Training: Top-End Speed Experiment

The month of January has found me in an experiment working on my top-end run speed. Based on the premise that in order to run fast you have to, well, run fast, I decided to work on my top-end speed.

To this end I have been hitting the treadmill on Wednesday mornings at the local YMCA with my friend Sharon. I put a workout together consisting of intervals that progress one notch faster than the previous. We warm up with ten minutes of random jogging followed by a mile at 5K race pace. Then we begin the workout.

The workout consists of only 6 intervals of two minutes in duration with three minutes jog as recovery time. The first interval starts near our respective top-end speed and notches up one faster as the intervals progress so that by the end we are smack against the speed to which we cannot run any faster for the given duration (two minutes). By nudging up against this upper end speed in a progressive way, and doing it for several few weeks, we have upped the top-end speed we can hold. The effect of improved top-end speed has been that paces slower than this feel far easier than they had.

With this under our belts, the only thing remaining in converting this to raw speed at the marathon level – our goal – is the endurance speed typically earned in longer intervals. The hope is that by the time we start up those longer intervals, such as the common mile repeats, our speed for the given interval will feel easier to the point where we can go faster. This sets us up well for the next phase of speed, those infamous mile repeats.


“In order to run fast you have to run fast.”

We’ve heard this uttered time and again, but it’s true: If you want to run fast in a race, you have to run fast in training. We all agree on that, sure. But how can we make running marathon pace feel easy? I can run 8 minute miles for a very long time. And it’s because my body is so conditioned to that pace that it really is easy, where my breathing is good, heart rate under control, and the work required to power on is minimal. Absent of running crazy miles and doing endless speed work, the thought here is to nudge up the top-end speed we can run so that those slower miles feel easier.

Think about lifting weights. You train to get stronger by doing either lifting a lower weight over more reps or higher weight over lower reps. It is well known that if you are looking for sheer power, you want to lift to fail; you do not want to be lifting lower weight with higher reps. You want to lift the most you can so that you cannot lift again after 6 reps. Once you get to 10 to 12, you move up in weight. If you took this approach with your biceps, and if this is something you haven’t done before or in a while, by doing 4 sets of a weight you can barely lift 6 to 8 times, and do that twice per week over the course of a month, I guarantee that in even that short amount of time, a weight that felt easier to lift prior to starting this workout routine would now feel easy. And it’s because you gained sheer strength. The first wave of strength comes very easy, and it’s because your muscles haven’t seen that look before or in a long while. But you will plateau quickly, which is why to gain more you need to lift to fail and change up the workouts.

The theory here is that this applies to running too. How many of us training for a marathon really work on top-end speed? Probably very few. We do speed work that quickly progresses to 800’s or mile repeats. But what if in the early stages of marathon training we trained the run like we would in lifting weights to fail for maximum strength?

Why Now?

You’re training for a marathon, so shouldn’t you be doing longer intervals, like mile repeats, or hill work instead of top-end speed, and what does top-end speed have to do with it?

The idea here is to work up your top-end speed so that marathon pace now feels… easy. And if marathon pace is easier than it was before, you will have more energy for those later miles. And you might even up that marathon pace to take up the extra energy. This, of course, assumes that you will take this top-end speed into those longer intervals. You cannot ignore them. Those long intervals, such as mile repeats and tempo runs, are breath and butter. Come into it was a layer of top-end speed and that bread and butter will turn into cinnamon and raisin swirl bread.

A higher top-end speed will help you get more out of those mile repeats once those kick in.

As for me and why I’m inspired to work on top-end speed when I’m training for a marathon – not a 5K – I have always wanted to run a 5 minute mile. It was a goal I set several months back. And since I was between marathons, with Philadelphia being late last season and Boston being in spring, I wasn’t yet ready to start up the longer intervals. Philly seems still too close. So why not have a little fun!


After a full month of working on my top-end speed, a few benefits became very clear:

1) My top-end speed is notching up, if even for only a short two minute interval.

2) Running a mile at my 5K pace feels far easier than it did only a month ago. Sure, it’s only a mile. But it’s always good to feel better than you did before running the same pace.

