In order to run faster it is necessary to…run faster. Elite athletes will tell you that they are able to compete at the highest level only by training at or near maximal capacity. Enter interval training, known alternatively as sprinting, repeats, or my personal favorite, speed play (from the Swedish word “fartlek”). And indeed studies have shown that speed play can benefit every type of athlete, from recreational runners to committed fitness enthusiasts, and in a fraction of the time required by training at a lower intensity. In fact, as shown by a recent study, just fifteen minutes of intense exercise three times a week provides a host of benefits over more casual workouts, from lowering your blood pressure and blood sugar to reducing both body fat and cholesterol. Speed play also increases VO2 max, which measures your body’s maximal ability to take in and use oxygen. VO2 max is not only a measure of fitness: it is also a predictor of lifespan, as research undertaken at the Cooper Institute suggests. Sound like a panacea? With these manifold benefits, speed play just might be.
While puttering around the elliptical chalk-lined polyurethane like a rat in a maze can rate high on the tedium scale, the track brings distinctive advantages. These include a level surface (uneven surfaces can simulate leg-length discrepancies and irritate your iliotibial band) and measured distances, not to mention the absence of cars and the unhealthful noise and exhaust they emit.
Finding a track is easy. Most high schools, junior colleges, and colleges have fields open to the public. Parks and recreational centers often offer dirt trails of unconventional distances that bring a cornucopia of sights and sounds. Start with a 10-minute warm-up by jogging around the track a couple times. Then do four sets of 2 laps at 90 percent of maximum heart rate. At this level of intensity, you should be gasping for breath and in no way able to carry on a conversation. If you’re a numbers cruncher, simply subtract your age from 220 and multiply by .9. Follow each sprint with three minutes of light jogging, then finish with a five-minute cool-down. If training at unvarying distances sounds too monotonous, try descending intervals, 800 meters, 400 meters, 200 meters, 100 meters. A study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that descending intervals increase growth hormone more than running at a fixed distance; this muscle mediator builds strong quads needed for that finishing kick at the end of a race.
Climbing stairs is an excellent way to build the large muscles of the lower extremities. This is especially relevant for runners, who are susceptible to weakness in the gluteus muscles. The so-called “dead-butt syndrome,” a result of logging too many miles on flat terrain, can lead to pelvic tilts, gait instability, low back problems, and shooting pains, Dr. Darrin Bright, a sports medicine physician and medical director of the Columbus, Ohio marathon, recently told the New York Times. The glutes play a centrol role in stabilizing the hips and the pelvis in running, and climbing stairs recruits these big muscles. Stair-climbing also encourages high knee lifts, which work wonders for form and keep at bay the marathon shuffle that plagues runners late in a race. Moreover, the intense concentration required by running up a set of stairs improves coordination and is great training for trail runs and obstacle courses. Finally, there is the aesthetic benefit of filling out the contours of an otherwise flat derriere.
Wonder whether you should take the stairs one or two at a time? Both have benefits. A Penn State study found that the “double-stair strategy” maximized metabolic cost and strengthened ankle and knee flexors, while burning an additional 70 to 90 calories per hour. On the other hand, rapidly skipping up each stair targets the slow-twitch fibers of the calves, while a slower lunge-like stride is a great quad and glute blaster. Doing the stairs backwards is a novel approach that improves coordination and emphasizes the hamstring muscles while gathering more than a few curious glances from fellow climbers.
In the battle for best overall exercise – one that targets both your upper and lower body effectively and in a short amount of time - a convincing case could be made for hill sprints, which some powerlifters regard as being better than squats! Hill sprints combine the benefits of anaerobic exercise with aerobic fitness. They encourage you to run on the balls of your feet with an erect spine, and the increased cadence required by hill sprints and other forms of interval training is an easy home remedy for fixing any gait problems that may otherwise go undetected and lead to injury.
Sprinting up hills is also safer than sprinting in the flats, since your speed is limited by the incline, which spares your hamstrings excessive strain. They require the aggressive arm and shoulder action critical for maximal acceleration. Finally, hill sprints are a great way to dramatically increase the caloric expenditure of an exercise that already burns a ton of calories when performed on flat ground.
Run as fast as you can up the hill and walk or jog back down. Do a total of four sets and work up to as many as eight. Immediately afterwards your legs should feel like jelly, and the next day you should be sore. In fact, muscle soreness is a great way to gauge the effectiveness of hills and other sprint workouts. Soreness indicates muscle damage and is a sign that your body is releasing cytokines to increase blood flow to the area, and growth factors, which promote the development of new muscle fibers, which means more muscle. But don’t undertake intense workouts on consecutive days. Training sore muscles can tear newly-formed muscle fibers and actually weaken your legs. Following sprint workouts it is best to train at a much slower pace, but resist the temptation to take a rest day. Although resting sore muscles will allow them to heal faster, exercising at low intensity the day after intervals will encourage muscles to become more fibrous and resistant to injury.
If driving to a remote location to park and run is not for you, fartleks can be done anywhere, including your very own neighborhood. And because they are less structured than traditional sprint workouts, fartleks allow room for improvisation and variation, which helps keep your workout feeling fresh while retaining the benefits of high intensity training. You can casually introduce fartleks into a regular run by picking a landmark (mailbox, driveway, tree) 100 to 500 feet ahead and running to it at full speed, followed by a period of jogging that lasts just as long. Repeat as many times as you can. If you’re training for longer races choose longer distances, and incorporate fartleks into your routine at least once a week.
Like other forms of interval training, fartleks push your heart rate towards its maximum and recruit fast-twitch muscle fibers, which are required for speed and anaerobic fitness. This is especially important at the end of your next race when you sprint to the finish – that is, if you like to race, and after playing with speed, you just might. And if you’re a seasoned competitor new to high intensity training, as little as four weeks of the above workouts is all that separates you from your next PR, so start playing today.