Speed Week — What You Move

Middle Distance HPW Athletes Valerie and Anna express power by moving their body with rapid force up a flight of stairs. 

Middle Distance HPW Athletes Valerie and Anna express power by moving their body with rapid force up a flight of stairs. 

In my experience, distance coaching education often classifies speed as a "kick" at the end of a race. Such a conceptualization is woefully oversimplified, I believe.

Instead, I think of speed more in the verb tense: move quickly. One of my favorite sayings is, in racing you have "the quick and the dead." This is a play on words of the famous Brooks Johnson quote, "It is true that 'speed kills.' In distance running, it kills anybody who does not have it."

Sprint purists and elite coaches will rightfully differentiate between acceleration and top end speed. And it is an important distinction to understand. However, for my purposes, as a coach of middle distance and distance runners, I've adopted an imperfect, stripped-down model that works for me and the athletes I teach.

I look at speed as being in relation to power. And using the classic physics equation, Power = Force x Velocity as my base, I've translated this equation to become Power = Strength x Speed. Really, I think when distance coaches talk about "Speed" we are talking about "Power" or expressing strength quickly while running.

For the remainder of this post I will use the word "Power" as a substitute for the word "Speed" we distance coaches often use to define as fast running.

This intellectual architecture guides my thinking to better interpret if an exercise or particular type of workout is aimed at primary increasing quickness, strength, or both, so the athlete can better express the power they need for competitive running success. 

Perplexingly, the basic teachings of speedwork (or "powerwork") in distance coaching relates mostly to short (under 400m length) reps ran on the track at 800m pace or faster. A more sophisticated learning includes hill repeats of varying distances and gradients. These are both correct, but horribly constrained. This outlook interprets power for distance runners, or any athlete for that matter, as only being expressed through the running action, or by only moving your body fast, which isn't the case. 

Power, in fact, can be expressed in a variety of ways.

Athletes I train express power year round. They do so by moving weights, med balls, sleds, as well as their bodies quickly and with force.

I'll break down each category into a concise general overview of how I incorporate them in my preparation schema.

The HPW ELITE athletes I coach are in the gym moving weights 2 to 4 times per week, year round. We move weight with an emphasis on "bar speed" of the concentric impulse and stabilizing control on the eccentric compliment. We never lift more than six to eight reps and rarely more than 3 sets of an exercise per session. Sometimes only 1 x 3 - 4 reps. No max out days, ever. The goal is express Strength x Speed as best as the athlete is able on the day as harmonizes with their running specific training program.

I prescribe to the "push, pull, lunge, squat, hinge, rotate" school of thought. I aim to include in every gym session some form of these movement patterns in complimentary fashion. (Quick note: I do not fancy traditional "core" work, like planks, sit-ups, etc. I discarded this practice a long time ago for reasons I'll unpack at a later date.) Our work in the gym deserves a deeper treatment, but that is a future series of posts. 

These too are year-round, go-to exercises for my coaching practice. I've found they are effective and have a high transfer to increased power capacities. How quickly and forcibly one can move a med ball in an excellent expression of power. A med ball can be moved in a variety of planes and a wide spectrum of intensities. For distance runners, I've found certain med ball activities can create a heightened anaerobic threshold tolerance that translates well to sprinting as well as increases the athlete's global coordination, which is another important element when it comes to running fast. 

Intelligent implementation of sled pushes, often reserved only for sprinters or "power" athletes (which I've now defined as including distance runners), is an important activity. A weighted sled push teaches athletes how to produce the specific type of force that propels them forward. It is an intense activity and should be graduated into; prudence here is a must. But once ready, I've found pushing a sled has a high transfer to increasing force application of the foot striking into the ground. For distance runners, this in turn, increases their ability to accelerate/surge quickly in races as well as sustain critical specific race speeds with better efficiency. 

The body can be moved quickly with force by jumping, hopping, bounding, running up stairs, up hills, as well as sprinting. Each method constitutes avenues which I employ to teach power to athletes I coach. All of these activities demand explosive forces to be expressed for short durations (less than 45 seconds or however short the quality of movement lasts) so that the ecology of bodily systems can harmoniously tolerate the requisite intensity needed to run quickly and forcefully on demand come race day. 

What I've presented here is a primer which I hope sparks thought and reflection. I didn't get into specifics on purpose. Know that a deeper, evolving exploration of what I've offered is coming within the next half year to highperformancewest.com. So please be on the look out. 

And since you've read this far, here is the cliff notes version of this post: 

In my opinion, speedwork for distance runners should be more than just running a handful of fast, shorts reps or strides performed once ever so often. Anything that asks the body to move quickly with force in a coordinated fashion in an expression of power which is really what distance coaches for decades have called speedwork. The options are plentiful. Pick the method(s) you understand. Be wise and prudent with your implementation. And, most of all, have fun training your athletes to run faster by increasing their power!


Thanks for reading. I'm glad you're here. // jm 

Jonathan Marcus