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Speed Training for Distance Runners

author image Lee Simmons
Lee Simmons has 10 years of reporting experience covering a variety of issues for publications in South Carolina, California, and Texas. He also covered music industry issues for Soundcheck magazine and Bizmology.com, among others. Simmons earned a journalism degree from the University of Texas. He lives in Austin.
Speed Training for Distance Runners
Marathon runners competing Photo Credit TommL/iStock/Getty Images

One of the great myths of distance running is that, in order to do it well, you simply must run far. On the contrary, distance runners benefit from a variety of different training methods, not least of which is speed training. Speed workouts improve your overall pacing and give you an edge in mustering that homestretch kick that sends you across the finish line in personal record time.

Basic Drills

Basic speed training drills focus on moving the legs faster. They are typically performed multiple times in the course of a training session, with a short recovery time between each repeat. Basic speed drills include high knees, heel-to-gluteus kicks, and running over small hurdles no more than 6 inches high. The goal is to quicken your leg turnover.

Acceleration Drills

Acceleration drills improve the distance runner's pace from point A to point B. Several workouts develop this skill. For example, you can jog for 50 meters, sprint for 50 meters, jog another 50 meters, and repeat the process several times. This is especially helpful for improving your acceleration when you're already running. If this is too difficult at the outset, replace the jogging portions with walking.

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Cadence Drills

Cadence drills are another effective way to improve leg turnover. Begin by jogging for 30 seconds and count the number of times your left foot touches the running surface. Recover for about a minute, then run another 30 seconds and try to decrease the number of times your left foot touches the running surface by one to two strides. Repeat this workout multiple times to improve leg turnover.

Interval Training

Intervals are an important type of speed training for developing sustained speed. For long distance runners, one-mile repeats are a popular kind of interval training. Start by running a slow warm-up mile, then run a second mile that is about 10 seconds faster. Follow that by jogging slowly for 2 minutes, then run another mile, shaving a further 10 seconds off your pace. Repeat this workout three to five times during a session to sharpen your sustained speed.


Fartlek, or "speed play" in Swedish, is a flexible speed training program that allows the runner to add speed at any time during a typical long run. A fartlek improves the aerobic and anaerobic pathways in the body. A typical example might be running a little faster from one telephone pole to the next, then backing off to your normal pace. A fartlek can encompass any length and any level of intensity. To be a true fartlek, you can't plan anything in advance. As you're running at your normal pace, decide you'll speed up until you reach that mailbox in the distance. For distance runners, several fartleks can be incorporated over the course of a long training run to improve speed.

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