In the last feature, we discussed the importance of developing endurance, and likened it to the foundations of a house. Without a solid foundation in place, the rest of the structure is weak and prone to break, and the same can be said for endurance – overlooking this most crucial area of fitness, and attempting high intensity running without a solid endurance base in place, can quickly lead to fatigue and injury.
However, once endurance has been developed, the next stage in the progression of a runner’s fitness is to develop “speed endurance” – the ability to sustain faster, higher intensity running and better performances. The numerous athletes training and studying at the London-based St Mary’s University “Endurance Performance and Coaching Centre” (EPACC) are lucky to have one of the world’s best exponents and advocates of speed-endurance training as their head coach, in the form of Craig Winrow. Craig is a former international middle distance runner, having competed for Great Britain at the 1996 Olympic Games at Atlanta, and with an 800m personal best time of 1:45.6. Craig was also Head Coach for Middle Distance events at the 2016 European Athletics Championships, and has successfully coached many elite runners, including London 2012 Olympic 800m finalist Andrew Osagie.
Craig summed up his philosophy for speed endurance training in an exclusive interview for Crownhealth: “The aim of any good speed endurance session is to develop an athlete’s ability to tolerate lactic acid, and to equip that athlete with the physiological and mental attributes which enable them to continue running quickly even when lactic acid levels are high.” Winrow acknowledges that the type of session required to achieve this will differ from one person to another, and will also depend on the event that they are focusing on.
A typical speed endurance session, according to Winrow, could be something like 6 x 300m reps, each at 800m race pace, with 3 minutes recovery between each. Each successive rep increases the level of lactic acid in the muscles and blood, so as the session progresses, the athlete’s ability to tolerate high levels of lactic acid is challenged. “Tempo running” (sometimes called threshold running) is also a key part of the training programmes for many of Winrow’s athletes. It helps them to both tolerate and remove lactic acid from their system, but at the same time it also develops basic speed, since stride rate will be higher than they are normally used to. This brings the muscles’ fast twitch fibres into play – they are powerful, fast to contract, but fast to fatigue and tend not to make a large contribution to slower endurance running. Winrow is keen to point out the importance of developing both endurance and speed alongside speed endurance. “When I work with an athlete on speed endurance training”, he says, “I can quickly tell whether they are an endurance runner or someone more used to shorter, speed-based sessions and race distances. The faster athletes are great at the start of a session, but struggle to tolerate lactic acid and soon fatigue, whereas the endurance runners are less explosive at the start, but recover and sustain their performance well”.
The mental side of speed endurance training is something that Winrow places a lot of emphasis on. “Let’s be honest, sustaining high intensity running for a long period of time can be painful” he says, “and in races, it is often all about those who can sustain their pace for longer, rather than those who can kick and go more quickly. This is tough, and requires a high level of mental resilience. Speed endurance training gets an athlete used to the pain and discomfort of high intensity running – if they can get used to it in the their training, it becomes second nature for them to tolerate it during a race”.
As a general rule, Winrow’s athletes in the St Mary’s EPACC will develop their speed endurance with sessions that involve 5-8 repetitions, each separated by a period of recovery that is around twice the length of the repetition, at a running speed that is equivalent to, or faster than their race pace. He often gets asked by recreational runners, who are used to a diet of steady mileage with minimal variation, what they can do to improve. “Add some speed and intensity to your running” is his standard answer, since this is the simplest way of providing the progression that is essential for improvement. Instead of just plodding out your normal 5 mile run at your normal pace, Winrow suggests that runners try 5 x 1 mile repetitions instead, running each mile at race pace, jogging for a minute or two before starting the next mile at the same faster speed. As well as this type of repetition work, tempo running, where a fast pace is sustained for a minimum of 20 minutes, will also help to develop speed endurance. This “tempo” pace is often referred to as the “threshold” pace, or “OBLA” (onset of blood lactic acid). Sport scientists have shown that training at this intensity – the threshold above which lactic acid starts to rapidly rise - can have significant benefits on running performance.
Despite the role that science has played in improving our understanding of speed endurance training, Winrow believes that there is still much more work and research to be done. “We still don’t really understand how the body reacts to different high intensity sessions, and how we tolerate and clear lactic acid from the system when running on the road and on the track, as opposed to in the laboratory, is still not really clear. In all fairness, the problem is not the fault of the scientists, it is simply that all athletes are individuals and react differently to a session. Just because we know, for example, what the lactic acid level is for one athlete after a specific session doesn’t mean that others will react in the same way. Similarly, just because an athlete has a high lactic acid level after a session doesn’t necessarily mean that they are not fit – in fact it might signify exactly the opposite – they are in great shape, and capable at running at a very high intensity and tolerating extremely high levels of lactic acid. Part of the skill of coaching is to recognise that all athletes respond differently, and to adapt the session accordingly.”
Another way of developing speed endurance that is strongly advocated by Winrow is the use of time trials and “under distance” racing. Anyone, including recreational runners, who is running a half marathon, and aiming to improve their time, should consider incorporating 10k and 5 mile races into their pre-race strategy. Winrow is adamant that these shorter distance races are of huge benefit. “They will be raced at a higher intensity and with a faster leg speed than the longer half marathon distance so they develop aerobic fitness, leg speed, and lactic acid tolerance. Similarly, anyone contemplating a marathon will benefit from racing a half marathon, or if the racing goal is a fast 10k, 5ks will help to develop speed endurance”.
One fact which many athletes, sports scientists and coaches agree on, is that incorporating high intensity speed endurance training into the programme of anyone, whether an elite athlete or a recreational runner, is of huge benefit. It is the type of training that can quickly take a runner out of his or her comfort zone, and the results are impressive and the potential for improvement is significant. Of course as with any type of training, it must only form one part of an overall training plan, but for many runners it could quickly become the “magic ingredient” that transforms both training and performances.
Written by Prof. John Brewer