Myths: anaerobic training develops speed

“Interval training develops speed” and similar statements is one of the most common misconceptions you will find espoused on the internet. Eschewing any significant anaerobic training during the initial phases of training stands as one of the fundamental principles of the Lydiard systems and, therefore, our own training programmes here on the site. It is fitting therefore to talk about the commonly held myth that anaerobic training is speed training. A notion that, among with other misunderstandings, leads many coaches to employ intervals, tempo runs and other significantly anaerobic workouts year-round to the detriment of the long-term development of their athletes.

Repetitions or interval training can improve your speed to a certain degree simply because of anaerobic development and improved mechanics. This gives the false idea that you are actually improving speed. The actual fact is that repetitions or intervals are used for anaerobic development. You are creating huge oxygen debt to develop a buffer against this type of fatigue. Problem is that when you do that, you invariably tighten up. You can not develop fine speed when you tighten up. The best way to develop speed is to use some of the American sprint drills. – Arthur Lydiard, Healthy Intelligent Training

What is speed work really?

The term “speed work” confuses the true purpose of faster workouts such as intervals whose real purpose it is to induce oxygen debt and help the athlete develop buffers that will allow them to tolerate operating at this level of intensity for slightly longer.

To develop raw speed, workouts such as strides and cut-downs are used and these are part of the majority of Lydiard training programmes even in the early stages of training. Supplementary faster running in fartleks provides sufficient maintenance of the athlete’s top speed during the aerobic and dynamic strength phases of training. Inserting sessions such as 10x100m strides with long recoveries or 4x200m with even longer recoveries will keep leg speed tuned even during the aerobic phase with high mileage.

Even then, some loss of top speed inevitably follows from the heavy aerobic volume. Do not fret about this loss as your leg speed will quickly return during the dynamic strength phase where the hill circuits in particular will remove any excess muscle viscosity you have built up and leave you perfectly ready for the faster interval workouts.

How to really implement anaerobic training

Once you realise that you do not need hard anaerobic training on a weekly basis year round, true and lasting improvement follows much more easily. The positive benefits of anaerobic training are relatively short-lived and once you have commenced this form of training you need to persist with it to maintain the improvements. Unless you are planning to race year-round (not a strategy we recommend) you do not need your anaerobic capacity at maximum levels at all times. Because this adaptation can be brought to its optimal level within 3-5 weeks of anaerobic training, better results are achieved by doing it closer to your actual race days. Anaerobic work earlier in the training programme wastes your energy, impacts on your aerobic work and has a number of harmful effect such as interfering with your endocrine (hormonal) system.

Overtraining syndrome primarily stems from an over-use of anaerobic workouts because its effects on your body are very similar to those created by stress such as disrupting sleep, weakening the immune system and causing chronic fatigue. Aerobic training on the other hand, while it can lead to overuse injuries of muscles and tendons, is entirely positive for your health and never leads to overtraining syndrome unless the athlete is malnourished.

The road to true speed

Athletes tend to venture down the road of heavy interval work and other anaerobic training when they think they are not fast enough. This mistake can be avoided if they realise two things:

  1. Everyone has plenty of speed
  2. You need to train slower to run faster
The first statement may cause consternation particularly among seasoned marathoners who consider their “lack of natural speed” a natural impediment. The majority of athlete’s, however, can run perfectly fast over short distances such as 50-100m. Even if your maximum 100m pace is 21 seconds (53% slower than the world record) you can still reach speeds of 3:30min/km (5:38min/miles). In this example a casual athlete trying to run 40 minutes for the 10k would not find himself short of speed but he is lacking the necessary endurance to maintain this natural speed for long enough.
To gain this endurance you need to do more aerobic running which is often what people call “slow” running but it is not necessarily slow. Our 40-minute 10k runner may be able to run aerobically as fast as 4:30, for instance, and would do some of their sessions at this pace. As your aerobic system and slow-twitch muscle fibres become more efficient you will be able to generate faster and faster speeds while still running comfortably.

The lessons

So the next time you feel you are lacking speed and feel tempted to go do intervals, stop and consider whether you have properly developed your raw speed by doing strides and other very fast short repetitions and whether you have properly developed your endurance. If not, your interval sessions are useless. Only once you have these basic foundations in place can you start to gain real value from the anaerobic training. Should you still be uncertain on how to apply this in practice, you need look no further than the Lydiard training programme which develops you systems in exactly this order. Properly applied you will never be short of speed, nor endurance nor race specific fitness.
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Director and coach at Borg Coaching Services
Rene Borg is the head coach of Glendalough AC and a passionate runner competing over all distances and terrains.

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