell, “its running just a little bit quicker than your race pace, and for shorter periods of time.” Tempo running teaches the body to deal with the demand at that speed. “An example of a 60min tempo session would start with 20mins easy running, 20mins mins  at tempo and finish with 20mins easy,” says Attwell.

A second type of speed training is called Interval training. “This is a shorter, faster series of speed work with increased rest between each interval,” says Attwell. So think repeats of shorter distances at faster pace with set rest periods between each running set. “There are countless examples to give, just bear in mind the level of the athlete and the rest provided between intervals. An example of an interval session would 4x 1km intervals run with 1min30 recovery.”

Finally, the third most common form of speed work is called the Fartlek, otherwise known as speed play. “This is where you include fast sections immediately followed by slower sections, in succession,” says Attwell. “To try it on your own, just take a normal run route and run faster/slower sections within the run. Or set predetermined parameters like every person you see with a dog; you increase your pace for 20seconds.”  


Can I do it on my own?

Speed work is kind of like dieting, you can absolutely do it on your own but just know, deep down, that you’ll be less inclined to cheat, skip the hard parts or get lazy if you’re doing it with a group of other people…

“You can definitely do it on your own,” says Attwell, but having people around you to push you and get you going when you think you can’t is much more beneficial.”

Speed work is very precise in regards to the structure of the session, and if you’re in a group you’re also less likely to stray too far from that structure. “If you are running 10 x 400m, with 1min30 rest, and you are on your own and the time says go, it’s easy to just say OK, 30 more secs rest. If there is a coach telling you to go and a group of runners all going; then you just GO,” says Attwell.


How do I figure out my pace?

If you run with a device that can calculate your speed, then make use of an online split time converter’ to figure out your easy/medium/fast pace according to your next race goal.

Try the same on to figure out your 10km race pace as per below. Enter your time goal and the distance of 10km. It’ll calculate your race pace, which will be your medium pace during speed sessions. Increase or decrease your pace to get your easy and hard pace. Use your device to ensure that you run according to the splits.

The fitter you are the less recovery time you need during sessions (in relation to an unfit person), and the faster your HR will drop.

If you do not run with a device, use the basic traffic light system. Green is your easy pace, you can chat, breathing is easy, it’s chilled. Orange is your medium pace, you’re not quite at race pace, but you’re not chatting comfortably anymore either. Red is race pace zone. If you’re chatting here, you’re not pushing hard enough. Flat out is when you’re impersonating Usain Bolt.


How many times a week should I incorporate speed work?

You only need to do speed work once a week to see a vast improvement.

“I recommend to do speed work just once a week, along with a long run and a strength/hill session. This gives you a day to rest between each session and will improve your overall performance and pace dramatically,” says Attwell.


Try this on your own

Attwell’s Beginner session:

“A great speed session is to do a descending time set of increases of speed,” says Attwell. So run the following intervals:

1 x 5min

1 x 4min

1 x 3min

1 x 2min

1 x 1min

Take a walking 1min 30 recovery between each (either walking or standing still).


Increase your speed for each change in time, which means that by the time you reach one minute, you should be going as fast as you can hang onto.  the


Remember to always cool down and stretch after a speed session.


Join a group


Cape Town:

Anyone who has an ATC membership and a WPA license through ATC can join in track sessions at ATC on Tuesday mornings at 6AM and Wednesday evenings at 6PM. If you are a member of another club you can still join ATC socially.



If you’re based in Jozi, join up with Nike Running Club that do free weekly time trials from the Nike Store at The Zone @ Rosebank. For more information on how to join up, have a look at their website.


More about  the experts

STeve Attwell is a certified Ironman coach, Level 2 TSA triathlon coach, accredited ASA Level 1 coach. STeve coaches for both Embark and ATC Multisport.

Garth Dorman Accredited ASA coach and running coach at Embark. Garth is in charge of the ATC Multisport weekly track sessions and coaches group training for the half marathon and marathon programs for the big Cape Town races.


Article written by Bryony McCormick