Many runners have a pretty consistent goal to increase their speed. Maybe they want to snag a snazzy new personal best time, qualify for Boston, or just improve their overall fitness. Which is where we start to seek out the best speed exercises.
Regardless of the individual reason, it’s important to know that speed training is only one part of the equation. There need to be enough easy miles on the roads or trails to build endurance and your aerobic engine. Then you can change up your mileage with some variety!
In addition to helping with speed, these training options also provide additional benefits to both our health and our running overall.
While I’m not going to prescribe a specific plan for you, my goal with this article is to introduce you to some options you can incorporate into your training. I’ll share they’ll benefit you as a runner, and how they can help you reach your goals.
Best Speed Exercises for Runners
While you’re assumption is we’re going to dive right in to speed workouts, that’s actually not where we want to start for most athletes. Instead, we want to build some power with the right strength training, add on to that with plyometrics and then incorporate the right amount of speed workouts.
You cannot simply run fast all the time to get faster. That results in injuries, which absolutely will keep you from getting faster.
We’re going to break this down by components to give you some actionable items to put in to your plan ASAP.
Part 1: Strength Training
As many of my long-time followers know, strength training is an important part of my weekly workout regimen.
Running can be stressful for our bodies and strength training helps our bodies deal with that stress. It can help correct muscle imbalances, improve muscle activation, and improve our power, posture, and biomechanics.
All of those things are important for injury prevention and positively impact our running outcomes. And, research backs this up!
One study that looked at the effects of a 40-week strength training program on competitive distance runners found that strength training significantly improves strength (Ha! I would hope so!), but also physiological performance indicators like the VO2 max.
A review of studies looking at the effect of strength training on endurance athletes also supported the addition of strength training to an endurance athlete’s programming. The research found it improved running economy, muscle power, and muscle performance.
There are a wide variety of strength training moves you could incorporate into a program. I want to highlight some of my favorites or ones that offer a lot of bang for your buck. Proper form when doing strength exercises is key so I’ve also included some tips where I could.
We’re starting with the basics: the squat.
This is simply a great exercise for building leg strength. The best part is how adaptable it is. You can do it bodyweight, with a barbell on your shoulders, a front rack with the barbell, with dumbbells, with legs/feet at various positions (shoulder-width, close together, heels elevated, toes pointed out, single-leg, etc), and as a jump.
While the traditional squat works your hamstrings, quads, hips, and core, all the above variations engage different leg muscles so mixing it up is a great idea.
Some tips for the traditional bodyweight or dumbbell squat include:
- Feet hip-width apart.
- Dumbbells at your side or on your shoulders.
- Engage your core, but don’t forget to breathe.
- Sit back like you’re going to sit in a chair.
- Keep your chest up (there will be a slight forward lean, but don’t bend over).
The deadlift is another great leg exercise because it helps build strength and power in your legs. The only drawback is that you may need to go to the gym if you don’t have a trap bar or barbell at home.
With the deadlift, you’re looking to be picking up a larger amount of weight than you’d typically use in dumbbells.
Some key form cues to remember include:
- Feet hip-width apart.
- Utilize a neutral grip is using a trap bar or an over/under grip with a barbell.
- Aim to keep your chest up, your head and neck in a neutral position, and your back straight as you squat down and start to lift.
- The movement should be slow and controlled.
- Think about pushing your legs into the ground as you lift.
Single-Leg Romanian Deadlift
Single-leg strength moves are a great way to help improve overall balance and reduce muscle imbalances. It’s important to use the same weight on both sides.
The single-leg Romanian deadlift can be done with one leg leaving the ground or with simply a staggered stance with majority or all of your weight in the front leg. This move targets the hamstrings and glutes, which power your running.
You can do these without weights, with one dumbbell or kettlebell, or with two dumbbells.
Another great single-leg strength move is the single-leg step-up. You can do this using a box, stairs, or a bench, making this an easy move to do at home, the gym or even in a park.
Again, this move will help reduce muscle imbalances and it targets your quads, glutes, and hamstrings. It’s important when doing the step-up that the leg leading the step up does all the work. Don’t cheat by letting your other leg help you extend fully at the top.
You can add dumbbells to this to increase the intensity and you can also do them laterally.
There are a lot of other exercises you could incorporate into your cross training. Sled pushes, rear-elevated single-leg split squats, walking lunges, hip thrusts, clamshells, and more.
