Want to run faster?

In a previous post I mentioned how fortunate we are to have such a diverse group of women with various gifts and talents to offer. Stephanie Shimkus is one of our gifted members who is not only an exceptionally talented athlete (having played beach volleyball on the semi-pro circuit), but she is also a qualified sports massage therapist and RRCA certified running coach. While we don’t have the good fortune of having her here in Okinawa with us, she is still able to share much of her knowledge from afar. I asked Stephanie if she would write a post for us on the benefits of speedwork and she kindly obliged:  

Speedwork.   Just saying the word often conjures up images of the women’s world marathon record holder, Paula Radcliffe, knocking out 5:15 mile repeats eight to ten times in a single session, or Roger Bannister’s late night track workouts of 20 – 400 meter repeats on his way to the world’s first sub 4-minute mile (Bannister eventually set the record of 3:59).  The good news here is that speedwork does not have to be scary, intimidating nor does it even have to be overly scientific.

The Swedes had it right when they coined the term “Fartlek” in the 1930’s.  For new runners, the word fartlek sounds a little like a swear word and often causes some giggles (go ahead and giggle…you know you want to).  The word fartlek, simply means, “speed play.”  In its most organic form, Swedes simply disappeared into the mountains on cross country ski trails and ran as hard as they could from say, a rock to a tree 100m away or perhaps from a creek to a large landmark of their choosing some distance away.  In between these hard efforts, runners would jog until they felt like running hard again.  Not very scientific or scary, right?  Speedwork really can be that simple.
Speedwork has several different benefits.  The simplest is that you become a faster runner.  Maybe you’re a 5K runner and you would like to develop faster leg turnover.  Or you’re a half marathon gal and you are looking to develop a faster constant pace, then speedwork is for you.  Without getting too scientific, speedwork also teaches your body how to run hard by causing change within the body’s energy systems which in turn develops our bodies into faster and more efficient machines. 
Training your body to run fast is also good for your brain.  Your brain has a pretty strong survival mechanism.  The brain’s first instinct will be to send signals to the rest of your body to tell you to stop, that it is uncomfortable to run hard so you should stop.  Speedwork teaches you how to override that mechanism so you can run no matter how hard the workout.  Additionally, speedwork can be very tough so in doing these hard workouts, you are developing mental toughness so you walk away saying, “heck yeah!  I’m one tough lady!”  Now who doesn’t want to walk away from a workout feeling like a super star?
So now you’ve decided that you definitely want to feel like a super star after your next run.  Where do you begin?  If you are new to speedwork, I would suggest trying fartleks which are basically simple interval training – running hard for a bit then jogging for a bit.  Then you can evolve into running hard at perhaps 80% maximum effort (your effort, not your running partner’s effort or your significant other’s effort) for 30 seconds followed by 60 seconds to two minutes of jogging, continuing that pattern for as many repetitions as you feel necessary. 

Setting out on a fartlek run; Stephanie uses her garmin as a timer
If you have tried fartleks and intervals on a few runs and would like to tackle the track, then there are many options.  Don’t panic just because I have mentioned the word, “track.”  What you do on the track (and in any speedwork), depends on the race distance for which you are training.  If training for a 5K, then 4-400 meter intervals might be appropriate.  A half marathon?  Then mile repeats (4 times around an Olympic-sized track like the ones found at many high schools or college campuses) are something to consider. 
One of my favorite track workouts is Yasso’s 800.  Named after Bart Yasso of “Runner’s World Magazine” fame and known as, “the Ambassador of running,” this simple but potent workout is fun, challenging and always leaves me starving for at least a full 24 hours after!  It works like this: warm up for one mile (this can be done on or off the track) then move right into 800 meter intervals which is two laps around an Olympic track at a steady pace then follow this by a 1-lap jog (I like to call this part, “the old lady shuffle”) and immediately back into the next 800 meter interval.  Each interval is to be done slightly faster than the one before.  Usually those who are new to this workout should start at six intervals of 800 meters.  For those experienced runners, do no more than ten.  Then I follow this with a 1 mile cooldown which can be done on or off the track.
Let me repeat this again, speedwork does not have to be something to fear!  It’s a valuable gauge of your aerobic conditioning, a great way to amp up your running, and if you’re one who likes mental challenges, then running hard for a specific period of time is right up your alley!  So let’s do as the Swedes have been doing for years, get outside and enjoy the view.  And while you’re at it, run some fartleks.  Of course you can laugh because the word is funny.  You might be even be surprised that a good laugh at the word combined with actually doing a few fartleks might leave you feeling like a super star!



Steph warms her client up with some leg strengthening drills




Strong legs help make a stronger runner

Thank you Steph for a great post! Remember, if you’re new to running and have not yet incorporated  speedwork into your regular running routine, be sure to follow Stephanie’s recommendations and ease into it slowly. And please, do not attempt to do any speedwork if you are still recovering from an injury. Now get out there and try those fartleks!

One thought on “Want to run faster?

  1. Steph! Great write up. Makes me want to run outside, run to the nearest tree, jog a bit and do it all over again. And enjoy the view on top of it all!
    Thank you for sharing your tips. This may be one of my favorite topics and by one of my favorite people too 🙂

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