Question: I know to run faster I need to run faster, but I have problems truly pushing my limits. Any advice on how to get into the pain box when doing speed work?
Alison: The first thing that comes to my mind, is wondering what your easy runs are like. It’s really easy to train in “no man’s land,” where it’s not truly easy enough to get the physiological benefits of aerobic training (increasing VO2, capillary density, efficiency, building mitochondria, strengthening tendons, etc.) but not hard enough to build another gear. Remember that the goal is to run faster, not harder. In that regard, keeping the majority of your runs easy peasy will give you the foundation and ability to absorb hard workouts and allow you to have full energy to go hard/fast. If you have a heart rate monitor, a general formula is 180-your age to ensure that you are training in a fully aerobic state. Once you build a good aerobic base (which, even doing ultras doesn’t necessarily give you-you might have a threshold pace that you’re just maintaining for a long time, with no other gears), then add in some intensity workouts.
Jessi: Completely agree with Alison that you need to make sure you’re not going too hard during easy workouts, or you won’t be able to dig deep when it really matters. It’s also important to consider the mental element of speed work (and endurance running, for that matter). There’s a book called “Iron War” by Matt Fitzgerald that spends a lot of time discussing the mental aspect of endurance sport. Here’s a great quote from the book that I often read before I’m about to ask myself to do something really difficult – whether it’s run fast, or run long:
“Fatigue in endurance exercise is always [related to] perceived effort. The problem is never lactic acid buildup or muscle glycogen depletion… these things happen, but they never become so extreme that they stop the muscles from working. They merely force the brain to make a greater and greater effort to keep the muscles working at a desired level until this effort becomes so unpleasant that continuing no longer seems worth the agony.”
In other words, when a person quits or slows down, it’s very rarely because they simply couldn’t go on. It’s because their brain wouldn’t allow it.
Alison: Yes! That reminds me of the central governor theory, first brought into exercise physiology by Tim Noakes in the classic tome The Lore of Running, that our brain is our limiter and secret weapon. Matt Fitzgerald wrote another great book on the central governor theory/research, called Brain Training for Runners. The gist is that all training is getting your brain to allow your body to do more.
Jessi: Matt should give us a portion of his profits. 🙂
Some other things that might help you go faster: train with a group, especially a group that includes folks who are just slightly faster than you. Not so fast it’s demoralizing, but fast enough that you’re working HARD to keep up with them. It’s amazing what a little competition can do. (Of course, only train with this group on your speed work/tempo days – not on your easy days!)
Alison: Another thing that might be helpful is to do a certain route, or section of a route, that you can repeat so you can see gains over time. Start with a short period of time and gradually add more, and see how fast you can get!
Keep checking back to see more answers to common training questions, and happy training!