Embracing Speedwork: Why running faster is mental AND physical, how to shift your thinking to run faster

So one very hot singer has crooned, “Speed kills…” Well any runner can tell you that one! It’s a little two-fold though, speed kills your opponent and if you consider the lactic acid factor it probably feels like you’re killing yourself too! 😉 Remember THIS cartoon??

It’s true, us distance runners, of the slow-twitch muscle fiber realm would most likely opt for a 10 mile tempo than sets of 800’s or 200’s. Distance logic right there.
runner on track
The thing is though, while you can’t inject your distance running legs with fast-twitch muscle fibers you CAN hone the ones you’ve got and it’s quite remarkable how malleable that muscle make-up can be with proper training. But here’s the thing, for long distance runners, GETTING FASTER takes both a physical and mental component.


I’ve written a few articles on the specific physical training tips to run faster. Distance runners SHOULD embrace those horrid 200 repeats, choke down those shorter intervals because speed translates up. You need to reverse ‘common’ distance logic and build from the bottom (aka shorter distances) up.

The faster you can sprint, the faster you can comfortably hold a ‘slower’ pace and longer. That reads as faster 5k’s, 10k’s, and marathons.

Do those shorter intervals, add some hill sprints, anything that involves explosive power. That’s the muscle-building and training factor.


Here’s the thing, if you’re like me you HATE that short running stuff because you ‘feel’ like you suck at it. You feel out of your element and get stressed more for the short stuff because it feels awkward, doesn’t come naturally, and thus gets a little frustrating.

ALL those thoughts create is PHYSICALLY impossible to run your best sprints. Crazy how the MIND can once again stop you from being the best runner you can be. The thoughts of feeling ‘out of your element’ create a foundation for stress and rather than running RELAXED as you should, you’re running tense. Ironically the more you ‘try’ to run faster, the slower you’ll be. True fact.

Learning and reminding yourself to run relaxed is an ongoing process. Here are some mental thoughts that can help you stay relaxed and allow your body to run faster:

* Arms: Laws of running physics (?? lol) hold that your legs can only move as fast as your arms. I like this because rather than think about your legs (let’s be honest they’re hurting like mad, let’s NOT think about them at all to block out that pain!) I think of moving my arms front-to-back as quickly as possible. The legs will follow.
turn left on the track
* Eff It: This is the mentality I’ve adopted during short intervals, but let me explain. I KNOW ‘trying’ to run faster will shoot me in the foot, so I force my type-A brain to do the opposite. I remind myself, “Don’t worry about the times, I know speed isn’t my strong point, but it will only improve if I work on it. So eff it, relax, you can’t FORCE anything so just roll with it.” Basically you have to embrace the ‘awkward feeling’, loosen up, and just ‘have fun’ with it. Also, stop telling yourself that you suck at the shorter intervals! 😉

* Effort: Tying to my tip above, ultimately running and training comes back to perceived effort. The watch and numbers only tell part of the story, so another thing I tell myself is, “Just run hard.” Run faster and even if you don’t look at your watch (this can help runners if they have built themselves a little speed phobia) if you’re running HARDER and FASTER you’ll get the rewards.

Bottom line here: even distance runners NEED speedwork if they want to run their longer races faster. Embrace the nasty shorter intervals, adopt the ‘eff it attitude’ and stop FORCING it. Relax the heck up and in true ironic distance logic you’ll run faster when you’re ‘trying’ less. 😉

1) Speedwork, love it or hate it?
2) When is the last time you did speedwork?
3) What’s something you tell yourself to make sure you’re running relaxed?

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9 thoughts on “Embracing Speedwork: Why running faster is mental AND physical, how to shift your thinking to run faster

  1. I love interval training! I’m not the fastest of runners, but I’m a consistent and stubborn chickpea so I just keep going for it.
    I just pretend that I have these times of effort, yes, but in between those I get to just be lazy and jog. Then pump some loud obnoxious music into my ears (get that Ke$ha going) and I’m good to go.
    I’m hoping I will eventually be able to convince Chris that he needs to start massaging my feet and calf muscles after speedwork, but it doesn’t seem to be working…I need to make more cookies evidently.
    Also, love your new Cinderella art!

  2. I do speedwork twice a week, because this distance runner actually likes it! Granted, I only race 5K-10K, so I don’t know if I’m truly a distance runner or not, but I run upwards of 40 miles some weeks… to train for 5K-10K races and stay in general “I can complete a half marathon” training.

    Speedwork is just so good for you. For one thing, it burns more calories than an easy run because you have more “after burn” from sprints. It also develops your body differently. Let’s just say there’s a reason why the fast sprinters in the Olympics have junk in the trunk. Hills make you stronger which makes you faster in any distance.

    Honestly I don’t do a ton of the really short sprints. Sometimes I add them in after 800s but usually a 400 is about as short as I go. I also do mile repeats and 1200s sometimes. I think those help with races like 10Ks which require speed but are definitely endurance races.

  3. So here’s the thing ( I always have a thing lol) – I don’t follow a specific plan or routine and usually go by how I feel. I do though make sure to incorporate speed work in my week and find that doing it on the treadmill makes it happen that much better. I definitely hate it but definitely notice a huge improvement on my overall pace as a result. I should probably follow some specific plan though in order to really benefit to the best of my ability. On a side note, just this morning I was running “easy” on the treadmill and knew in my heart that my “easy” pace could “easily” be faster. This is something I need to mentally push myself to adjust.

    • even without a plan, i’d say toss in one speedworkout a week with shorter stuff, add one longer interval day, a long run, the rest easy and that’s a flex ‘non-plan’ that will make you faster, girl! 🙂

  4. The track intimidates the heck out of me, but I feel amazing after a hard track workout. I just break things down to make it manageable: 12 x 400 becomes 3 x [4 x 400], and so on. When I get really tired towards the end of a tough workout or race, I focus on pumping my arms and let my legs follow.

  5. Pingback: Lessons From the Track: Running your best takes more than left turns |

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