Making the leap from lazy jogging to real racing


On top of the rush of competing, committing to a race or longer run can help focus your daily training efforts.

On top of the rush of competing, committing to a race or longer run can help focus your daily training efforts.

Photograph by: Julie Oliver, Postmedia News

Nicole Andrews has kindled her competitive fever. A new runner, she started off by logging miles just for the heck of it. But six months into her running career, she decided to take it up a notch. Or two. Andrews tried out the local racing circuit and went from runner to racer in a few short months.

“At first, I wanted to test my endurance,” she says of her decision to start racing. “But it turned out to be kind of a hook.”

Andrews says adding a competitive edge to her running has vitalized her training. No more ho-hum tours around the neighbourhood. Every run has a purpose and she has vowed to enter all the races in this year’s Greater Montreal Running Circuit.

Not everyone feels the need to compete, but for runners whose motivation is lagging, the added buzz of training to cross the finish line can be just the kind of kick in the pants you need to make running fun again.

Now is the best time of year to get your speed on. Most runners are coming out of their winter funk with an itch to get back in shape after a long season spent tiptoeing along ice-and snow-covered sidewalks. There’s also a psychological edge to feeling lighter without all those winter layers dragging you down.

But before you go out there and dial up the intensity, you need to have a plan. Andrews joined Boreal, a local Montreal running club, and has benefited from their workouts, training plan and the camaraderie of her fellow club members.

That’s not a bad idea. A structured training plan and the opportunity to benefit from the expertise of an experienced coach can make the transition from plodder to racer a little easier. But that’s not your only option. You can pick up speed on your own, but it takes discipline and a progressive training approach.

Speed doesn’t come easy, especially if your legs aren’t as spry as they used to be.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t kick it up another gear — even if you’ve got a few years under your belt. Building speed is done the same way you approach other running goals, by increasing the intensity gradually over time.

Start with very short bursts (30 seconds) of speed, called pickups, performed in the middle of your run followed by an easy jog that lasts twice the length of your speed interval. Repeat four to eight times and then go back to your normal pace. These short sprints introduce your legs to what speed feels like, as well as establishing a pace you can live with. Keep in mind that pickups don’t demand an all-out sprint, but you should be pushing yourself for the full 30 seconds.

After two to three weeks of pickups, lengthen your speed interval by running fartleks (a Swedish term for “speedplay”). The best thing about fartleks is that you don’t need to repeat the same length of interval over and over again. Instead, runners scope out a landmark ahead and speed up until they reach it. Each fartlek is followed by an easy jog as the runner looks ahead for another landmark and once again picks up the pace.

Most fartleks last from 30 seconds to several minutes, with runners mixing it up between longer and shorter bursts of speed. You don’t need a watch or a track, just an inclination to turn it up from landmark to landmark. Perform from three to five fartleks in the middle of your run.

The next step up from fartleks are tempo runs, which are longer speed intervals that start at about five minutes and can work up to several kilometres in length. More popular with runners who tackle distances of 10K or greater, the idea of these sustained speed intervals isn’t to sprint, but to develop a controlled and continuous level of speed that will translate into a faster pace on race day.

Any of these three options can add much-needed foot speed, which is what you want if you’re going to pit yourself against the clock or the guy a couple of steps ahead of you. The longer intervals teach your body to sustain an increased pace, and the short bursts of speed help runners finish with a kick, which is invaluable on race day.

Whatever type of interval training you choose, don’t do speed work more than once a week. Too little rest and your legs won’t have the pep to reach the required level of intensity, which reduces the effectiveness of the training plan.

As for what kind of race is the best for trying out your newly acquired speed, choose a friendly five kilometres on a relatively flat course. Visit your neighbourhood running store for a list of local races and ask their advice about what race is best for someone new to the circuit.

Start training now and you’ll have quicker feet in time for an early summer race. Andrews has seen her 5K time drop by two minutes since her first race in August, and she’s not done yet. She has her eye on the Montreal half-marathon in the fall, where she hopes to translate her newly found speed

and endurance into a successful finish.

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On top of the rush of competing, committing to a race or longer run can help focus your daily training efforts.

On top of the rush of competing, committing to a race or longer run can help focus your daily training efforts.

Photograph by: Julie Oliver, Postmedia News


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