Pure Speed for Distance Runners
Training for maximum velocity is essential to run your best. These four key exercises will improve your power and speed.
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In my decades of coaching, writing about running, and competing in races from 400 meters to the half-marathon, I’ve noticed one universal characteristic of distance runners: We can turn any workout—I mean any workout—into a distance run. Tell distance runners to do hill sprints, and we’ll jog 400 yards between reps. Ask us to train in the weight room, and we’ll tag 5 miles on afterward.
And that’s a problem. Because turning those workouts into distance runs negates most of their value, and because speedwork and resistance training are essential for running your best.
Exercise scientist Tim Noakes, MD, in his Lore of Running (considered the bible of distance running research), notes that “the ability to produce force rapidly when the foot is on the ground, thereby maintaining a short ground contact time, is a factor predicting 5-km running time,” and that “explosive-type strength training may improve running performance as a result of neuromuscular adaptations.” He later concludes that “the fastest athletes in endurance events of 5 km or longer tend also to be faster over the short distances from 100 m to 1500 m.”
A 2016 meta-analysis looked at studies involving high-level middle- and long-distance runners whose training included lower-body resistance exercises, plyometrics, and short sprints. The study’s authors concluded that this high-intensity training “showed a large, beneficial effect.” They recommended a “strength training program including low to high intensity resistance exercises and plyometric exercises performed 2 to 3 times per week.”
I’ve personally used resistance training, plyometrics, hills, drills, and sprints since I began competing as a masters distance runner in 2002. In the interim, I’ve set American 5K age group records for men’s 45–49 (14:34), 50–54 (15:02), plus 55–59 (15:42), as well as accumulating age-group records at other distances and six USA masters XC overall individual titles.
Bottom line: If you’re a distance runner who isn’t training strength and speed, you’re getting beaten by a distance runner who is.
LET’S TALK MAXIMUM VELOCITY TRAINING
Hitting the ground hard and fast is the key to maximum velocity. Training for maximum velocity involves technique drills, explosive exercises, strength and mobility work.
One area often ignored by distance runners is vertical force and leg stiffness. Leg stiffness allows you to transform the speedy descent of your leg into an almost instantaneous large vertical force. An efficient stretch-shortening cycle quickly absorbs that force and then returns it, leading to a powerful and shortened contact time.
Here are a few exercises you can incorporate into your training to begin improving the quickness and power of your stride. Add them to your training once a week, ideally combined with speed exercises like hill sprints and strength exercises (See SpeedRunner for detailed schedules and many more options).
This variation of skipping allows you to direct force in a vertical direction, while exaggerating concentric calf contribution and knee lift.
WORKOUT: 1 rep of 20–60 yards
- Step forward with your right foot and spring vertically off the ball of that foot, swinging your right arm in an exaggerated arc (your hand should end up near your forehead). Simultaneously lift your left knee high.
- Land on the same (right) foot, and then step forward with your left foot. Spring vertically off that foot, while lifting your right knee and left arm.
- Land on your left foot, step forward with your right foot, and continue the pattern.
- After completing the drill, jog back to your start line, then immediately perform a stride at 90% effort (same distance as drill), followed by a walk back to the start line.
Coach’s 2 Cents: The goal is to get good height on each skip, not to move forward rapidly.
The Double-Leg Hop is the poor man’s Depth Jump. If you don’t have a plyo box or prop swap (for jumping off), you can make do with your own two legs. Instead of dropping from a plyo box, you’ll use a countermovement jump to leap to a similar “starting” height. When you land your jump, your legs undergo a strong stretch-shortening cycle and store elastic energy, leading to a powerful rebound jump. You’ll train your nervous system for an explosive elastic recoil action.
WORKOUT: 3–5 reps
- With feet hip-width apart and toes pointed slightly outward, bend your knees to drop into a squat, swinging your arms behind you.
- Jump straight up as high as you can.
- Land on both feet, letting your knees bend to absorb the force. Swing your arms behind your body as you land.
- Spring straight up again, swinging your arms to aid momentum.
Coach’s 2 Cents: It’s the second jump that’s key. The first jump is just to get air. The second jump is the “plyometric” part of the exercise—so explode!
This plyometric drill is perfect for practicing the quick bursts of combined vertical and horizontal force you’ll need to produce at maximum velocity. Some athletes call these bunny hops. But don’t let the cute name fool you. These deliver a major burn to your quads. If you start losing form—and it goes quick with this drill—it’s time to jog back to the start line.
WORKOUT: 1 rep of 20–30 yards
- Begin with your feet hip-width apart, elbows at 90 degrees, arms at your sides (see “Coach’s 2 Cents” for more on arm carriage).
- Spring forward with both feet, focusing on horizontal—not vertical—motion. Keep your jumps low to the ground (a few inches’ clearance is fine).
- As soon as you land, jump again, keeping a quick rhythm as you hop for the remainder of the drill.
- After completing the drill, jog back to your start line and immediately perform a stride at 90% effort (same distance as drill), followed by a walk back to the start line.
Coach’s 2 Cents: You may have a hard time syncing your arms to your movement. Some runners draw both arms back as they jump, then push them forward when they land. Experiment to find what works best for your balance and stability.
Ankle stiffness is a key to both acceleration and maximum velocity. As sprint expert J. B. Morin says, running without stiff ankles is like driving a car with flat tires. This is especially true during maximum velocity, when you’ll need to maintain ankle stability for dozens of high-impact steps. Ankle poppers help you develop the endurance required for the long sprint.
WORKOUT: 2–3 reps of 15 seconds for each leg
- Balance on your left leg with your right leg lifted in front of you. Keep your left knee slightly bent and your arms at your sides for balance.
- Hop rapidly up and down on your left foot for 15 seconds.
- Switch feet, and hop rapidly up and down on your right foot for 15 seconds.
Coach’s 2 Cents: The goal isn’t to hop as high as you can; it’s to hop as quickly as you can.
Adapted from SpeedRunner: 4 Weeks to Your Fastest Leg Speed in Any Sport by Pete Magill, with permission of VeloPress.