Making You Faster at Every Distance with Speed Workouts

As summer insists on going by quickly, many of us are running our asses off to try and get faster before fall race season kicks off. To get the quick and dirty lowdown on what makes a runner so stinkin’ quick, I spoke with Coach Robyn LaLonde about the secrets of speed workouts for runners. Here’s a picture of us being adorable after a Speed Session with Nike Run Club.


Hi Robyn! What’s been the best part of your day so far?

Sipping pickle juice out of the jar after my hot morning run…definitely needed the electrolytes!

That sounds oddly delicious. I did my long run this weekend in peak afternoon heat and I may have dipped pretzels in blue Gatorade afterwards. Highly recommend. 

So, we’ve spoken before when we came to visit you at EDGE Athlete Lounge, aka heaven for athletes, but for our new readers, can you give us a quick recap on your life story and how you became a Chicago running guru?

Guru seems so serious! Let’s just say I’ve logged some miles over the years so it’s easy to relate to all you crazy runners … I am one of you! I started running recreationally in college, but really didn’t start taking it seriously until I moved to Chicago 11 years ago.

Since then, I’ve covered every distance from 10k to 100k. One big reason that I started to chase goals, or “run hungry” as I like to call it, was because I had a Coach that made me push the limits of what I thought I could do. After that wall came crumbling down, I realized that I wanted to help other athletes do the same and became a Coach myself, working with all types of runners – from those finding their first miles to others chasing down a BQ.

So, Robyn, the point of this post is going to be to tell our readers about speed workouts and how they can benefit runners at any distance. The best way I know to do this is through a Q&A style post. Are you in?

Yes! And I’ll (try to) be fast.

Great pun. That was going to be really awkward if you said no.

Let’s start off easy. What makes a speed workout a speed workout? Is it just me running as fast as I can until I collapse? (Do you like Eminem’s hit song “Til I Collapse” as much as I do?)

Ha, well you certainly should feel like collapsing after most speed workouts! Some people love it, some people love to hate it, but it’s a necessary part of any training program if you want to get faster. I think most people associate speed work with sprinting, which is a bit of a misconception. While it can include that all-out effort, it’s more about using your gears to hit different speeds at varying distances – everything from a 10K speed to 5K speed to mile speed and yes, all out sprinting at times. Once you know your gears, that’s when the magic starts to happen (and by magic I mean that ‘special’ pain cave we all visit from time-to-time).

But … I run marathons, not 5Ks. You run ultramarathons, which is just silly. Why should I spend a day or two a week doing speed workouts? Shouldn’t I be running longer distances?

Speed work makes EVERYONE faster at ALL distances. So if you can improve your mile time, then you’re gonna be able to do more work for everything from a 5K to a marathon. By increasing your baseline speed, you increase your ability to execute new (faster!) paces at ALL distances.

Now, if you are a distance runner (half marathoner, marathoner, ultra marathoner) you’ll always have a long run in your week, but (and this is a big BUT!) you won’t get faster without speed work! I’d argue that endurance runners are usually the ones who need speed work the most as they typically really stink at it (I may or may not know this on a very personal level!)

Fine, I’m sold. So now that you’ve got me talked into speed workouts, what are some tips for having a good speed workout?

First, get in a good dynamic warmup. Arm claps, butt kicks, ladders and strides are all good options. Basically, anything that encourages good running form and warms up your muscles on all four planes. At least 15-20 minutes of a good warmup before you put the tread to the track.

Next, group up! Most of us don’t push ourselves on our own. Nike+ Run Club (NRC) makes it reallllllly easy to run FAST with a weekly Speed Run session every Tuesday night at 6:36pm. Why 6:36? – you’ll just have to show up to find out! (pssst – you will also get to witness my undying love for megaphones, group huddles and cowbells…..MORE COWBELL!)

Finally, get a mantra. Find something that will allow you to relax AND run fast. I recently asked our NRC Pacers what their mantras were when they press the pace…here are some of their answers:

– Breathe

– Fly

– Float

– Coast


I love all of those! I tend to repeat “easy, light, smooth, fast” to myself.

Anything I should make sure to avoid? Do I need a recovery day after speed work?

Yes and yes. You don’t want to run long or hard the day after a Speed Session – your body takes about 48 hours to recover and pressing it before that window closes isn’t gonna help you. At all.

What that Recovery looks like is up to you. It can totally be a recovery run (run it progressively – think looooong warmup), some non-weight bearing cross training (cycling, rowing, swimming all legit options), or heck, take the whole day off and hydrate/eat well. We also have these places where athletes can rapidly recover with the latest tools, while sipping on a smoothie and catching a flick …


I went to a Speed Run with NRC last week, and I loved how the runners were split up by pace groups (I also loved that we got snacks afterwards, but that’s a different post). Can you tell me a little bit of the advantages of doing speed work with a group? What if I’m in a slower group than my friends, or what if I feel like I’m in a group that’s DEFINITELY too fast for me?

