Running In Circles, but Faster (3 2×400/400)

For my Tuesday lunch-hour run, I headed over to the track to do speed-work for the second time. Last Tuesday was my first attempt at speed-work, and I think I started out to ambitious, with mile repeats and quarter mile recovery jogs. This time I decided to do a little less, and it went great.

As I’ve said before, I’ve never been all that attracted to speed-work. I like long, contemplative runs, not short-focused sprits. The former is not just exercise, its relaxation; the later is more like . . . well, it’s in the title: “work.” However, I keep reading how beneficial speed-work can be for every runner, regardless of their distance goals. Besides improving short-distance speeds, speed-work builds leg muscle faster, burns fat more efficiently, helps increase foot cadence and fore-foot striking, and generally boosts cardiovascular endurance. Another reason I’ve avoided speed-work is that it is so clinical and specific, as you have to keep track of distances and repeats and intervals. When I run, I like to just lose myself in the run, fast or not, mixing up speed when I feel like it. Recently I’d found a few track work-outs on NoMeatAthlete that sounded doable, so that excuse was gone.

So the only excuse I was left with that I really didn’t want to, that it was going to be “work.” I eventually decided that was a reason to do speed-work, not to avoid it: if I don’t want to do something because it sounds too hard, that probably means I should (of course, this sort of logic can result in one signing up for the Badlands Ultramarthon, so I need to be careful about that).

The basic idea behind speed-work is simple: you push yourself hard for a period of time, slow down until you recover somewhat, then push yourself again, and repeat. It basically like lifting weights: work to failure, rest, then do it again. The most basic sort of speed-work, and the only kind I’ve really done before, goes by the really bizarre name of “fartlek,” which is Swedish for “speed-play” and simply means you mix in bursts of various speeds as you run. There are no rules, you just mix up pushing yourself hard, then slowing down. That I’ve done, and the “play” aspect is definitely more appealing than “work.” The drawback is that because there is no set distance or time, it can be very hard to force oneself to work as hard as you intend, or to hold the effort for as long as you should; its far too easy to overestimate how long or far you’ve gone when you’re pushing as hard as you can. Thus the rack: it’s a specific, clearly delineated distance, so you know how far you’ve gone and how far you need to go before you slow down.

I decided to strip down the workout I’d tried before to 2×400/400, or two laps of 400 meters each, followed one lap of recovery speed, repeated. That is, I’d run hard for half a mile, run slowly for a 1/4 mile as my heart-rate dropped and I caught my breath, then repeat. I set my GPS to click a lap every ¼ mile so I could check my time, then started. I did the first lap in 1:30, so on pace for a 6 minute mile, and decided that was a sustainable speed, if only just barely. A half mile at that pace is pushing myself hard, really hard, but knowing that it wasn’t that much farther made it possible: just another half a lap, a quarter lap, almost there, then down to a jog, trying to keep my breathing even and it takes nearly the entire 400 meter lap to fell normal. Then sprint again.

It certainly was very different than the way I normally run, gliding along, lost in my surroundings and lost in thought. However, in a way, it was equally meditative, only instead of the focus being diffuse, the focus is focused and intense: the few hundred yards directly in front of you, your breath, your legs. There was no outside world, certainly no thoughts, since all my thought was taken up with moving my body forward, on the curve of track up ahead which was everything. In fact, speed-would be even more perfect than a long run on especially stressful days, as there is no danger of outside worries and ruminations to impose themselves on your mind when you are struggling to breathe.

I did three cycles, so a mile and a half of hard running, with ¾ mile of recovery running, plus the 1.2 miles to and from the track. When I was done, I felt great, both from the workout and from the sense I’d conquered something and it only took a quarter of an hour. I’ll definitely be doing more speed-work in the future, though my heart is definitely in the long runs, the expansive calm that comes from going somewhere, rather than running in circles.


About Chris Van Dyke

I am a 33 year-old high school English teacher and long-distance runner. I live in Brooklyn with my partner, our 3 year-old son and 1 year-old daughter and a growing collection of muppets and trains. Besides running and teaching I like to draw, read, write, cook, and play the harmonica. While I didn't get to run my first ultra-marathon on my birthday, I've got a few more I've set my sights on. You can follow my (seldom updated) twitter feed @aboutrunning. I also blog as part of the Run Smiley Collective.
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