There’s a track near my place where high school soccer and hockey players train in the summer. A typical “speed workout” I witness often goes like this:
- The athletes run anywhere between 20 and 50 meters at full speed.
- They then rest for 30-60 seconds before performing another rep.
- They perform the first 1-2 reps at 100% speed since they’re still fresh, but after that, their times quickly go downhill. The rest of their session qualifies more as conditioning training than it does sprint training, and it’s doing zilch to get them faster.
Why did what was intended to be a speed session end up actually being a condition session? Because their rest intervals were way too short. Thus, they were too winded to hit their true top speed after those first couple reps. If you’re not running at your top speed or something very close to it, you’re not getting faster.
Of course, these athletes don’t actually know that. They feel tired at the end of the workout so they must have done something right. But physiologically speaking, they’re engaging in high-intensity interval training that will make them better conditioned, though not any faster.
Sprint workouts that turn into conditioning sessions is a common problem for athletes. But how does one know if they’re staying on the right side of this dividing line?
In a given workout, pay close attention to your work-to-rest periods, your sprint times and your overall training volume. Sprinting is a highly neural activity that requires long recovery periods between efforts and relatively low training volumes for maximal results. Quality beats quantity any day when it comes to improving your speed.
The late Canadian sprint coach Charlie Francis advocated running at above 95% of your best performance to develop speed. Anything less than 95% of your max is too slow to get faster. For example, if your best 30-meter dash time is 4.00, your work sets must fall under 4.20 to constitute pure speed training. Anything slower than that and you’re veering into conditioning work.
Regarding recovery periods, Francis recommended resting one minute for every 10 meters of sprinting. So, if you were performing 30-meter sprints, you’d rest about three minutes between each effort. This is a great general guideline.
Continuing the above example, once that athlete’s 30-meter sprint time exceeds 4.2 seconds, they’re no longer training for speed. Whether this happens on their fourth or seventh rep, that’s their cue to wrap things up for the day. They won’t be getting any faster by performing more “speed” work below 95% of their max effort anyway, so it’s time to move on to another type of exercise, or to end the session right there.
Ideally, you’ll have electronic timing available to ensure you stay in the 95-100% speed range during your speed training. A stopwatch won’t be nearly as accurate, but it’s still drastically better than attempting to judge speed by eye.
At the end of the day, the difference between speed and conditioning workouts comes down to this: Are you feeling tired, winded, or not fully recovered between sets? Are you not running above 95% of your PR time in that given distance?
If you answer yes, your speed workouts are really conditioning workouts, so it’s no wonder you’re not getting any faster.
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