Okay, always keep this in mind: Speed Sessions are all about finding YOUR fast – maximizing your speed within your current potential. It’s about accepting the runner you are today … and running like hell to develop into the better, faster, stronger runner you want to become.

Everything in a Speed Session is scaled to your abilities (usually this is based on your best 5K pace) – if you’re running too fast, drop back a group. If halfway through the workout you feel like you can press harder, jump up a group (but not before halfway! That’s much too early to tell if you’re actually ready to jump ship into a faster boat).


One of the things you’ve emphasized whenever I’ve run with you is “running pretty.” I’m going to assume that’s something different than just wearing my cutest running gear and having my hair in a very fancy braided ponytail when I run. Can you explain further? How is “running pretty” a part of speed work?

Well, let’s be honest – looking good and sporting braids doesn’t hurt … and you know I love a good braid! “Running Pretty” means thinking about form when you carry speed. The good news for everyone is that running FAST is usually when we look our BEST. Slight forward lean, arms at 90 Degree angle and powering through the hip, eyes ahead, quick feet with mid-foot strikes.

I do get on people for making what I call ‘the ugly face’ when they press the pace. Runners love to carry tension in their face – you grit your teeth, which tenses up your neck, which locks your shoulders, and now your hips don’t have full mobility to power forward. I want to see your jowls flopping in the wind when you run fast. Now THAT is what I call pretty!

Let’s say that Chiberia strikes again this winter, and I’m forced to bring my speed workouts inside to the treadmill. I can see where that would be great, because it’s super easy to control your speed and intervals. But what about that pounding that sometimes comes along with sprinting on a treadmill? Or, asked another way, how can I “run pretty” on a treadmill?

Treadmill speed sessions are actually pretty solid – the machine keeps the pace, so you have to keep up! But yes, running fast on a tread can mean clomping. Here are a few tricks to help you “run pretty” while you run fast on Wanda the Woodway (#yeswenamedourtreadmills).

Mirror. Find your reflection and check your form throughout the run. Whether it’s front, side (or both!) reflection you’ll be able to analyze your form. Loose face and neck, slight forward lean, legs landing directly underneath you. Plus, it always helps when we can see our bodies in action – look at those muscles GO!

Incline. Set that incline to 1-2% – good to have a lil’ grit on there as you press the pace. You’ll also dampen that treadmill chatter that likes to happen when you go at higher speeds.

Count. Know your target cadence heading into the speed run and count it out during the sets. I like to count one leg for 60 seconds then times that by two. You should be consistent with you cadence throughout the set.

You travel all over the city coaching speed workouts for Nike+ Run Club, and I have to imagine that Chicago has no shortage of outdoor tracks that runners can enjoy in the summertime. Any favorites? 

I lurrrrrve the new track at Montrose – it’s a year old and still has that new rubber smell. But really, any track, park or wide open street will do. Whatever is convenient means you’re actually gonna lace up your kicks and do it, right? I love to ‘run commute’ – so nice slow jog to the speed session location, then you can do the slow jog right on back home. A mile or so each way is always good.

Remember you don’t need a track to do a track style workout! Any park or street will work. Chicago makes this so easy for us runners too – a city block is 1/8 mile. So every 800 we go in street numbers is 1 mile. Need to do 400m repeats? Find a street that runs from say, 1800-to-2000 West and BAM! You have a speed session location.

Favorite song to full-out sprint to? I personally enjoy “Speakers Goin Hammer” by Soulja Boy or “I’ll Make a Man Out Of You” from Mulan. Or, the aforementioned Eminem hit.

I once used my husband’s playlist on shuffle and nearly had a Metallica-induced panic attack – but at least it made me run faster so I could hit stop! Moments like that remind me why I don’t typically listen to music as I run … wayyyy too much for me to focus on (Form! Pacing! Breathing! Cadence!).

Last question: Are pugs good speed work partners?

Oh yes, they can be surprisingly fast when cheese is involved. But let’s be honest, Recovery is their forte (which we call PugCovery … exclusively at EDGE!).

PugCovery at Edge Athlete Lounge


If you can’t wait to find your fast, join Nike Run Club this Tuesday, August 4, where we’ll run our Funnest Mile. Not sure what that means? Check out more details here

Endurance Move

About Kristen Geil

A native of Lexington, Kentucky, Kristen moved to Chicago in 2011 and received her MA in Writing, Rhetoric, and Discourse from DePaul while trying to maintain her southern accent. Kristen grew up playing sports, and since moving to Chicago, she’s fallen in love with the lakefront running path and the lively group fitness scene. Now, as a currently retired marathoner and sweat junkie, you can usually find her trying new workouts around the city and meticulously crafting Instagram-friendly smoothie bowls. Kristen came on to A Sweat Life full-time in 2018 as Editor-in-Chief, and she spends her days managing writers, building content strategy, and fighting for the Oxford comma.