But this hopefully gives you an idea of what muscles to target, what the moves help with, and more.
Part 2: Agility Training and Plyometrics
Two other areas to focus on are agility and plyometrics.
Agility moves help improve foot speed and reaction time. They also get you moving in other planes of motion instead of just forward. This is important to work muscles that might otherwise get a little lazy with only forward movements.
Plyometrics help build muscle power through speed and force. These moves should be quick and powerful according to the National Academy of Sports Medicine.
Both of these types of training will get your heart rate up, which is an added bonus!
Ladder drills are a great way to improve agility skills. Gyms often have fitness ladders, but they’re also relatively inexpensive to buy on Amazon if you want to invest in your own. You could also use tape to make your own on your driveway.
There are a ton of variations of ladder drills. Double hops, single leg hops, lateral movements, backward movements, etc. The options are almost endless!
See this ladder drills article for a complete list of ideas >>
This is another great bodyweight move that can be kept basic or advanced with a little equipment. This movement works your calves, hamstrings, glutes, and your core too.
With high knees, you want to drive your knees upwards quickly going from one leg to the other. You’re helping your body learn to turnover your feet/legs more quickly.
You can hold your hands out in front and try to get your knees to your hands. You can also do these running through tires like old football drills.
Other options include low hurdles and switching from forward to lateral movements.
Another great agility drill are side shuffles. These help with lateral mobility and speed and help you learn to speed up and slow down while remaining stable.
You can do 20 yards in one direction and 20 yards in the other. This should be done quickly and you should remain mainly on your forefoot while performing the move.
Box jumps are a great plyometric exercise. They can be done with both legs together or just one leg at a time. You can also change the height of your boxes and perform the move laterally for a greater challenge.
More jumping! Broad jumps are another great way to build strength and power.
With a broad jump, while it’s mostly from your legs, you’ll also be engaging your arms and core. They will help you push further on your jumps.
When doing a broad jump, one great way to measure distance is to have your yoga mat around. Make sure it won’t slip or just do your jumps next to it.
Standing at one end of the yoga mat, do a shallow squat, swing your arms back and as you bring them forward, launch yourself off the ground toward the other end of the mat. Turn around and repeat in the other direction. See how far you can go in one jump.
You can find more inspiration for plyometric exercises here.
Part 3: Running Speed Workouts
Because I’ve already touched on this in several other articles, I won’t go into too much detail here, but there are running-specific workouts that help improve your speed.
Remember that sprinting is an incredible workout and you SHOULD do it, but it likely won’t be the only speed workout that you want to incorporate. By doing a variety of intensities and distances you will teach your body how to handle lactic acid and your mind how to keep pushing.
You can incorporate these into your training regimen once a week as remember the bulk of your mileage should be easy running.
Part 4: Running Form Drills
One of the reasons I developed an entire course of running form drills is to help athletes who want to get faster.
By doing drills repeatedly, you teach your brain exactly how you want your body to perform. You no longer have to think about your knee drive, how quickly your feet turn over or any of the other efficiencies.
Drills teach you to run with power and reduce wasted energy, which means going faster for longer!
Obviously, one of the biggest benefits of incorporating the best speed exercises is helping us achieve our goals of a shiny new PR, a BQ, or improved performance. But what other benefits does speed training offer?
Strength training can help us combat muscle loss, helps prevent a ton of injuries from weakness or muscle imbalance and improve our posture. It can also help with aesthetic changes if that’s a goal.
Agility and plyometric work can help us build fast-twitch muscles, improve our running efficiency, mechanics, and form, and also aid in injury prevention. This is an overlooked area for all of our peri and menopausal athletes looking to make progress!
Other overall benefits include:
- Increasing leg turnover
- Enhanced endurance
- Improved range of motion
- Increased stride length
- Improved balance and coordination
- More power and quicker reaction time
As always, before closing this out I want to reiterate the importance of warm-ups and cool downs. You know I’m a strong advocate for both when preparing to go out for a run, but it’s just as important to prepare our bodies for this type of cross training work too.
Looking for more training tips?
- What’s the Fastest Mile Ever Ran?
- Working Out But Gaining Weight
- How to Improve Running Endurance
- Oofos vs HOKA Recovery Sandals
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