The Minimalist Guide To Understanding Why Speed Is Important For Long Distance Running

speed endurance training

It sounds rather weird to talk about speed when we talk long distance running.

As a beginner, you probably think to yourself: why on earth would I need speed for a half marathon, marathon or even an ultra-marathon?

You then go and Google “speed in long distance running” and by the time you’ve read most of those articles you end up more confused because most of those articles are so technical.

I hope by the end of this post, I would have simplified the concept of speed as an important part of your long distance running.

I remember starting a race 25 minutes late. I had experienced a disastrous morning. For some odd reason my alarm never went off. I got lost on my way to the venue because I was running that particular race for the first time. I had not registered via pre-entry. This meant I had to register on the morning of the race. (Yeah, I know, you are probably thinking “pathetic planning”).

So I got the venue and had to find the registration table, pay for my race entry and then make my way back onto the race course – which was in the opposite direction to the registration table.

By the time I started the race, I was pretty “naar” as they say in Afrikaans. Be that as it may, as I write this post I am incredibly thankful for that morning because what followed was a huge learning experience for me, considering I had never pitched late for a race in 6 years.

On that morning, I learnt two key things.

The first was how to relax and focus on your race strategy despite being horribly late. The second was how important speed training actually is when it comes to following a training programme that develops you into  a solid long distance runner.

I want to focus on the second aspect because speed training is actually a very important aspect of any long distance running training.

In doing so, I want to touch on 3 Key Factors you have to know about speed:

  1. Speed has categories
  2. Speed enhances your efficiency
  3. Speed qualifies or disqualifies you (in races and for other races)

Speed Categories

I think the first thing about speed is to be realistic. I consider myself quite quick in long distance running terms. In fact I played wing in my high school rugby days. I was a sprinter as well. I ran some good 100m times.

Below are screenshots of some of my splits in races I’ve run:

  • Comrades Marathon (2011): 9hrs 24mins:

Comrades Marathon Splits

  • Two Oceans 56kms Ultra-marathon (2013): 5hrs 08mins:

Two Oceans Splits

  • Soweto Marathon (2014): 3hrs 57mins:

Soweto Marathon Splits

It’s quite evident from the above that I consistently run my marathons at a speed  of 5 and 6 minutes per kilometre.

On Comrades day, I ran at an average of 6 mins and 28 seconds which is excellent over a distance of 87 kilometres. On that day, I finished in the top 15%!

I can run a 10km distance in 40 minutes.

Having said all the above, I am nowhere close to the competitive or elite athletes. To give you perspective, when the elite runners finish a standard marathon or even the Comrades, I’ve only just passed the halfway mark. That’s how quick they are.

As quick as I am, I know my category and my potential. From that basis, I always approach my speed training from a realistic perspective. So the following aspects on speed are geared at helping you better understand your speed category so you can improve.

So what are these categories?

I categorise long distance athletes in 5 ways, according to their speed over a marathon distance:

  1. Competitive (elite): compete for prize money. For these athletes, running is often a career. They run at breath-taking speed, running at between 3 – 4 minutes per kilometre. In any race, these are the top 10 to 20 athletes.
  1. Advanced: are very quick as well. They run at a pace of 4 – 5 minutes per kilometreAlthough they train hard, for most, running comes naturally. Less than 5% of athletes fall into this category
  1. Intermediate: are good athletes. They run at a pace of 5 – 6 minutes and 30 seconds per kilometre. Less than 40% of athletes fall into this category
  1. Average: run at a pace of 6mins and 30 seconds – 7 minutes per kilometre. The majority of athletes (approx. 50%) fall into this category
  1. Slow: run at below average pace and run at a speed of above 7 minutes per kilometre

Great! Now that I know the different categories, you might be asking: “why is it even important?”

I hope the next two key aspects about speed when running marathons will help answer that question.

Speed enhances efficiency

The first – and obvious enhancement – is that you become a faster runner.

