I’m a firm believer in speed workouts as part of a marathon training plan. Fartleks and threshold runs, yes – and also sprint sessions.
Not all runners share this enthusiasm for sprint workouts during a marathon schedule. One or two have even told me that such sprints are pointless. However, I find they make me stronger – in the legs and in the head. I enjoy the variety in my training and the thrill of going fast. Each to their own, of course, and good luck to us all.
These days, ten weeks from the Dublin Marathon, I’m doing one threshold run and one sprint session per week, along with a long run and two recovery runs. This is probably different to your training plan, and I’m not claiming mine is better than yours. As I said, it’s what I find works for me and what I enjoy – two aspects that are crucial for my training.
The threshold workout this week was an 11-mile run where I did the middle 5 miles slightly quicker than my target marathon race pace, based on paces I worked out using Daniels’ Running Formula. This spring, with no marathon lined up, I used Daniels’ Red Intermediate Plan to stay in form. Threshold running featured strongly in the plan, and now in the summer I feel strong and fast thanks to this period of training.
The sprints have evolved from my fartlek runs in previous marathon training. Living near a public athletics track in Paris, I started thinking of my speed work in terms of 400-metre laps rather than longer fartlek stretches of intensity during a run. The track environment and the shorter distance encouraged me to try reps of fast laps, and so in my training for the 2012 Paris Marathon I included in my weekly running one track session of 8 x 400m sprints with a 400m recovery jog. (The full lap of recovery was less to do with science and more to do with a slight touch of obsessive compulsion that made me want to do complete laps from the finish line each time.)
Fast-forward (if you’ll excuse the pun) to this summer, and just as I started my current training for this October’s marathon, I heard an interesting item on the always-excellent Marathon Talk podcast about speed workouts. The item was geared towards Marathon Talk’s current ‘Magic Mile’ initiative (where you train to run a mile as fast as you can) but even so, one piece of advice stood out for me – a more beneficial speed session would feature short reps and long recovery, so that your focus is on doing your reps as consistently fast as possible rather than simply burning yourself out by your halfway rep.
You’ve seen how I moved back home to Ireland recently after eight years of exile in Paris. I wasn’t sorry to leave France, but perhaps sorry only to leave behind my two local running tracks. Here in Dublin, where track availability is limited, I’ve had to adapt and improvise.
So, these days I’m doing my sprint sessions on a football pitch in the local park. To avoid having to run through football matches, I do these sessions early in the morning – for instance, this morning I took to the field at around half past six. Perhaps the early start is also a subconscious coping mechanism for relativising the rigours of the reps, because no hard speed session hurts as much as getting up at the crack of dawn.
I wanted to find a speed workout that I could measure and compare over successive sessions. Running around a football field is inexact and awkward – do you cut the corners or improvise a bend? And so, remembering Marathon Talk’s suggestion of a shorter sprint and longer recovery, I came up with the idea of sprinting from one goal to the other, a distance of around 100 metres. For the recovery, I jog back around the outside of the pitch to the goal where I started. (There’s the obsessive compulsion for completion again.) I do this for 10 reps in total.
I tend to give names to my types of run, and so I’ve called this session my post-to-post. And so it has entered my lexicon of running, alongside the loosener (a recovery run), the sufferfest and dragging the carcass.
Sprinting can be hard on the legs, with shin splints and torn muscles a risk, so I’ve been careful to stretch properly and do a warm-up and -down shuffle to and from the park. But I’ve found running fast has been good for my posture. For the duration of the sprint I can focus on my form, and so far I haven’t found myself straining or contorting any limbs. (My dynamic stretching routine includes knee-lift strides that are similar to the leg action of a sprint, which means my stretching corresponds nicely to my session.)
Because I’m travelling such a short distance, I only look at my watch to press ‘start’ and then ‘stop’ – for the sprint itself I’m free from the tyranny of timekeeping, and perhaps that’s another factor in favour of these sessions.
The method in all this madness will only become apparent with my marathon time, of course. But before that objective I’m still enjoying the journey – even if sometimes it’s just a 100-metre blur.