Generally, when people think of getting faster they assume that they need to increase their speed by doing more speed work. However, speed is limited by genetics, finite fuel sources and short durations. Stamina, on the other hand, is an area that is wide open to growth and adaptation.
Consider, for example, the elusive 4:00 mile. While this once “impossible” milestone was broken in 1953 by Roger Bannister, it is still a relatively rare feat despite the abundance of people capable of running sub 4:00 mile pace.
There aren’t many male high school sprinters (on a competitive varsity team) who cannot run under 60 seconds for 400m (1/4 of a mile). Really good high school sprinters may even dip under 50 seconds for 400m. Most competitive high school distance runners can run under 60 seconds for 400m, yet very rarely - only once or twice in a generation - does a high school aged male run under 4:00 for the mile. In fact, it’s rare to have more than a handful of kids who can run under 2:00 for the 800m even when there may be 10-15 kids on the team capable of running well under 60 seconds for the 400m.
It’s not that there aren’t tens of thousands of kids each year with the speed to do it. It is that very few have trained adequately or appropriately to extend their natural speed through stamina training. Genetics certainly play a role, but what many fail to see is that over the course of a few years of training, the stamina of hundreds of those same high schoolers who couldn’t run under 4:20 for the mile are running well under the 4:00 mark when competing collegiately.
How? Consistent work at developing the aerobic system. They increase their stamina - the ability to sustain a pace and/or effort - that they were previously unable to maintain.
The same can be said for any distance event or benchmark. Take, for example, the 2:00 marathon. The world record for 10K is well under 27:00 and the world record for the half marathon is well under 59:00, but the current world record is still over 2:00. Why?
It isn’t speed. It is stamina. Many people have the ability to run under 2:00 hour marathon pace (4:34 mile/2:50 km). Many high school boys can run that pace (4:34 mile/2:50 km) for one kilometer or mile. Some can even do it for 3K or 2 miles. Few have the ability to sustain that pace for much longer.
How are those who are trying to break the 2:00 mark training? They are doing everything possible to increase their aerobic capacities through easy runs, long runs, and threshold efforts. Sure there is some speed work involved, but the majority of their training is focused on increasing their aerobic capacity. The speed training they do is intended to prime their bodies for the long hard efforts and increase running economy.
So while in theory it might make sense to improve one’s current running ability by incorporating more speed work into one’s training, the answer is usually not just speed, but rather the ability to sustain the speed that many of us already have.
This is not to say that there is not a place for speed work in a distance training program. It just should not be the primary focus of training. Remember, all events over 400m are aerobic in nature, so the aerobic system is what we need to work - not the anaerobic system which is extremely limited by very finite fuel sources and durations.
What are ways to increase one’s stamina?
Easy Runs & Recovery Runs - Teal and blue on the PRP Color Continuum
Long Runs - Blue on the PRP Color Continuum
Runs approaching one’s Threshold (steady state and cut down runs) - Purple
Threshold Runs - Red on the PRP Color Continuum
Critical Velocity Runs - Reddish Orange on the PRP Color Continuum
Living and training at altitude (above 3,000 ft for prolonged periods (several months)