On these fine fall days, most of enjoy running our favorite urban routes, hitting a secluded trail, or cruising along on a windy rural road. We seem to be able to lock into a pace and feel like we can run forever. Our cadence and breathing is relaxed, and, if we're among friends, the conversation and laughter flows, as we enjoy our mobile social club.
Sometimes, however, once a week if we're not tapering for, or recovering from, a major race, we need to stretch the limits or our comfort zone.
We need speed!
I'm not talking about a tempo run, where we sustain a hard pace for a few miles, I'm talking about spittle on the mouth, lung-splitting, tendon-straining speed work.
I've been in this game for over 36 years, and I can tell you that I still get nervous when I go to the track. You're not racing, but the pain seems to be the same. You ask yourself, "What am I doing here?," and "Why am I doing this?" The answer is ridiculously simple: To become a better runner, and to race faster.
There is something about that acrid smell of a rubberized track, the heat, the bleachers, the football or soccer team practicing, participants eying you curiously, often adding a derogatory slur as you slog through the pain, that adds a special aura to speed work on the track, or as we call it, "intervals."
The middle of the week is the ideal time to subject yourself to this self-inflicted pain ritual, as most of us conduct our long runs on weekends. Jog to your local track, and make sure you are thoroughly warmed up. Your times in distances from 5K to the marathon will benefit from a weekly diet of speed work.
The secret is the heart rate. You want to get it up there. No chatting with friends during a speed workout. Barking out splits should be the only syllables uttered.
I am amused when I see high school track teams conducting their intervals, only to witness what amounts to a military field hospital as weary harriers drop to the infield after each interval, lying there until the coach commands them to return to the track.
When you run an interval workout, the key factor is to limit your rest, and to NOT allow your heart rate to drop to a resting level. I recommend you 'halve' the interval in between your hard distance. For example, if you are running an 800 meter workout, jog 400 meters in between.
Personally, I don't think you should run less than 400 meters for an interval. A 4x400 meter workout, or an 8x400 meter workout is both a terrific leg speed and endurance session. 'Ladder' workouts are fun. Try a 400, 800, 1600 (up the ladder), 800, 400 workout. Remember, with all interval workouts, your last repetition should be run around the same time as the first. Be as fast coming down the ladder as on the way up. 800 meter repeats are good strength builders as well.
If you're running a marathon, though, nothing is better than 1600 (mile) repeats. Start early in your training by running 3x1600, and by the time you are 2 to 3 weeks out from the race, do 6 to 8 repeats.
Remember, all your intervals should be run FASTER than your race pace.
At any level, you can run intervals on the track as a means of improving your times. However you slice it, 2-3 miles of hard intervals per week will, indeed, make you a better runner.
Now, I will caution you here. You may run a race after you have done a few interval workouts, and you'll feel just as bad as you've always felt in a race. However, when you look at your watch, you'll be pleasantly surprised to see how much faster you're running.
So, don't be afraid to push your limits, at least once a week in your training. It will pay big dividends in your future races.