Stepping Outside Your Comfort Zone with Speed Work

speed work

Most runners have heard it before: they should incorporate speed work into their training.

However, one of the biggest barriers to stepping on the track is a fear of something unfamiliar. With speed work, you literally are getting into a new heart rate zone outside of your normal routine, thus the physical discomfort.

Speed work can be intimidating, challenging and sometimes even confusing. Runners have concerns about how to implement it safely into their routine. Speedwork is also an area where a bit more precision and calculation are needed. The first step to getting outside your comfort zone can be a big one.

What is Considered Speed Work?

To put it simply, speed work is essentially any running done in intervals faster than your typical easy or long run pace. Most speed work is run anywhere between your 10k and one-mile race pace. If you are not familiar with your paces, then the goal of speed work for you is to push yourself into a new heart rate zone and run at speeds you haven’t run at before.

Getting Started

Adding speed work to your training can drastically improve your times at any distance. One of the main reasons you do longer continuous running is to have the aerobic base to do more speed workouts and recover faster between intervals. Ultimately, you are trying to combine your endurance with speed and hold a desired pace for longer periods of time.

Speaking Speed

Speed workouts have a different format than your typical easy run and it can be a bit confusing or intimidating to first timers. The workout itself is run in an interval style, meaning you will have work and rest periods built in.

Each workout typically includes the following:

Warm-up: 5-10min easy jog warm-up (don’t worry about pace, just warm up the body) 

Workout: This is the actual “hard” part of the workout. All workouts will be listed in either distance or time. For beginners, it is better to start with time-based workouts rather than distance. Each workout will also have a number of sets listed along with a pace and a rest interval. To start you will want to keep the workouts short and sweet.

  • Example: 4 (sets) of 30 seconds (time interval) at 5k (pace to run at) with 2-minute recovery jog
  • Short hand it will look like: 4 x 30 sec @ 5k pace w/2min recovery jog

Cool-down: 5-15min cool-down to improve the recovery process

Workouts can also be written for distance. The longer the speed interval, the more you will have to pace yourself. Remember, any faster work will be beneficial, so don’t be in a rush to go too fast or too far too soon.


This is extremely important and necessary to calculate in order to prevent injury and excessive muscle soreness. Whether you run a 5K in 30 minutes or in 15 minutes, there is a general pace that you can sustain for a given distance or time. To figure out your pace for various distances, there are dozens of online charts and mobile apps to plug in your goal times to get training times.  Once you have those paces, stick to them during your workouts. A bit of trial an error will occur, but you will quickly find what works for you. You want to feel tired, but not exhausted after the workout.

Where and When? 

Incorporating any type of speed work can be difficult, but not impossible during the long Chicago winters. The good news is speedwork can be done almost anywhere—treadmill, track, roads, trails etc. Traditionally, however, speed work is done on a track. The principles will be the same regardless of where you train. The best time during the week to do speed work is early-to mid-week to allow for proper recovery.

Think ‘fast but relaxed’

As much as you are trying to push into a new training zone you still want to hold back just a little. It seems counterintuitive because most think that speed work is all about straining and running as hard as you can; speed work should be challenging but not break your body down. Focus on leg turnover, increasing your heart rate and smooth running mechanics. You don’t need to be vomiting on the track after you are done.

CARA runs weekly speed workouts as a part of the winter-spring half and full marathon programs. For more information you can contact


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