3) My running form at that top-end speed is far better. It requires immense focus, but I’ve already learned that when I’m starting to muscle through, that’s exactly when my form goes down, so that’s the clue to get back to better form. Of course, not long after that there comes a point where I have nothing left, where I really am too tired to support good form, and where I must resort to muscling through to just keep going. But these teach you what good form feels like.

4) My body is learning to recovery more quickly between sets, or even when I’m out on the roads running hills in a different workout, I seem to recover more quickly.

5) Probably most importantly is that in my last race, the Boston Prep 16 Miler, one of the toughest courses in the New England area, I cruised through mile 9 with friends, then turned it up through the hills to mile 12, and then hammered home the last 4 miles in 6:11 pace, with the last mile at 5:46. Sure, these miles were mostly down hill or flat, but the truth is… I felt comfortable while riding redline. I never felt I was holding on, and I kept pushing and pushing pace to the point where I couldn’t run any faster than I was.


Workouts started on the easy and short side with the notion of getting me ready to run at high intensity for short duration. I didn’t want to be hobbled for days after a workout, so I gradually worked up to a respectable top-end speed from which to start with the real workouts.

The real workouts are only an hour in duration, so they don’t become something to dread; rather, they are manageable, doable, and even fun, especially since each time out you up your speed.

The key to the workouts are that once the real work starts, where you up your top-end speed more and more, nudging it higher and higher, you do this each week by increasing speed on the treadmill each week for all intervals.

Weeks 1 & 2: Get body used to running fast

Example by end of Week 2. Work up to something like this:

Week 2
WU – 10 min
7 min @ 5:52 (slightly slower than 5K pace) w/3 min recovery jog (jog)
2 min @ 5:21 pace w/3 min jog (chose a pace that is roughly 30’s faster than 5K pace)
2 min @ 5:18 (on Treadmill this is one notch faster than previous)
2 min @ 5:15 (one notch faster)

Weeks 3, 4, 5: Top-End Speed Work:

Week 3
WU – 10 min
7 min @ 5:52 w/3’ jog (same as last week)
2 min @ 5:18 w/3’ jog… (same as last week)
2 min @ 5:15 (one notch faster)
2 min @ 5:13 (one notch faster)
2 min @ 5:10

Week 4
WU – 10 min
7 min @ 5:48 w/3’ jog (one notch faster than last week)
2 min @ 5:18 w/3’ jog… (same as last week)
2 min @ 5:15 (one notch faster than previous)
2 min @ 5:13 (one faster)
2 min @ 5:10
2 min @ 5:07

Week 5
WU – 10 min
7 min @ 5:45 w/3’ jog (one notch faster than last week)
2 min @ 5:18 w/3’ jog… (same as last week)
2 min @ 5:15 (one notch faster than previous)
2 min @ 5:13 (one faster)
2 min @ 5:10
2 min @ 5:07
2 min @ 5:05

Weeks 6 & 7: Top-End Speed Cont.

Week 6
WU – 10 min
7 min @ 5:42 w/3’ jog (one notch faster than last week)
2 min @ 5:15 w/3’ jog… (one notch faster than last week)
2 min @ 5:13 (one notch faster)
2 min @ 5:10 (one faster)
2 min @ 5:07
2 min @ 5:05
2 min @ 5:02

Week 7
WU – 10 min
7 min @ 5:39 w/3’ jog (one notch faster than last week)
2 min @ 5:13 w/3’ jog… (same as last week)
2 min @ 5:10 (one notch faster)
2 min @ 5:07 (one faster)
2 min @ 5:05
2 min @ 5:03
2 min @ 5:00  TARAGET

Week 8: TEST & beginning of starting into longer intervals

Week 8
WU – 10 min
7 min @ 5:42 w/3’ jog (one notch slower than last week)
2 min @ 5:10 w/3’ jog
2 min @ 5:05 w/5’ jog (one notch faster – NOTE long recovery)
5 min @ 5:00 w/5’ jog  TARGET MILE
2 min @ 5:30 w/3’ jog
2 min @ 5:30 w/3’ jog

Week 9: REST

Week 10: Start up with longer intervals.


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