Releasing Your Inner Speedster
by Martin Dugard
All gain, no pain. There's a speedster locked within you, struggling to get out. And if you listened closely to its commands, you'd know that speed - true speed, the overwhelming sensation of going very fast, without thinking - is not obtained through painful struggle. It's an heretical notion, but true speed comes from within. All you have to do is release it.
Elite runners talk about a state known as "effortless speed." Simply, it's the serendipitous extra gear that kicks in when speed is unleashed. Maybe it's used for that midrace surge or finishing kick. Maybe it's just stretching out the legs on a long run as a reminder of how good it feels to cruise at speed.
They say it comes through relaxation instead of gritting the teeth and tensing muscles. They say it evolves from those moments in daily training when running doubles as frolic instead of workout. This effortless speed has a carryover effect - once a runner is aware that he or she possesses true speed, they race with more confidence, with faster times to show for their effort - or lack of it. "True speed comes from listening to your body," says exercise physiologist Saul Blau, who has trained dozens of Olympians and nationally-ranked athletes at his METAbeat training facility in Southern California.
But effortless speed is not solely for elites. Any runner can unleash their inner speedster. You just have to know how.
Think about the process of going fast. Too often, we associate speed with intensity. That means when it's time to go fast we adopt an intense frame of mind: muscles clenched, jaw tight, vision narrowed. Try forgetting all that.
Begin to unleash the inner speedster by reinventing your concept of speed. On your next long slow run, add a 100-meter race pace surge every mile. But don't just transition from easy run into frantic sprint in a split-second. Instead, ease into the surge. Focus on keeping your arms low and breathing relaxed. Take at least five seconds to shift from LSD pace to race pace.
Once you feel the speed kick in, stay focused on relaxation. Resist the temptation to tense the upper body, as a higher arm carriage and tight chest cavity will affect both form and breathing. Above all, just let your legs do their thing. It may take awhile, but once your legs regain the rhythm of the speedster - and we all possessed it as children, when we never walked anywhere, so be sure it exists - you'll find that running fast not only feels natural, it feels fun. Like a release. Like play.
Two processes are at work during these forays into effortless speed. First, by easing into the surges and focusing on relaxation, your mind ceases to equate speed with tension and pain. Speed is relaxation and release. This new association means that when the time comes midrace to pick up the pace, you'll notice a sense of inner eagerness instead of that alarming little voice portending agony, then counseling a less aggressive course of action. More important, this new association will mean faster times.
The other benefit is physiological. You're developing those muscle memory skills so necessary in sports. Muscle memory is achieved when nerve pathways have been trained via repetition to function efficiently for a certain skill.
In his book Serious Training for Serious Athletes, physiologist Rob Sleamaker compares the nerve pathways with a trail through a meadow. If the trail is ignored it becomes overgrown and neglected. If the trail is used regularly, it becomes a smooth walkway, bereft of weeds. The baseball player with the perfect swing or basketball player with the sweet shot is an example of a skill being practiced over and over until the body performs it without thought. It looks and feels natural.
The same holds for running. Ignore your natural inclination toward speed, and you'll find that trail overgrown. Your muscles will forget how to run quickly and efficiently. But if you train your muscles to run fast, they'll run fast. Like any sport, repetition is vital to achieving muscle memory.
KEEPING IT FUN
Once you wake up that inner speedster, chances are he'll want to come out and play more often. Humor him. As you develop the ability to sustain speed for longer and longer periods, avoid the urge to hit the track and run interval after interval. Sure it's consistent. But running around and around a track is also somewhat grim and boring if you're in the mood to play.
Try fartlek. Most runners know that fartlek is Swedish for "speed play," but very few truly latch onto the concept. It's all about listening to your body and letting fly with random bursts of speed. These can be sustained for as little as 20 seconds and for as long as five minutes. "Be aware of your physiological markers," notes Blau. "Let it fly until you feel your heart rate and lactate thresholds starting to overload, then shut it down. Jog. Walk if you feel like it. Let your body recover totally for three to five minutes, then do it again. This recovery will keep you mentally fresh and increase your fitness at the same time."
Fartlek is best done off-track. Find a woods or a park or maybe just a roadway lined with telephone poles. Run tree to tree or pole to pole, focusing on relaxation and the sensation of speed. Once your body starts to tighten, take it easy.
If, after a few minutes of recovery, you don't feel like going fast anymore, then don't. If you feel so good that you can't wait to air it out again, then do it. You want to keep that mental image of speed as a form of relaxation and frolic.
Another game is the single file run. Get a few friends and head out onto a trail. Run in a straight line. The object is for the runner at the back to sprint to the front. Done enough, every runner does a surge about once a minute. The group camaraderie makes it fun, and the miles fly by without an awareness that you've been letting loose the speed at a fairly high level.
For some truly offbeat speed play, try a real game. Ultimate frisbee, with its emphasis on nonstop running, is an incredible form of fartlek. Water polo, with its bursts of speed interspersed with long sessions treading water, is ideal for developing cardiovascular fitness and leg strength, and can even be done while rehabbing.
Or grab a friend and a mountain bike. Take turns riding and running. The runner tries to keep pace with the mountain bike. When it's time to switch, recovery (and increased leg strength) is achieved by riding the bike. You'll find that all these mechanisms of increasing speed feel more like relaxation and fun than any track session. And chances are, if something's fun, you'll do it more often, meaning increased fine-tuning of that muscle memory pathway. "True speed work increases heart rate to teach your body to tolerate greater stress. After awhile it even stops being a function of the muscles and becomes a function of the central cardiovascular system," says METAbeat's Blau. "If you can tolerate higher and higher lactate, you can sustain greater heart rate and workload over long periods of time." Blau also points out that the endorphin release after a speed session can make it somewhat addictive. This is when the concept of recovery days becomes paramount. "If you don't let your body rest and recover you'll either break down and get injured or you'll get exercise-induced flu. So listen to your body and remember to recover."
Revel in your newfound speed. Sprint off that congested starting line to get clear of the pack. Surge past your favorite rival with apparent ease. Negative-split that 5K. And round the final turn for home with a finishing kick like your loved ones have never seen before. It's all about releasing your inner speedster and letting speed flow out of you. Remember: all gain, no pain.