Finding your speed!
Lots of runners ask me about how to get a little quicker, or how to improve their time over a certain distance. My answer is always if you want to run or race faster you have to train faster!
One of the keys to this in endurance races (not sprint events like the 100m) is something called speed endurance, the ability to run at a good speed over a sustained period of time. My favourite way of working on this is the wonderful tempo run, but bringing a bit more of a specific twist to what pace you run it at.
The interesting thing for me is finding the point at which your body switches from burning fat predominantly to burning mostly sugar. You might have heard about aerobic and anaerobic training zones, which link to heart rate zones, and this ties in. Essentially everyone has a steady/easy run pace; you are breathing rhythmically, you are able to talk as you run and you feel it’s a sustainable pace for you, this is aerobic. Anaerobic is a faster pace where you are breathing very heavily and not in a steady rhythm, you can’t easily talk and you can’t sustain the pace for very long at all.
When you are running at your steady pace and breathing more easily you are in fat burning mode, you can run far longer on this energy store but can’t do faster work as the process to break down fat into energy for the muscles is more complex and takes longer than for sugar. At a fast pace, anaerobic, you are burning mostly sugar as it’s quick release but the body stores of sugar are much smaller. So at some point your body will cry enough and slow you down to allow it time to get energy from other sources or stores.
I like to focus on finding the point where your body starts to switch from one to the other, the logic being that it will help you find the fastest you can run aerobically, burning fat. This is called the lactate threshold and is a magical point because it signals the fastest pace you can run at for a long distance, enabling you to get the most out of your potential in a race. Training around this pace also helps the body practice breaking down and using fat efficiently. It also teaches your brain that the pace is sustainable and safe, allowing you to gradually push the boundaries in training and push that pace higher therefore making your sustainable pace faster - great news!
So, I hear you ask, how do I find that pace?!
You can go to a specialist sports science clinic, you often find them in University Sports Science departments, and get a lactate threshold test. This involves running at intervals of increasing pace on a treadmill attached to breathing apparatus and getting a finger pin prick blood test after each interval. They look at the chemicals in your blood to find the point you switch from fat to sugar burning.
If you don’t want to go down that route you can take a less scientific approach. Warm up with an easy run and then take 10 minutes to very gradually increase your pace. Every 30 seconds or so up your speed ever so slightly and really tune into your breathing. Your breathing should be in a rhythm to start with, probably in a rhythm with your feet as the strike the ground. As you slowly increase your pace you will eventually get to the point where your breathing can’t be kept in a rhythm and you start breathing faster, or panting, or breathing super hard. Make a note of that pace, either with a watch/app or log a mental note of the sort of speed you are doing then slow down and get your breathing back under control again with some easy running. Try it again if you have the time and energy, you’ll find it may well change as you’ve used some of your energy stores.
It’s worth bearing in mind that this pace will change, going up and down, over the days and weeks. What you’ve eaten recently, how stressed you are, what other training you’ve done, how much sleep you’ve had and all sorts of other factors will cause it to vary. But overall your aim is to get it to gradually get faster.
How do you do this? By training at just below the pace where your breathing changes - this is a true tempo run pace. Your breathing should be hard but still in a rhythm, you should be able to talk in words, but not full sentences and it will probably require concentration and effort to maintain the pace on your runs. Make sure you warm up and cool down properly, and start by including 5-10 minutes at just below the pace you've found in the middle of an easy run once every week or two. You can then build to doing 30-40 minutes at tempo pace into your regular routine.
Remember to re-assess your threshold pace every 6-8 weeks and see if it’s changed. It will be motivating when it does and it gives you a new goal pace to train at for your next few weeks of running.
Best of luck!