Marathon season: The need for speed

With the marathon season coming to a close, learn how to gain speed for that last big race before summer


Shailja Singh Sridhar trains in Gurugram. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint
Shailja Singh Sridhar trains in Gurugram. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

I could have finished it a full 30 seconds faster,” reads a tweet from a runner after the Airtel Delhi Half Marathon in November.

“Managed a PB (personal best)… will get faster next year,” posted another on a WhatsApp group chat for runners. 

As if the pressure to meet targets at the workplace isn’t enough, a runner is constantly putting himself/herself under pressure to improve. By improve, they mean becoming faster, even if by a few meagre seconds. And 2017 is turning out to be the year when the world of distance running obsesses about becoming faster thanks to Nike’s ambitious Breaking2 programme, which is aiming to break the 2-hour barrier for the full marathon later in the year. 

If you are looking to run in February, now is your last chance to incorporate training aimed purely at getting you to run faster and achieve your PB by shaving a few minutes off your previous run. “With speed work, one is guaranteed to run faster. A lot of lab studies have shown that adding speed to endurance training can take seconds off even 5km times and a few minutes off marathon timings. Speed work improves your running economy,” says Kaustubh Radkar, a Pune-based doctor and founder and chief executive officer of RadStrong Coaching, which specializes in marathon-triathlon training. Radkar is not only a runner but a 16-time Ironman finisher.

However, it’s essential for runners to have built up the foundation of cardio-respiratory endurance before starting these workouts, cautions Gagan Arora, Reebok master trainer and founder of Delhi-based Kosmic Fitness. “The workouts mentioned below can show results in about four-six weeks’ time,” he says. 

Interval training

Most distance runners focus on mileage, which enhances cardio-respiratory performance or stamina at the cost of speed. “Incorporate Interval Training once or twice a week if you want to get faster,” says Arora. Fartlek is an effective way of Interval Training in which you alternate between running fast and slow. A good way to start it is: 10 minutes warm-up plus six-eight repetitions of a 1-minute fast run; a 1-minute easy jog followed by 10 minutes of cool down. Gradually, within four-six weeks, you should reach up to six-eight sets of 4 minutes fast; 1-minute easy. “The idea here is to run faster. If you are unable to keep up the pace, reduce the speed interval time/increase the rest interval or reduce the number of repetitions but stick to your speed,” suggests Arora. “Essentially, shorter, faster repeats train your body to burn less fuel while going further. It’s like getting better gas mileage for your legs. Running fast will build your running cadence,” explains Radkar. 

Gurugram-based Shailja Singh Sridhar, who came second in the marathon in her age category (35-40 years) at the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon earlier this month, spent a month in Iten, Kenya, interacting with and observing the local runners. “The Kenyan runners include a lot of speed work like Fartlek and fast-mile splits in their training. They also put in a lot of time in the gym and do core work,” she says.

This training will slowly push the anaerobic threshold and you will find yourself running comfortably at a better pace, Radkar adds. During speed intervals—you can attempt to spell out your full name—you should be able to call out six-eight alphabets without running out of breath. That’s the intensity check; anything more than that, and you are running too easy. If you are able to say out loud more than eight letters, you are not running at full potential. For speed training to show initial gains, you need to give it about four-six weeks but you need to be patient and wait for three-six months to see sustained gains. 

Tempo runs

Between Interval Training and the long runs, it is important to add at least a day’s tempo run per week. As the name suggests, you work on a running tempo (steps per minute) and during training run slightly harder than your race pace, says Arora. “Tempo runs are the most efficient way to raise your lactate threshold, i.e., your ability to run at a faster pace without accumulating lactic acid in the bloodstream. This improves endurance and speed,” adds Brinston Miranda, Mumbai-based running coach and founder of Be Fit Academy.

If your half marathon race pace is 6 minutes a kilometre, your starting tempo runs should be 5.30-5.45 minutes per kilometre). “Ideally, one should aim for 180-200 steps per minute during tempo runs. In the early days of tempo runs, you can take short walking breaks after a kilometre or two, say for 30-45 seconds, but the idea is to do tempo runs up to 10-14km for half-marathon and 25-30km for full-marathon preparation. Gradually, increase the mileage for tempo runs as it drains you faster than your slow long runs,” says Arora.

Repeats

There are two kinds of repeats—hill and mile/kilometre. For the mile/kilometre repeat, “you need to run as fast as you can over a short distance and then do a recovery jog till the next repeat. For example, a person training for a marathon may start with 2x1 mile (1.6km) repeats with a goal of doing 5x1.6km at peak training,” says Radkar. 

You can incorporate hill repeats in your training on the days you go for strength training. Sample hill repeat for beginners could be four-six repeats of a 50m uphill run, 50m downhill jog. You can start with these distances, then gradually increase the repetitions and distance. “Hill training is a natural form of resistance training that will make you stronger. It activates more muscles in the upper leg and around the hip joint, hamstrings, which builds power in the legs to drive faster,” adds Miranda.

Sprints

Sprinters should not train for longer distances but distance runners should include sprints to maintain the muscle mass, strength and power required for a strong finish to every race. Sprints are simply all-out runs. “Most people can hold an all-out sprint for 50-100m; elite athletes will be able to hold it for about 200-300m. The objective of running sprints is to develop good form as well as speed. A typical speed set is 6x100m with long active recovery of 3-5 minutes between each sprint,” says Radkar.

Sprints also break up the boredom. Distance runners have to run a lot, and it’s more fun to get in some speed work, knowing that it will make you faster overall.

A word of caution

Pointers on how to prepare for the race

■ All workouts should start with 5- to 10-minute warm-up drills like heel walk, toe walk, high knee walk/jog, butt kicks, walking lunges, skipping, jumping jacks

■ Don’t overdo speed work, remember to hydrate and stretch well immediately after
a workout

■ Add a recovery drink and ample electrolytes during the day 

■ After a speed workout, the next session ought to be an active recovery session 

■ Don’t overdo and risk injury

■ Recovery is an important variable to achieve your best on race day. Use a foam roller to release the tight spots in your legs and back, followed by stretching 

■ Go for a deep-tissue massage once a week to stay relaxed and injury-free

■ If you have any special medical condition, consult your doctor, physical therapist or coach. 

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