Is your “speed work” working your speed?


“Speed Work” is a term that gets thrown around a lot.

Many people feel speed work is anything faster than their habitual easy pace.

When talking about running terminology, I feel it’s important to call it what it is, to avoid confusion.


There are various types of workouts that people may define as speed work. As I mentioned above, the most common is any pace that is a higher intensity than their general easy habitual pace. For some, this broad definition can be a fast lap around a track to a 20 minute tempo run.

Does a 20 minute tempo run develop your speed? That depends, probably depending on what you define speed as.

Brad Hudson uses the term “muscle training” instead of speed work, but his definition is a nice reminder of what speed work is; “training practices whose primary purpose is to stimulate neuromuscular adaptations that enhance running performance.” These are primary anaerobic efforts at a very high intensity.

Over the last year or so I’ve tried to limit my use of the speed work term to anything 400m or less. Limiting the term to shorter bouts of running that are truly intense, ones that really very much feel like they are developing my speed at its core.

That, is speed, my friends. Running 400m at a high intensity.

Or is it?

Jay Johnson takes it even further when he says “How fast could you run if you had to race across a busy street to save a loved one? The sprinting you’d do to save the loved one is Speed Work – running that is at or near maximal. Obviously you couldn’t sustain that pace for 400m so you shouldn’t call you your 10 x 400m workout a Speed Workout. 10 x 400m may relate to what you can run for 5,000m, 3,000m, or for some highly trained athletes, the mile. But in none of those cases does the term Speed Work apply. “

And let’s talk about another point, is your lack of speed really the problem?

If you want to run a 3 hour marathon, you need to run 26.2 miles at a pace of 6:52 per mile.

Can you run a single mile at that pace?

If you’re hoping for a 3 hour marathon, then the answer is likely yes, you can.

So, I would argue that speed is not what needs developing, but your endurance.

You already have the speed, you simply lack the endurance to maintain that pace for 26.2 miles (or whatever your race distance is). The best way to develop this is a progressive training plan develops your ability to resist fatigue at goal race pace through progressively both increasing the time and distance at goal pace as an event approaches.

The next question becomes, if not speed work for 400m+ distances, then what?

Jay Johnson prefers to use race pace work, for he correctly argues that if you do a workout such as repetitions of 1000m, you’re likely doing them near 5k race pace. So, you’re developing that race fitness. Renato Canova calls this work specific, or that which occurs within the rage of 95% to 105% of your goal race pace.

As with terminology, this is all semantics and it may not actually change what you do in practice, but you may change your definitions for what you’ve been doing all along.

Now you know, and knowing is half the battle.

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