Summer Track is Back

Focusing on speed during the hot months



If you want to run fast, the track is where it’s at. Whether it’s the 100 meters, the 1,500 meters (or Olympic mile), the 5K, 10K, or any distance in between, this is where you can truly test yourself against your peers anywhere in the world. The track provides no excuses and offers no apologies. You can compare your (age-graded) time against any number of local, national, and world lists and know exactly how you rank (to find out how your time is age-graded, visit usatf.org/statistics/calculators/agegrading).

I have always associated summer with the culmination of a year’s work and fast racing on the track, wrapping up a season of gradual transitions. Easy miles, tempo runs, and long intervals lead to faster but paced intervals with short recovery and, ultimately, to very fast sessions on the track that test one’s physical makeup and the ability to mentally stay in the game.

In short: To get faster, you need to run fast. And summertime—particularly our hot Texas summers—is exactly the right time to focus on speed.

I would like to start by quoting my rubber band metaphor from “Adios ‘Comfort Zone’” in AFM’s March 2013 issue, which I used to exemplify the idea of a transition from slower running to more intense speed work: “Think of [the training plan] as a rubber band held at both ends by you—one extreme is the volume in your training and the other extreme is the intensity. You can pull on one side or the other and control the stretch of the rubber band but, if you start to pull hard on both ends…well, you get the picture.”

Assuming that you took the time to work a little on that transition, you will be pulling harder on the intensity side of your rubber band for a few weeks during this last phase, so you must first have a good idea of how strong your rubber band is.

Here is what you will need in order to succeed at fast-paced training and racing:

  • A 400-meter track. Specificity of training is important so, if you want to race on the track, it is important to train there once or twice per week. Familiarize yourself with the markers on the track (see AFM’s article “Lines on a Track” in the April 2013 issue)
  • A stopwatch. That’s it—you don’t need a GPS device, since 400-meter tracks all around the world, by definition, are the same distance.
  • A group. Runners with “like” goals can challenge you as well as help you complete the track session.
  • A pair of spikes. Spikes are a good option for the more experienced runner but a pair of racing flats—lightweight shoes without spikes—is probably safer (and just as good) for the novice. Runners who doesn’t usually do speed work find it hard to get any advantage from wearing spikes, and the risk of injury from wearing them outweighs the benefits.
  • A qualified coach. You want someone who can correct form and offer some motivation during the hardest parts of the workout. YES, you will want to quit, and you will say things like “I’m not really a miler” and “My arms are hurting more than my legs!”

During this part of the season, I focus primarily on biomechanical and mental issues in my coaching more so than physiological issues, since much of that work has already been done. I pay very close attention to the basics of good running form, which I discussed in my “Efficiency Makes all the Difference” series from AFM’s March and June 2012 issues. For those further interested in this topic, I suggest reading Running: Biomechanics and Exercise Physiology Applied in Practice by Frans Bosch and Ronald Klomp.

Landing, rotational forces, push-off, and the speed at which a particular runner’s form begins to falter help me determine her “level of incompetence” for that year, or how fast she can go from a structural standpoint before getting injured. And I tend to do a lot of work at that bubble, hoping that my runner will trust me and not try to push beyond that point.

Common mistakes during this phase include the following:

  • Unrealistic goals. It is important to look at your last year only, basing your speed goals on that and not on what you did in the mile when you were in high school or even five years ago. Find a baseline and then use it to plan workouts a few weeks at a time.
  • Too much too fast. No pun intended, but this is one of the deadliest mistakes. You should add intensity slowly, exactly how you added distance in the fall in preparation for longer races.
  • Racing too often. The good news is that you can race more often because the races are shorter; the mistake, however, lies in racing so much that you don’t leave time to make improvements and corrections between races, thus using the races as your workout plan. Although this is ok for someone who is using speed to get faster in longer distances, it will not get you to your “mile” potential—or even to your 5K potential.
  • Not listening to your body but listening to your head too much. Keep in mind the following caveats:
  • It is very easy to convince yourself to slow down or stop when the pain of running fast sends signals to your brain saying that you “don’t need this!” Just as you push through a long run when you don’t want to do it, you need to push through this pain to develop the adaptations needed to run faster than you believe you can.

This pain is an overall sensation of fatigue—not a specific, sharp pain in a defined muscle or joint but more of a general feeling of, say, not being able to move your legs to finish the last 100 meters of a repetition. And when you find out that yes, you can finish, your mind starts to switch—and, believe me, this knowledge will help you the next time because you’ve already done it once…last week.

But you do need to keep listening to your body so you can recognize the difference between “good” (pain that will help you get better) and “bad” (pain that will put an end to your season). Bad pain during speed work is sharp and often comes quickly. Most of the time, it is a consequence of inflexibility, lack of strength, or biomechanical imbalances that can sometimes be accentuated with fatigue. Again: The keen eye of an experienced coach is very important at this stage and, if she recommends that you stop before injury sets in, you should.

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