On that crazy morning when I started 25 minutes late, I caught up with the back markers within the first 30 minutes. I had covered 6kms. The back markers, who were probably running at around 8 minutes per kilometre had covered 6kms in 50 minutes.

The second is that you are able to run further with less energy. By using different speed development techniques, your strides become better. Your knee lift becomes higher and your breathing improves considerably because you are able to regulate your heart-rate. In fact, when running you should be able to hold a conversation in the early and middle parts of your marathon. All these factors when combined, enhance your ability to run further with much less energy.

The third aspect is that you take less strain. Because you are spending more time out on the road – you lose your energy having covered less distance. Then you have to deal with the weather conditions on the day. Be it the heat, wind, rain or dust, you start to focus on those. You also start to lose your running form. Your head loses its stability, your core collapses, your hands begin to wobble from side to side and often you hit the wall.

As a result of all this, you often want to counter-act that by eating anything and everything you find at the water points. You grab the sweets, chocolates, bananas, potatoes, etc. And all you ever success in doing is place your body under more strain.

Lastly – and probably less obvious – is that your mind gets pre-occupied less. Slower runners are often pre-occupied by a number of issues. I will put my head on the block, and take an educated guess that getting passed the cut-off points or finishing in times that will help them qualify for other races are two of their biggest concerns.

I’ll discuss the issue of qualifying times shortly.

Needless to say, those two aspects alone make the task of running marathons that much more difficult for a slow runner. It is a nightmare to get cut off. Personally, I’ve never experienced it. But, I’ve spoken to a number of fellow athletes who’ve been cut off before. And trust me, I have it on good authority that it ain’t cool.

Ultimately, you need to know that your running efficiency is vital and speed is huge contributing factor to that.

Speed determines qualifications

I touched on this in the previous section. Let me expand on it.

In essence, there are three main qualifications when it comes to long distance running:

  • Mid-race qualifications/ Cut-Off points
  • End of race qualifications
  • Pre-qualification times

Mid-race qualifications determine whether you can continue participating in the race purely based on your speed. If you don’t get past a certain point, in a certain amount of time, you get cut-off. You are then prohibited from further participation.

End of race qualifications determine whether or not you’ll be officially recognised as having completed the race. Whilst you might finish the required distance, finishing after the end-of-race cut-off time means you don’t get recognised.

Pre-qualification times are the times you submit in order to participate in certain races. Whilst most races require a mere registration, some races such as Comrades and Two Oceans require you to register and submit a pre-qualification time of a race you have completed previously. This also helps with seeding because these are massive races with participants in excess of 15 000 athletes at times.

All the above qualifications are largely dependant on your speed.

Conclusion

It is a myth that long distance running is all about getting mileage on those legs. There are other very important factors such as core strength and speed that determine whether you become an effective long distance runner or not.

I did mention earlier that being realistic is important. I could never run at the breath-taking speeds of elite athletes, but I know I can run as close to efficient as I can as an “Intermediate” athlete. Likewise, as much as I would never consider myself an “Average” or “Slow” runner, without dedicating some of my training to specific speed-work sessions, I wouldn’t be able to run the times that I run.

As such, this post is by no means a catalyst to try and get everyone to become “Competitive” or “Advanced” athletes, but it is a wake-up call to those who neglect speed-work as part of their training programme.

Ultimately, as painful and exhausting as long-distance running gets, you want to enjoy your running. Without speed, you’ll always feel like you’ve been hit by a bus or train after every marathon completed.

I hope you enjoyed this post and I hope it will help you improve as a long distance runner.

God Bless!

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Leave A Reply (7 comments so far)


  1. Tumisho Masha
    3 years ago

    Love this article and I will now focus on getting my speed up by strengthening my core.

    Any chance of a few one on one training sessions from the master to get me up to speed?
    Excuse the pun! LOL!


    • Peteni
      3 years ago

      I’m glad you enjoyed the article Mash.
      Yeah, the core does wonders when it comes to improving speed.

      LOL, I think getting up is the least of your worries. We can definitely do some one on one sessions to get you UP TO SPEED!